Soft systems modelling


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Soft systems modelling

  1. 1. Soft Systems Modelling1. IntroductionThe Soft Systems Modelling approach1 encourages constant reflection on how things happen in realworld situations. It doesn’t so much describe how the information management system actuallyworks, but how the stakeholders think it works, how they think it should work and how they wouldpersonally like it to work. This exactly describes the nature of the qualitative messages that camefrom the stakeholder interviews carried out in the first phase of the Smudie project.A further consideration when dealing with a student information system is what value eachstakeholder sees in a specific piece of information and how the information is used in their particularorganisational role. This is important because the same information is often used for differentpurposes by the different stakeholders.Student assessment outcomes, for example, are used by: The student to judge attainment against learning objectives and to adjust their effort if not meeting their personal objectives and aspirations; The teacher to judge both the effectiveness of their teaching approach and the levels of support needed by individual students; The programme director to monitor the performance of the course against agreed attainment and quality targets set by the faculty; The institutional management to maintain the best possible institutional quality profile when reporting to HESA and other external agencies.This demonstrates that the management and use of such basic pieces of student information in thesystem are not the sole responsibility of particular stakeholders, but have a ripple-through effectwhere the student performance is responded to by the teacher, the teacher by the programmedirector, the programme by the faculty and so on.The common goal of maximising performance is evident for each role, but the example emphasiseshow success for the entire system relies on a contribution to optimising student support andattainment at each level of management.2. How it works in practiceThe EA ‘as is’ models and the VSM analysis2 have shown how the University institutional informationmanagement system is made up of recursive self-managing sub-systems. Each sub-system has acontribution to make to the whole, but in general, operates as an independent entity. The key toinstitutional success with such an arrangement is the effectiveness with which the sub-systemscommunicate with each other and are supported by their operational environment.A common complaint in organisations is that different parts of the organisation manage theirinformation needs in isolation and create information ‘silos’ that do not inter-communicateeffectively or efficiently. There is a general view that a centrally managed enterprise-wideinformation system is the solution to this problem. However, this view does not necessarilyrecognise the realities of how large organisations operate in practice.The fact is that individual stakeholders and stakeholder groups do operate in isolation from otherparts of the organisation because they have different job functions and information managementresponsibilities. A lot of the locally managed information is used for that management function only1 Checkland, Peter B. & Poulter, J. (2006) Learning for Action: A short definitive account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use forPractitioners, teachers and Students, Wiley, Chichester.2 1
  2. 2. and is not relevant or used elsewhere. Managing locally where appropriate reduces the complexityof the central system and can add benefit.There are two areas, however, where centralised student information management is needed. Thefirst relates to core data that is used by multiple sub-systems. Typically this would include thestudent name, student ID, Course code etc., which are shared in the records of registry, the facultiesand by student support services. For core student data to be managed efficiently it needs welldefined management on a central database where the core data fields are available to all sub-systems that use them. This is both efficient and ensures consistency of both content and formatacross the institution.The second area is where central management requires access to specific data from multiple sub-systems. This would mainly be for formal periodic central management processes and for externalreporting. A typical student information system would have customised reporting options that areset up to draw from the core data and from the various sub-systems concerned. The Smudie projectevaluation exercise has shown that there are varying degrees of effectiveness and efficiency inachieving this.A further central management requirement of the system, that is more difficult to satisfy, is whennon-standard reporting is requested to satisfy the needs of a specific current management issue. Adatabase set up to satisfy the needs of the standard information management requirements maynot be so effective in synthesising data for one-off reports.The student information management system has to support the needs of multiple institutionalmanagement sub-systems of varying degrees of complexity with both core and functionally specificdata. It has to interface with other information management systems both internally and externally.The degree to which it is designed to meet all possible requirements is a management decision thatbalances functionality with cost.It was recently commented, rather prosaically, that the most cost-effective interface between twoinformation systems might actually be a junior clerk with a calculator.3. The Soft Systems approachManagement modelling techniques have developed in an academic environment and tend to have aformulaic approach that can mask the value of the thinking behind it. Checkland’s SSM3 has beenadopted by the systems design and operational research communities and has led to many,sometimes rather opaque, academic