Soft systems analysis focuses on how the current system of purposeful human-activity needs to change and why, then breaks this complex analysis down into subsets of change that can be supported by IT systems redefinition. To achieve this, we employ a strategy of “divide and conquer”: we analyze the interrelated systems of human activity that are involved in the area that we wish to improve, then determine change priorities, then define sets of changes to the supporting IT systems. The real difference in perspective is that we need to deal with an increase in complexity to disentangle subsystems that we can improve. The investigator(s), referred to by Checkland and Scholes (1990) as “would-be improvers of the problem situation” try to understand, in as wide and holistic a sense as possible, the problem situation context and content. This can be done by the use of interviews, observations and workshops where organizational actors describe their work and the problems which they encounter. It is important to see this stage as a prelude to expressing the problem situation: a means of moving to a state of affairs where the situation is understood reasonably well and is capable of being expressed in words and diagrams.

The most critical parts of this step are (i) understanding the relationships, elements, and main activities involved in a problem situation and (ii) deciding a boundary within which the situation can be improved. A rich picture can be drawn, to help analysts and participants to piece the problem situation together, as shown in Figure 1-1. The point of this diagram is to explore various aspects of the situation, without trying to structure or analyze it.

A rich picture showing the complex problem-context within which parking regulation is required.
Fig. 1-1. A rich picture showing the complex problem-context within which parking regulation is required.

In order to make explicit (visible and open to question) the decision on what to include or exclude, we need to include as much information as possible in order to obtain a “rich” (in the sense of full, complete, wide-ranging) picture of how, and in what environment, our system operates. An example for the traffic warden scheme is attached (figure 3, above) – note that, in order to include all aspects of a situation, you cannot represent everything in great detail, or all of the links between aspects of the situation. Just put in the main links and try to include as many points of view as you can. Then work to a set of slightly more structured diagrams, which you can use to make decisions about system boundaries and system interfaces.

Just drawing these rich pictures makes you (the analyst) think of factors which affect the situation – the more you draw, the more you are stimulated to new ideas by what you have drawn. If you are performing a SSM analysis with a client, ask them to draw pictures. Don’t feel that you have to limit the number of pictures – draw as many as you want, to get a full picture of the situation. Peter Checkland suggests that you draw three different pictures, showing different aspects of the situation:

The intervention (analysis process) and your role in it: why are you performing the analysis? for whom? with whom? what does your client want to achieve from the analysis (this is very important: what are the goals of your system?) – this information informs your decisions about what to leave in and what to exclude from your system.

The social context: who are the people involved in the situation being analyzed and how do they relate to each other?

The political context:
– Who holds power?
– Over whom?
– How is power exerted?
– How is it resisted?
– Is the person “in charge” the person who makes things happen?

These three diagrams are useful if you are analyzing a structured organizational situation. However, don’t draw them too early in the process; try to let your rich pictures be as unstructured as possible, to start with, so that you can examine what is not there at present, as well as what is there. Remember that SSM is a facilitative method: try to persuade organizational actors to draw pictures of their part of the organization (a good way to get them started is to draw part of a picture yourself, then ask them to fill in the gaps).

Exploring emergent design and the systemic analysis methods needed
for evolving goals & requirements

Copyright © Susan Gasson, 2009-2023.

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Dr. Susan Gasson
College of Computing & Informatics
Drexel University
Philadelphia PA 19104