Application and Evaluation of SSM as a Problem Solving Methodology
Soft system thinking is a form of systematic thinking that understands realities as the creative construction of the human beings (Jackson, 1999). It generates and works with an evolving appreciation of the people’s point of view and intentions. Hence, the soft system thinking is concerned with a situation as they are defined through “action concept” (Checkland, 1981) which insist that the realities and the authentic action cannot be solely represented through the scientific system models as in other form of systematic thinking, like Hard System Thinking. The models can be implied as “a pair spectacles” through which one can “look and interpret reality” (Reason, 2001). Hence, problem solving techniques under the soft system thinking adhere to a qualitative approach as based upon Soft System Methodology (SSM).
SSM rests on the assumption that the resolution of complex problem relies on the innate subjective views of the participants in the situation. It efficiently deals ill-structured situations where there is an absence of clarity in the definition of the problem. SSM problem solving approach accommodates changes in three dimensions – “attitudes, structures and procedures” (Beckford, 1998).
The analysis of the Newport Business School manifests a set of “ill-structured” problems, which calls for the changes under the dimensions of SSM. The analysis is the appreciation of the “student” as the participant, carrying out SSM.
2) Soft System Methodology:
Soft System Methodology is the brainwave of Professor Peter Checkland. The methodology was devised as a result of “consultancy work” (Platt, 1995). Hutchings (2006) explains this development as an approach which can be accessed in the situation where Hard System Methodologies are fruitless. He writes,
“When confronted with complex real world problems which cannot be defined solely in the scientific terms, Checkland was forced to abandon the classic system engineering thinking which could not describe fully the situation he faces. This led to a fundamental reappraisal of the classics “hard” approach and the subsequent development of the Soft Methodology”.
Hence, SSM is classified as “a generic methodology” (Wilson, 1992) which should be adapted to any given situation. It deals with “fuzzy” problem situations – situations where people are viewed not as passive objects, but as active subjects, where objectives are unclear or where multiple objectives may exist (Rosenhead, 1989). This is explained as human activity system (HAS) – a collection of activities, in which people are purposefully engaged, and the relationships between the activities (Platt, 1995). Hence SSM is a qualitative technique that can be used for applying System Thinking to non-systematic situations. It follows its progression in seven stages as laid down by Checkland in seven stage model “which is considered by most people to be the SSM” (Platt, 1995).
The seven stages are incorporated into two parts: the real world and systems thinking, as illustrated in Figure 1. The diagram is divided into two halves. The upper half (Stages 1, 2, 5, 6, 7) are activities that take place in the ‘real world’ “that is they are based on the knowledge and experience of the participant of how things are to them” (Beckford 1998) and therefore should involve people in the problem situation. The bottom half (Stages 3,4,4a,4b) are ‘systems thinking’ activities which are carried out in the language of systems and may or may not involve people in the problem situation, depending on the circumstances of study (Johnson, 1999).
In Stage 1, the problem situation may arise with number of people feeling uncomfortable. Thus “problem owners” (stakeholder of the problem) explore the situation more likely to say, “unstructured the situation” with a view to make improvements (Reason, 2001). This problem situation is expressed in Stage 2, attempting to avoid the structuring of the situation that would close down the original thinking. In this stage SSM uses diagrams or models as a means of talking about a reality, rather than models of reality (Bennetts et al., 2000: 192) Hence the situation is perceived through rich pictures. Rich pictures are the problem solvers own “interpretive snapshot” of the “mess” (Warning, 1996) not a system diagram. They are the visual illustrations of people, issues, relationships; in that they capture all the rich, multidimensional issues that are part of a system. Rich pictures depict institutions, actors, linkages, and issues that matter to stakeholders (Ramirez, 2002).
