Introduction to Soft Systems Methodology
Figure 1. The Process of Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland, 1999)
The point of all this modeling is to provide ongoing cycles of organizational learning. Employing a systemic analysis means that we involve managers and participants in one functional area in modeling and analyzing the enterprise-wide business processes of which their work is a part. Each person gains a view of what others do in the organization, and an interior perspective of others’ problems and priorities. People start thinking in terms of organizational values and interests, rather than their own fiefdoms. The conventional seven-stage model of SSM is shown in Figure 2. A major criticism of this model — later made by Peter Checkland himself — is that it is too linear to represent the actual process of inquiry that SSM requires. Whilst most SSM analysts would accept that, this model provides a useful starting point for novice analysts.
Figure 2. Seven stages of the SSM formal process (Checkland, 1999)
The stages of SSM modeling are described in the following pages. The idea is to represent the problem-situation in ways that make sense to those involved in working there. The method allows us to separate real-world thinking – representing the various purposes that participants ascribe to their work, what they do to achieve these, and what problems they experience – from systems thinking about the real world – tracing how these purposeful systems of work interact, complementing or conflicting with each other, exploring how outcomes are evaluated and which outcomes are not evaluated, and investigating why/how problems occur in the wider scheme of roles, responsibilities, purposes, and coordination mechanisms.
In the pages that follow, I have included some examples of how to produce and use SSM models and processes, to explain the value of exploring problems systemically.
SSM is based upon a single concept: that we model systems of purposeful human activity (what people do), rather than data-management or IT components (the more usual focus of systems analysis). It is systemic, rather than systems-focused, calling upon the tradition of general systems theory (von Bertanlaffy, 1968) and inquiring systems (Churchman, 1971) in acknowledging the disparate elements of a situation. SSM is helpful for analysis approaches that wish to understand the connections, conflicts, and discrepancies between elements of a situation rather than attempting to subsume all elements into a single perspective.
Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) was devised by Peter Checkland and elaborated in collaboration with Sue Holwell and Jim Scholes (among others) at Lancaster University in the UK. SSM provides a philosophy and a set of techniques for investigating a “real-world” problem situation. SSM is an approach to the investigation of the problems that may or may not require computer-based system support as part of its solution. In this sense, SSM could be described as an approach to early system requirements analysis, rather than a systems design approach. This website attempts to explain some of the elements of SSM for educational purposes. It is not intended as a comprehensive source of information about SSM and may well subvert some of Checkland’s original intentions, in an attempt to make the subject accessible to students and other lifelong learners … .
Checkland, P. (1999) Systems Thinking, Systems Practice: includes a 30-year retrospective. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. Chichester UK. ISBN: 0-471-98606-2.
Checkland, P. & Scholes, J. (1999) Soft Systems Methodology in Action. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. Chichester UK. ISBN: 0-471-98605-4.
Checkland, P., Holwell, S.E. (1997) Information, Systems and Information Systems. John Wiley and Sons Ltd. Chichester UK. ISBN: 0-471-95820-4.
Checkland, P., Poulter, J. (2006) Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its Use, for Practitioners,
Churchman, C.W. (1971) The Design of Inquiring Systems, Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations, Basic Books, New York.
von Bertanlaffy, L. (1968) General System theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, New York: George Braziller, revised edition 1976.