The Philosophy of Soft Systems Methodology

SSM is a facilitative method for organizational investigation: the investigator does not model the "system" in isolation, but facilitates (provides support for) organizational actors in their modeling of the organizational "system". The language used by Checkland is aimed at changing the way in which the analyst/investigator views the task of system requirements investigation. In order to understand SSM, any investigator must first understand the reasons for the terms used.

Terminology and Approach

An information system is not seen as a computer system, but as a human activity system: the combination of purposeful human activity which may or may not be supported by computer-based technology. The idea of a system is based upon a holistic understanding of human interactions, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: by examining the separate functions of a computer-based  accounting system, one cannot appreciate the tasks performed by all of the people in an accounting department.

The investigator is not engaged in specifying a computer system, or in solving an organizational problem (although the reason for her/his investigation may be in response to a problem perceived by management). Instead, the emphasis is upon the investigation of a problem situation - the context of the human activity is as important as the tasks performed.

The people who work in the context of the problem situation are seen as organizational actors. This term implies purposeful activity on the part of the people engaged in the human activity system - it shifts the responsibility for determining what needs to be done to perform the functions of the system from the analyst to the actors in the human activity system.

The process of SSM is seen as an enquiring process. The investigator is not an expert, dispensing solutions from their vast fount of technical experience, but a facilitator, providing support to organizational actors as they themselves define their system's purposes and functions. The role of facilitator necessitates debate between differing perspectives of the system's purposes. This debate is not the same as seeking consensus, which is the implicit aim of "hard" systems analysis. "Consensus" too often means that important objectives of the system are sacrificed to organizational politics, or that the analyst's perspective of the system's purposes is valued above the perspectives of organizational actors because the analyst appears more knowledgeable about technical feasibility. Too often, instead of conflicting system objectives being the subject of an explicit managerial decision by organizational managers, who can make such decisions on the basis of their understanding of organizational objectives, such decisions are made on the basis of an arbitrary decision by the system analyst. SSM therefore, is a means of making such conflicts of interest open to debate and explicit.

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 teaching 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 ... .

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