AN OVERVIEW OF THE SOFT SYSTEMS METHODOLOGY
Soft Systems Methodology, or SSM, is a powerful way of undertaking organisational development across a wide variety of situations which are considered to be problematic, capable of improvement, or worthy of investigation.
It acknowledges that individuals associated with any situation (often called ‘stakeholders’) will have a variety of perceptions about what makes the situation problematic or what constitutes improvement. SSM explicitly accommodates this variable within the analysis phase of the total process of change. Whilst these multiple personal perceptions are a feature of all organisation-based situations, SSM is unique in that it makes intentional use of such “perceptions” in a way that is robust, totally explicit and hence, both defensible and auditable.
A fundamental principle of SSM is that it mandates two distinctions which must be rigorously maintained. The first is that between “WHAT” an organisation does and “HOW” it does it.
The second is that between the “REAL-WORLD” (in which an organisation exists) and the intellectual processes of “THINKING ABOUT THE REAL-WORLD”. The ‘real-world’ is a necessarily messy and complex place where unique, valid and non-contentious descriptions of ‘reality’ are not possible; using SSM ensures that the intellectual process of ‘thinking about the real-world’ is simple (not ‘messy’), precise and defensible. This intellectual process uses the concept of a Human Activity System as a means of making such thinking explicit, so that the ideas in use can be discussed, contested, converged and a consensus reached by the stakeholders involved.
SSM assumes that a Human Activity System (i.e. an organisation) exists to pursue purposeful activity rather than acting in a purely random fashion; understanding that purpose, therefore, is a useful starting point for any analysis. Since purpose is an idea that can be relevant to organisational units which range in size from a multi-national enterprise, through a single organisation, a department, a function or even an individual, then the process of using SSM is not scale dependent, but is applicable across a wide spectrum of situations.
SSM is therefore a powerful tool for unearthing implicit assumptions and competing purposes that can de-rail change if they are not understood and addressed. It is particularly appropriate for:
- Defining the desired future states for an organisation (in terms of structures and processes);
- Improving the delivery of an organisation’s products and services.
- Shaping complex programmes of work.
- Achieving coherence between different initiatives.
- Developing shared understanding across organisational boundaries.
- Aligning analysis with the goals of an organisation.
- Defining measures for provision of services (including information services) relevant to an organisation.
- Developing a coherent set of requirements for the acquisition and development of Capability
And, as a method of organisational development it is:
- Strategic (top-down and forward looking).
- Explicit and defensible.
- Rigorous and auditable.
- Flexible enough to apply to all types and size of organisational problems.
- Consensus building.
- Outcome focused.