Soft Systems Methodology

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Soft systems methodology provides a framework for structuring, analyzing, and solving problems in systems that involve people. It integrates logical, cultural, and political analyses of a problem situation in order to imagine, discuss, and then implement actions to improve the situation, with the consensus of the participants. Soft systems methodology is used primarily by managers and consultants working on technical or organizational problems; it has proved particularly useful in the Information Technology/Information Systems sector.

Peter Checkland developed soft systems methodology because classic systems engineering and systems analysis (hard systems methodologies), which work excellently in many engineering situations, often disappoint in management situations. Hard systems methodologies are well-suited for designed systems where the task of the analyst is to find the most efficient means of reaching a well-defined goal, but they cannot deal with the cultural and social dimensions in what Checkland terms human activity systems, which are systems that include human self-consciousness and freedom of choice. One of the characteristics of human activity systems is the wide range and importance of world-views, or Weltanschauungen, held by the participants in the system, and the consequent lack of clearly defined or agreed goals within such a system. Soft systems methodology is designed to deal with human activity systems where "in the complexity of human affairs the unequivocal pursuit of objectives which can be taken as given is very much the occasional special case" (Checkland 1999, p. A6).

There are four main activities in Checkland's methodology:

  1. Finding out about a problem situation, including its cultural and political dimensions;
  2. Formulating relevant purposeful activity models (devising scenarios of possible future actions and outcomes);
  3. Debating the situation with participants, using the models, seeking from that debate both
    • changes that would improve the situation and are regarded as both desirable and (culturally) feasible, and
    • the accommodations between conflicting interests that will enable action-to-improve to be taken;
  4. Taking action in the situation to bring about improvement. (Checkland 1999, p. A15).

Soft systems methodology provides practitioners with almost the same analytical techniques and many of the same conceptual approaches as Harold D. Lasswell's policy sciences, but laced with more pragmatism and less idealism. Soft systems methodology focuses on business and industry applications, it seeks agreed solutions, and is based in management science and engineering. The policy sciences are concerned with representative democracy and public policy, they are rooted in the social sciences, and they emphasize a moral rather than consensual basis for decision making. Both approaches agree that the analyst becomes involved in the system under examination; that the viewpoint of the analyst must be made explicit; that there are non-rational elements in human behavior; and that history, perception, relationships, and culture are important factors in human activity systems.

Peter Checkland, the founder of soft system methodology, was born in Birmingham, England in 1930. He studied chemistry at Oxford University in the 1950s, then worked at ICI Ltd. as a technologist and manager. He moved to the Department of Systems at the University of Lancaster in 1969, and in the early twenty-first century is Professor of Systems, Management Science, in the Lancaster University Management School.


SEE ALSO Engineering Method;Lasswell, Harold;Systems.


Checkland, Peter. (1999). Systems Thinking, Systems Practice: Includes a 30-Year Retrospective. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons. Reissue of the first book on soft systems methodology, with a major retrospective essay reviewing thirty years of developments in the field.

Checkland, Peter, and Sue Holwell. (1998). Information, Systems, and Information Systems. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons. Focuses on the place of information technology in human affairs, with an emphasis on IT in organizations.