System, System, System, Soft Systems Methodology

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We all use the word system a lot when talking about a whole range of things… computer system, information system, ‘the system’ meaning a way of doing things normally with some sort of negative or sinister overtone but not always. Basically so far as I can see there are 3 distinct uses of the word:

  1. A way of doing things, of organizing things, resources and procedures
  2. A fixed or hard system; a computer system for example
  3. A specialized system, a conceptualized way of organizing resources and procedures according to a systems theory

Another governing principle is that of emergence; simply expressed as the sum is greater than the whole. So for example a factory operates with direct labour (those doing hands-on work) and indirect labour (those who do administrative work, management work, delivery drivers, maintenance staff, warehouse staff…) to make the factory work.

Systems thinking has come to be known as either hard or soft systems thinking. Hard systems are those where behavior can be reasonably predicted, normally where mechanical components interact in an organised, predictable way. Soft systems by contrast are where human activity is concerned and are a lot less predictable by nature. Organisational problems are a lot less clear-cut, and are a lot more complex in nature.

My thinking tends towards seeing systems problems through the lens of complexity, a system is an intellectual construct designed to make sense of a given situation or event, they help us deal with the enormous complexity of the (real) world.

By making a conceptual model of the world and comparing this to the real world its surprising how quickly difficulties and problems in the actual real world organisational system can be uncovered. Multifaceted problems become more apparent and quantifiable and the possible solutions are more easily teased out of the problem situation. Conceptual models are not representations of the real world, but are a conceptualization of potential real world systems. Soft Systems Methodology therefore is not about real world systems but about applying systems methodologies (systems thinking) to things that happen in the real world. It is best carried out with the full co-operation of those involved in the real world organisation with a facilitator to help and guide.

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Each conceptual system has at its heart a transformation process; input into and output. A very powerful concept accompanying the transformation process is that of weltanschauung (world view) – what makes the transformation worth doing! So the components are:

Customers – the victims or beneficiaries of the transformation process

Actors – those who do the transformation process

Transformation – input to output

Weltanschauung – the world view that makes the transformation meaningful

Owners – those who have the power to stop the transformation

Environmental Constraints – elements outside the process that can influence the process

Monitoring and Control Measures

E1 – Efficacy; does the system work? has the transformation taken place?

E2 – Efficiency; what are the resources needed to achieve the output? Is the system worthwhile?

E3 – Effectiveness; can the system achieve its longer term goals?

As a part of the Soft Systems Methodology intervention it is central and important that the 3 E’s are understood, measurable and agreed by all involved as appropriate measures of the intervention success.

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