In Stage 3 requires a complete shift of thinking to the consideration of “hypothetical or notional system” (Warning, 1996). Stage 3 develops a root definition of relevant system. It is concise description of a human activity system which states what the system is. A root definition is expressed as a transformation process that takes some entity as input and produces a new form of the entity as output i.e. steel is transformed into a car (Khosrow, 2000). Rich pictures involve as variety of world views. Each root definition involves a transformation of one input to one output. The root definition is elaborated through its “checklist” (Platt, 1995) called CATWOE. Construction of the root definition therefore embraces Customer (C), Actors (A), Transformational Process (T), Worldview (W), Owner (O) and Environment (E) constraints. CATWOE analysis is illustrated in figure 3
In Stage 4 each root definition will result in a conceptual model. The conceptual model identifies the minimum necessary activities for that HAS. In addition, it represents the relationships between the activities. The conceptual model must be derived from the root definition alone. It is an intellectual model and must not be clouded by knowledge of the “real” world. All of the elements of the CATWOE mnemonic must be included somewhere in the conceptual model; otherwise the conceptual model is incomplete (Platt, 1995). It should not be possible to take out words from the root definition without affecting the conceptual model. The actions are ordered systematically, drawing out the feedback loops (Reason, 2001)
The conceptual models, which are the result of systematic thinking about the real world, are taken into the real world in Stage 5, where they are compared to the problem situation expressed in Stage 2. Here the conceptual model is also employed to surface possible change proposals (Reason, 2001) The conceptual model can be used formally or informally, methods adopted in the utility of the model depends upon the choice of its author, three purposed methods of using conceptual models are: reference and check – weather the activities in Stage 5 exist in Stage 2, imagine the conceptual model in operating in the real world and note all the practical implicating and template method – by overlaying the model from step 2 with the model from step 5, the matches and mismatches can be chalked out which can be tabulated for the ease of reference (Warning 1996).
In stage 6, the change proposals are thought through in two ways. First, the desirability of the human activity system captured in the system model is raised and discussed. Secondly, the issue of the feasibility is explored in the context of the problem situation, attitude and political interactions that dominate (Reason 2001). The change follows three norms: procedural changes (how activities are done within the structure), structural changes (organisational groupings, responsibility); or attitudes (changes of influence, learning, values and norms) (Beckford, 1998).
In stage 7, action is taken – implementing in real-world situation the changes that have been purposed (Beckford, 1998). It is important to appreciate that once these changes have been implemented, the problem situation will be modified. In other words, the whole process follows cyclical pattern (Platt, 1995)
3) Application of SSM in Newport Business School:
University of Wales, Newport is comprised of two campuses i.e. Newport Business School and Caerleon Campus. The business school has its campus situated in Allt-yr-yn where the graduate and post graduate education is delivered in business and administration, computing and engineering. Every year students from all over the world are enrolled in the university.
The problem situation is unstructured from the student prospective; the prevalent problems are in the organistion structure of the UWN (Figure 5), where NBS makes a separate entity within the University of Wales. It coordinates with the Caerleon Campus for the general administration of the activities and use of the faculties and facilities such as sport and accommodation. The entire administered departments such as management, human resource and recruitment, sport and recreation, finance and international and admission office are inaugurated and under the control of Caerleon Campus. NBS regulates only the academic matters while for the rest of the issues it coordinates with the Caerleon Campus which lies10 miles away. This makes the delivery of the issues and problems a complex and lazy process for student and also the staff of NBS.
Within the NBS, inefficacy is prevalent. The students seems to face difficulty in arranging appointments with the module tutors, the course work is not sufficient to embark maximum knowledge, library is limited where most of the times the books are borrowed from other libraries, large class-size also limits the individual attention for the student, most of the time assignments are based on the past assignment student make an illegal use of this by conceiving the ideas and some times coping the whole text from the past-assignment, similarly many student are working and couldn’t get time to do assignments and even attend the classes, shockingly they employ some brilliant student to make their assignments.. This limits the development of the student. Moreover, there seems to be no check and balance to review these acts.
