System thinking, problem solving as learning (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

Regarded as a whole, the soft systems methodology is a learning system which uses systems ideas to formulate basic mental acts of four kinds: perceiving (stages 1 and 2), predicating (stages 3 and 4), comparing (stage 5), and deciding on action (stage 6). The output of the methodology is thus very different from the output of hard systems engineering: it is learning which leads to a decision to take certain actions, knowing that this will lead not to “the problem” being now “solved” but to a changed situation and new learning …

Overall, the stages of the methodology for work on ill-defined problems (which do not have to be followed in fixed sequence) constitute a learning system, a system which finds things out in a situation which at last one person regards as problematic. For ill-structured problems involving a number of people the very idea of “a problem” which can be “solved” has to be replaced by the idea of dialectical debate, by the idea of problem-solvlng as a continuous, never-ending process.

(Checkland, 1981, p. 17)


System thinking on “solutions” (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

Firstly, unstructured problems though”recognizable”, cannot be “defined”. Secondly, in problems in human activity systems history always changes the agenda. The contents of such systems are so multivarious, and the influences to which they are subject so numerous that the passage of time always modifies the perception of the problem (such problems really do sometimes “go away”!). Such perceptions of problems are always subjective, and they change with time. This is something which the research had to take into account. In fact a number of studies have been completed which are successful in the sense that they are judged so by both client and systems analyst but in which “the problem” was never defined throughout the whole course of the work.

In formal terms the research proceeds on the basis of the following definition of the word “problem”.

A problem relating to real-world manifestations of human activity systems is a condition characterised by a sense of mismatch, which eludes precise definition, between what is perceived to be actuality and what is perceived might become actuality.

In the early stages of the research it was accepted that whereas the definition of structured problems implies what will be accepted as “a solution”, unstructured problems – the concern of the research – must not be pressed into a structured form but must somehow be tackled in the absence of any firm definition of them. They are conditions to be alleviated rather than problems to be solved.

(Checkland, 1981, p. 155)

Open and closed systems – to maintain a system (Checkland, 1981)

25 October 2010

In treating the living organism as a whole, as a system, rather than simply as a set of components together with relationships between components, von Bertalanffy drew attention to the important distinction between systems which are open to their environment and those which are closed. He defined an open system (1940) as one having import and export of material. More generally, between an open system and its environment there may be exchange of materials, energy, and information. Organisms, he pointed out, are unlike closed systems in which unchanging components settle in a state of equilibrium; organisms can achieve a steady state which depends upon continuous exchanges with an environment. What is more, the steady state may be thermodynamically unlikely, creating and/or maintaining a high degree of order, where closed systems have no path to travel but that towards increasing disorder (high entropy). In a hierarchy of systems such as that represented by the sequence from cell organelle to organism, or, in general, in any hierarchy of open systems, maintenance of the hierarchy will entail a set of processes in which there is communication of information for purposes of regulation or control.

(Checkland, 1981, p. 82f)

Systems thinking on “solutions” = to improve the problem situation (Hicks, 2004)

25 October 2010

The first stage in an SSM (Soft System Methodology) investigation involves the careful observation of the problem situation with all its intricate details, and the recording of all that is perceived. This involves collecting qualitative data – such as attitudes and opinions concerning the problem situation, including reactions to our intervention in matters (as external consultants) – as well as quantitative data, and recording this in the form of a “picture”. In this way we try to capture as much as possible of the richness of the real situation. Following this, the essence of these observations is encapsulated in brief descriptions of human activity systems that we hope may later provide relevant insights into the problem situation. Then models of these systems that are consistent with the different viewpoints expressed within the descriptions are drawn. Finally, several comparisons are made of the models with the observations of the real-world situation, which are used in a discussion with the problem owners to suggest systemically desirable and culturally feasible changes that it is hoped will lead to improvements in the problem situation. Note that, unlike many other problem-solving processes, SSM does not explicitly attempt to identify problems, but through its iterative “learning” process it is intended to make changes to the problem situation such that whatever the problem were they no longer exist.

(Hicks, 2004, p. 259f)

Decision def (Ackoff, 2006)

25 October 2010

Every decision has only one of two possible purposes: to make something happen that otherwise wouldn’t, or to keep something from happening that otherwise would.