publications.However, Checkland himself makes the point4 that SSM is primarily an approach for tacklingproblematical, messy situations of all kinds. It is an action-oriented process of inquiry intoproblematic situations in which users learn their way from finding out about the situation, to takingaction to improve it.The key is to define what the problem is from the point of view of the stakeholder who perceives theproblem. Only then can a pragmatic solution be found that addresses that problem. The solutionfinder, however, must learn about the problem from the viewpoint of all system stakeholders forcollective improvements to be actioned. It is not so much formulaic as adaptive.This is exactly the approach the first phase of the Smudie project adopted. Each of the stakeholderinterview records described their viewpoint of the student information management system. As wellas providing a rich picture of the systems in place, which were represented visually with EA models,the process identified some of the problems with those systems that needed addressing to improveperformance.3 Checkland, Peter B. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 19814 2
  3. 3. The soft systems approach to be used in the Smudie project will not formally apply the modellingtechniques that have developed from the methodology. More it will be used as a reality check whenconsidering the potential improvements suggested by the EA and VSM analyses.4. Defining the problemThe Enterprise Architecture representations of the student information management systems showthe processes and procedures that make up current practice and identify where uncoordinatedvariations occur that reduce consistency and reliability. They point towards potential improvementsin systems design, management and technical infrastructure.The soft systems approach brings this picture much closer to how the users view the system, howwell (or otherwise) it works for them and what improvements would make their job easier. In otherwords, it involves defining the problem from their point of view that needs addressing.An example would be the academic member of staff who is reporting student assessment outcomes.With the current system this involves accessing the reporting software online and entering theinformation in the prescribed way. In principle it couldn’t be simpler. In practice there are a numberof barriers to be overcome and different coping strategies have been adopted by staff.The issues, from the viewpoint of the academic member of staff, include: The fact that they access the system infrequently, typically twice per year when assignments are submitted and exams undertaken at the end of semesters. As a result, they forget how the system works and the workflows involved in accessing student records and correctly entering data; The reality that many staff are non-experienced computer users, are often anxious about their ability to cope with the system, and find the process stressful; Reports that the system is non-intuitive, even for the relatively computer literate, and has several frustrating characteristics such as momentary delays after entering each item of data and the need to navigate through several screens to complete procedures.The coping strategies include: Requesting help from colleagues. Typically these will include their immediate academic colleagues, their Faculty MIO, and IS staff with a part remit for academic support/history of helping staff out; Relying on others to enter the data, either in the Faculty office or others in the Programme team.The problem in this example, then, is that a significant number of academic staff, through lack offamiliarity and confident developed IT skills, find the online assessment reporting system difficult touse. The perception is that this is exacerbated by the system software being non user friendly.The problem definition once discussed and agreed makes it possible to identify potential changesthat are desirable and feasible.5. Defining the solutionThe way the problem above is described is as a conceptual model of how the system works asperceived by the stakeholder(s). Aspects of that perception may not accurately represent the waythe system is intended to work and rectifying that conceptual miss-match may be part of thesolution.SSM functions as a learning system because it facilitates a greater understanding of the problemsituation on the part of all the stakeholders involved. The solutions that result can range from thecomplete disappearance of the problem by reconciling a soft conceptual and actual miss-match by 3
  4. 4. discussion, through to the re-structuring of the system to solve the problem through a defined hardredesign process.In all cases the solutions are people solutions for people problems. The technical infrastructure for astudent information management system is only successful if it meets the needs of the users and indoing so recognises their technical, occupational and cultural diversity.6. Summary and conclusionsReferring back to the introduction; the soft systems methodology doesn’t so much describe how aninformation management system actually works, but how the stakeholders think it works, how theythink it should work and how they would personally like it to work.Clearly, the closer these four views of the system are together, the closer the system will be to anoptimal configuration. The objective with SSM is to gain, through consultation with the stakeholders,a picture of these different viewpoints so that conversations about reconciling the differences arefully informed.In the development of an EA ‘to be’ model for the student information system and constituent sub-systems, SSM will be included as part of the methodology, as will VSM. Each will bring added valueto the eventual outcomes, including a healthy dose of realism in what will always be a difficultconsensus to reach between stakeholders with different and often conflicting viewpoints andinterests.Tony TooleJanuary 2013 4