Some of the students also seems de-motivated and disgruntle from the lack of communication, noncooperation of the staff and inefficiency of the academic teachers. The latter is the major source of de-motivation. (I am also one of the victims). My experience is laid down below:
“In my first semester I have achieved a remarkable result in three subjects out of four and i was on my way to the distinction. But my result in one of the subject (subject name disclosed) put me in the state of dejection. When I consulted my the respective module tutor, firstly he seemed reluctant in discussing the issue with me, latter on he made a comment that had added irrelevant and extra stuff beyond the current management prospective and things which had been taught in the lectures. This still sounds confusing to me, as it is clearly mentioned in assignment “A grade 14 might reflect knowledge created extends the limits of application of current management theory (NBS, 2008).”
Similarly, in another case, I applied for the placement in a prestigious work organisation on my own. I luckily received an offer. They required me to get an authorized letter from the university. When I approached the NBS, it refused to entertain me. Hence, I was barred by the university to make my future.”
The problems, like the ones I have faced, are hitting the majority. The batch of 2010 reported to have 80 percent student unsatisfied from the academic and management when they were flanked in two subjects. They communicated the issue with the management, in vain.
Other issues are also prevalent such as accommodation in the Caerleon for the NBS student. There is no place for the recreation activities such as sports in the NBS facility. And the transportation run between the two campuses is sometime not sufficient to accommodate the students and moreover, the buses follow a limited schedule.
The above mentioned issues are visually designed with the Rich diagram; Figure 6 is the “snapshot” of the NBS and its linkage with its environment. While, figure 7 is the illustration of the problems at NBS. On the bases of the real world the root definition is devised that is:
“There is a strong urge for management participation to solve the problems of the students of NBS. They have to ask the students about their problems and appoint there representative who can give suggestions to the management.”
As a checklist the variables of CATWOE as given below are utilized to sketch the conceptual model as given in figure 8.
Customer: Students and Parents.
Actors: Tutors and Management.
Transformation: Participation of tutors, stronger and better involvement in student’s problems.
World view: From the world point of view NBS is doing very well that’s why it ranked first in Wales and second in UK for student satisfaction.
Owner: UK government.
Environment constraints: UK government and Wales’s government to promote the business school and other existing business schools.
On the bases of the above discussion the changes are likely to be incremented through procedure, structure and attitude of the NBS, the organistion. These changes would be fruitful if the customers and the actors collaborate to help with the transformation.
The procedural changes, as from the conceptual model of , would influence in the strategy and the communication. Under this, the course should be designed in an effective way so that there wouldn’t be any room for illegal practices by the student. Similarly the teacher should imply new and different teaching technique which would directly poke the intellectual capability of the student such as regular class based quiz and presentation. This would potentially help in increasing the attendance and keeping the teachers aligned with the subject matter, instead of making there own criteria of judging assignments. As assignments have proved to be biased and based on the personal judgement of the tutor, there role should be limited.
The communicative network should be developed. The module tutor should be appointed with a “personal assistances” for a group of 10 students who would look at the issues and provide help to the student and the tutor, as well.
Under the structural changes NBS should expand its facility, where the administration should be easy to access and independent body. The facility should accommodate the sports, hostel and a modern library.
Similarly, there is a dire need of change in the attitude of the actors. The management and the academic staff should focus on the development of the customer. Their roles shouldn’t be confined to the delivery of their duties as stated in the job description. They should act as an agent of motivation and inspiration for the students.
The SSM has simplicity as its basic rule. In the above case it simply justified the problems and come up with the solution. However the methodology lacks agreement on various occasions.
It provides a rational thinking, this thinking displays the perspective of the team which conducts the SSM, and however, this can result in bias decision making and problem solving. The lack of holistic approach put a limit in the latter phase of the analysis. The stress in the SSM is on the relations and linkage as the system operated in the open system. This perspective denies the close system approach and also makes the system hard to manage. Further, SSM doesn’t imply appropriate methods to build a system, that there is no real/scientific mean to put an end to the problem. This leaves ambiguities and the simplicity of the SSM results in complications.
It is more likely to say that the use of SSM is workable in the condition where the basic understanding of the situation is required. It provides information and hence this information can be utilized and incorporated with the other mythologies to make the system work in an esteemed faction.
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