Soft Systems Methodology

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The soft systems methodology was developed in the 1960s by Peter Checkland at Lancaster University. This methodology arose out of attempts to apply systems engineering principles ("hard" systems theory) to business problems. Systems engineering emphasises measurable system objectives and the top down decomposition of systems into subsytems. Advanced views of systems engineering (such as VSM) show how systems exhibit emergent (unexpected, counterintuitive) behaviour because of complex feedback loops among system components.

When applying systems engineering to what he came to call "human activity systems" (people working together to achieve something) Checkland found a number of problems. Organisation goals (I use "goals" and "objectives" more or less interchangeably) were matters of controversy; in particular most investigators assumed that all members of the organisation accepted goals set by top management, but this is usually not the case. Formal methods usually begin with a problem statement; Checkland found that fixing the problem too early made investigators unlikely to see different, possibly more basic, problems. And the method itself restricted what could be found out; if we expect the organisation to be describable by the interaction among a number of clearly bounded subsystems then that will happen - we will see in the organisation a reflection of our methods.

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