(Ackoff, 2006, p. 207)

Knowing-in-practice (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

A professional practitioner is a specialist who encounters certain types of situations again and again. This is suggested by the way in which professionals use the word “case” or project, account, commission, or deal, depending on the profession. All such terms denote the units which make up a practice, and they denote types of family resembling examples. Thus a physician may encounter many different “cases of measles”; a lawyer, many different “cases of libel.” As a practitioner experiences many variations of a small number of types of cases, he is able to “practice” his practice. He develops a repertoire of expectations, images, and techniques. He learns what to look for and how to respond to what he finds. As long as his practice is stable, in the sense that it brings him the same types of cases, he becomes less and less subject to surprise. His knowing-in-practice tends to become increasingly tacit, spontaneous, and automatic, thereby conferring upon him and his clients the benefits of specialization.

On the other hand, professional specialization can have negative effects. In the individual, a high degree of specialization can lead to a parochial narrowness of vision. When a profession divides into subspecialties, it can break apart an earlier wholeness of experience and understanding. Thus people sometimes yearn for the general practitioner of earlier days who is thought to have concerned himself with the “whole patient,” and they sometimes accuse contemporary specialists of treating particular illnesses in isolation from the rest of the patient’s life experience. Further, as a practice becomes more repetitive and routine, and as knowing-in-practice becomes increasingly tacit and spontaneous, the practitioner may miss important opportunities to think about what he is doing. He may find that he is drawn into patterns of error which he cannot correct. And if he learns, as often happens, to be selectively inattentive to phenomena that do not fit the categories of his knowing-in-action, then he may suffer from boredom or “burn-out” and afflict his clients with the consequences of his narrowness and rigidity. When this happens, the practitioner has “overlearned” what he knows.

A practitioner’s reflection can serve as a corrective to overlearning. Through reflection, he can surface and criticize the tacit understandings that have grown up around the repetitive experiences of a specialized practice, and can make new sense of the situations of uncertainty or uniqueness which he may allow himself to experience […]

When the phenomenon at hand eludes the ordinary categories of knowledge-in-practice, presenting itself as unique or unstable, the practitioner may surface and criticize his initial understanding of the phenomenon, construct a new description of it, and test the new description by an on-the-spot experiment. Sometimes he arrives at a new theory of the phenomenon by articulating a feeling he has about it.

When he finds himself stuck in a problematic situation which he cannot readily convert to a manageable problem, he may construct a new way of setting the problem – a new frame which, in what I shall call a “frame experiment,” he tries to impose on the situation.

When he is confronted with demands that seem incompatible or inconsistent, he may respond by reflecting on the appreciations which he and others have brought to the situation. Conscious of a dilemma, he may attribute it to the way in which he has set his problem, or even to the way in which he has framed his role. He may then find a way of integrating, or choosing among, the values at stake in the situation.

(Schön, 1995, p. 6of & 62f)

Reflection-in-action (Schön, 1995)

25 October 2010

When someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case. His inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation. He does not separate thinking from doing, ratiocinating his way to a decision which he must later convert to action. Because his experimenting is a kind of action, implementation is built into his inquiry. Thus reflection-in-action can proceed, even in situations of uncertainty or uniqueness, because it is not bound by the dichotomies of Technical Rationality.

Although reflection-in-action is an extraordinary process, it is not a rare event. Indeed, for some reflective practitioners it is the core of practice. Nevertheless, because professionalism is still mainly identified with technical expertise, reflection-in-action is not generally accepted – even by those who do it – as a legitimate form of professional knowing.

Many practitioners, locked into a view of themselves as technical experts, find nothing in the world of practice to occasion reflection. They have become too skillful at techniques of selective inattention, junk categories, and situational control, techniques which they use to preserve the constancy of their knowledge-in-practice. For them, uncertainty is a threat; itsadmission is a sign of weakness. Others, more inclined toward and adept at reflection-in-action, nevertheless feel profoundly uneasy because they cannot say what they know how to do. cannot justify its quality or rigor.

For these reasons, the study of reflection-ill-action is critically important. the dilemma of rigor or relevance may be dissolved if we can develop an epistemology of practice which places technical problem solving within a broader context of reflective inquiry, shows how reflection-in-action may be rigorous in its own right, and links the art of practice in uncertainty and uniqueness to the scientist’s art of research. We may thereby increase the legitimacy of reflection-in-action and encourage its broader, deeper, and more rigorous use.

(Schön, 1995, p. 68f)