Soft systems methodology (SSM) is an approach to organizational process modeling (business process modeling) and it can be used both for general problem solving and in the management of change. It was developed in England by academics at the University of Lancaster Systems Department through a ten-year action research program.
The methodology was developed from earlier systems engineering approaches, primarily by Peter Checkland and colleagues such as Brian Wilson. The primary use of SSM is in the analysis of complex situations where there are divergent views about the definition of the problem. These situations are "soft problems" such as: How to improve health services delivery? How to manage disaster planning? When should mentally disordered offenders be diverted from custody? What to do about homelessness amongst young people?
In such situations even the actual problem to be addressed may not be easy to agree upon. To intervene in such situations the soft systems approach uses the notion of a "system" as an interrogative device that will enable debate amongst concerned parties. In its 'classic' form the methodology consists of seven steps, with initial appreciation of the problem situation leading to the modelling of several human activity systems that might be thought relevant to the problem situation. By discussions and exploration of these, the decision makers will arrive at accommodations (or, exceptionally, at consensus) over what kind of changes may be systemically desirable and feasible in the situation. Later explanations of the ideas give a more sophisticated view of this systemic method, and give more attention to locating the methodology in respect to its philosophical underpinnings. It is the earlier classical view which is most widely used in practice.
There are several hundred documented examples of the successful use of SSM in many different fields, ranging from ecology, to business and military logistics. It has been adopted by many organizations and incorporated into other approaches: in the 1990s for example it was the recommended planning tool for the UK government's SSADM system development methodology.
The general applicability of the approach has led to some criticisms that it is functionalist, non-emancipatory or supports the status quo and existing power structures; this is a claim that users would deny, arguing that the methodology itself can be none of these, it is the user of the methodology that may choose to employ it in such a way.
The methodology has been described in several books and many academic articles.
7-stage representation of SSM:
In 1975, David Smyth, a researcher in Checkland's department, observed that SSM was most successful when the Root Definition included certain elements. These elements, captured in the mnemonic CATWOE, identified the people, processes and environment that contribute to a situation, issue or problem that required analyzing.
This is used to prompt thinking about what the business is trying to achieve. Business Perspectives help the Business Analyst to consider the impact of any proposed solution on the people involved. There are six elements of CATWOE
A human activity system can be defined as 'notional system (i.e. not existing in any tangible form) where human beings are undertaking some activities that achieve some purpose' (Patching, 1990).
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