Soft Systems Methodology

The Real World Vs. Systems Thinking About The Real World

The purpose of SSM is to produce structured models that help in our thinking about the real world. But it is important to understand that these do not represent the real world. SSM is a process of analyzing subsets of human activity, to understand this activity at a deep level and to suggest ways of acting that improve the current "problem-situation". It is not a way of modeling systems of work as they exist, or of defining computer-system functions.

Systems thinking attempts to understand problems systemically. Problems are ultimately subjective: we select things to include and things to exclude from our problem analysis (the "system boundary"). Real-world problems are also interrelated" by solving one problem, we often make another problem worse, or complicate matters in some way. So systemic thinking attempts to understand the interrelatedness of problems and goals by separating them out. In understanding different sets of activities and the problems pertaining to those activities as conceptually-separated models, we understand also the complexity of the whole "system" of work and the interrelatedness of things - at least, to some extent.

However sophisticated the models become and whatever models we use (SSM, UML, DFDs, Entity-Relationship diagrams, etc.) we should always remember that a model is a reduced "window" onto the real world. Whatever insights a model may give us, it does not represent the real world.

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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