Part 1 – Why did I fall in love with SSM?
Long time ago when I graduated as an organisational psychologist I felt that intervening in organisations was really my passion. I was amazed at the work of Kurt Lewin and other colleagues at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. I was particularly impressed by the notion of action research as a mode of inquiry and systems thinking as a powerful way to understand the complex reality of people in organisations.
I conducted my first action research project in the firm where I worked as deputy general manager in a textile factory. That position gave me access to all the heads of department that fought serious quality problems, and I used “stream analysis” a systems approach to organisational diagnostic. I remember that the report generated very useful insights about why the problems existed, but the proposed action plan did not get much traction, and not much was accomplished. What could go wrong here?
It was not until I encountered for the first time the notion of Soft Systems that I found an answer. As a more experienced manager in the textile industry, I was lucky to attend a Masters program where Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) was taught as a first level approach to information systems design. I immediately discovered an extraordinary useful way to conduct action research and to intervene in organisations. Later I was accepted in the historical Ph.D. research program that originated SSM, and I had the privilege to be Peter Checkland’s second last doctoral student at Lancaster University Management School.
My research focused on group decision support systems, but SSM can be virtually applied to any area of intervention. It is particularly useful in problem situations where diverse stakeholders have different perspectives about its nature. What makes this methodology so unusual? SSM seriously addresses the question of “how knowledge is created?” and it’s based on phenomenological epistemology. According to this stance, any description of the real world is always subjective and depends on a given observer’s personal perspective. For instances, the notion of “a prison” can be seen by some as a ‘crime University’ and by others as a ‘correctional facility’. Either worldview is equally valid. Each endows a unique personal meaning to the perceived reality. The nature of the problem situation and the actions to be taken to alleviate it will be dependent upon such world-views.
SSM isolates human activity systems in a pure form. They are represented as logical formulas, according to a given worldview or Weltanschauung – the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual, group or culture watches and interprets the world and interacts with it. The technical parts of SSM teach us how to model such systems and use them as vehicles (holons) to inquire into a particular problem situation in order to generate consensus on feasible interventions. We are going to see that in the next article of this series – How does SSM relates with group facilitation – please stay tuned.
P.S. If you want to learn more about SSM and many other group facilitation approaches, please join me at the next IAF EMENA Conference 2-5 October here.
Picture from The Atlantic: