Systems/Soft OR Research Group

As a result of encountering increasing complex organisational problems a number of new approaches have emerged.

These are sometimes referred to as 'soft' analytical methods or new problem structuring methods, but their scope is wider than that. They seem particularly useful in policy work and in complex or what have been described as 'wicked' problems. Examples of such approaches include the soft systems methodology (SSM), cognitive mapping and strategic choice. This research group includes staff from a range of disciplines who engage in how these approaches can be used in real-world problem solving, whether in public, voluntary and private sector organisations.

Soft OR

Unlike the mathematical methods of Operational Research and Management Science, there is an essential link between the content of the soft approaches and the way in which they are used, the process. Their use requires the analyst to operate in a mode rather different from that of the technological expert. The idea of the methods is that they should be used to help individuals and groups to think through the consequences of their beliefs and preferences. They are thus ways in which the analyst may facilitate this, by recording what people say or claim and playing this back to them inside a formal structure.

The formal structures of the 'soft' methods provide a language to talk about these things and may also take some of the heat out of a conflict-ridden situation by forcing the debate to operate at a different level of abstraction. In essence, they may separate a viewpoint from its advocate. The soft models are partial interpretations of how an individual or group believes things to be. This does not mean that the analyst must collude with someone whose views of the world may be clearly ludicrous. Rather, the idea is to open people's interpretations to a more public scrutiny. Needless to say, this must be done with some tact and care.

Soft Systems Methodology SSM

SSM resulted from a 30-year action research programme at Lancaster University involving Peter Checkland and colleagues. They began by trying to apply systems engineering ideas to management problems through a series of projects with client organisations. As it became clear that those ideas were not sufficient to deal with the messiness of organisational problems the systemic enquiry methodology that is now known as SSM was developed. The change in thinking that marks SSM from the original ideas (and 'hard' systems from 'soft') is the move from thinking of parts of the world as systems which can be engineered to making the focus the systemic process undertaken in making sense of the situation.

The approach was refined by further cycles of practical experience and reflection on that work. SSM has been used in work with a wide range of organisations, both public and private. The emphasis on learning the way to solutions in problem situations through iteration around the stages of SSM has proved effective in many areas of work including information systems and organisational development. Several members of this group work with SSM.

Research group members

They are interested in work that concerns:

  • Organisation-based action research in which the different approaches can be further developed. This is sometimes known as Mode 2 Research. 
  • Examining the ways in which hard and soft OR/MS methods may be used in a complementary manner.
  • Soft Systems Methodology used in managing complexity.
  • Empirical work that examines how the methods are being used in practice.

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