Action research and evaluation on line

Session 13: Soft systems methodology



This is Session 13 of areol, action research and evaluation on line, a 14-week public course offered as a public service by Southern Cross University and the Southern Cross Institute of Action Research (SCIAR). which the problem-solving process known as soft systems methodology is first described, and its use as an evaluation process is considered


As you read this session, think "transformation".  As you experience your day, think "transformation".  It is another way of thinking about activities: as ways of transforming inputs into outputs, information into decisions, food into meals, experience into learning ...  [add your own] ...


In this session

The sessions immediately before this have described the Snyder process.  It is a detailed process which applies action research principles to the task of evaluating a program or unit.  This session examines another detailed action research process, soft systems methodology.

Soft systems methodology is a qualitative methodology developed by Peter Checkland and his colleagues at Lancaster University.  It applies systems concepts to qualitative research (as does the Snyder process).

It is particularly suited to the analysis of information systems.  That is less of a constraint than you might imagine: most programs and units can be thought of as information systems by focusing on their decision-making.

Checkland has explained how it is intended to deal with complex situations while maintaining adequate standards of rigour.  He also explicitly identifies it as an action research methodology. 

In this session I begin by describing it as Checkland does.  I then offer a different description, one which relates it to some of the concepts of action research discussed in earlier sessions. 


SSM briefly

At the heart of SSM is a comparison between the world as it is, and some models of the world as it might be.  Out of this comparison arise a better understanding of the world ("research"), and some ideas for improvement ("action").

In SSM the researchers begin with a real-world problem.  They study the systems which contain the problem.  Following this, they develop some models of how those systems might work better.  As SSM is a systems methodology, the models are formed using systems concepts. 

The "ideal" models are then compared to the actual situation.  Differences between the models and reality become the basis for planning changes.

The description above is mainly taken from recent literature.    This and the earlier SSM literature also offer a 7-stage description, which follows.  I use Checkland's terminology for the labels.

Note that this is necessarily a brief description -- you are referred to Checkland for more detail. 


The 7-stage description

1   The problem situation unstructured

The problem situation is first experienced, as it is, by the researcher.  That is, the researcher makes as few presumptions about the nature of the situation as possible.


2   The problem situation expressed

In this step the researcher develops a detailed description, a "rich picture", of the situation within which the problem occurs.  This is most often done diagrammatically.

Throughout the 7 stages, both and logic and the culture of the situation are taken into account.  These twin streams of enquiry, logic and culture, are incorporated into the rich picture.

Checkland puts it this way.  In addition to the logic of the situation, the rich picture also tries to capture the relationships, the value judgments people make, and the "feel" of the situation.


3   Root definitions of relevant systems

Now the "root definitions", the essence of the relevant systems, are defined.

For the logical analysis, Checkland provides the mnemonic CATWOE as a checklist for ensuring that the important features of the root definitions are included:

 the  Customers...................who are system beneficiaries
 the  Actors......................who transform inputs to outputs
 the  Transformation..............from inputs into outputs
 the  Weltanschauung..............the relevant world views
 the  Owner.......................the persons with power of veto
 the  Environmental constraints...that need to be considered

The "transformation" element is one of the features that signal this as a "systems" approach.

The cultural analysis has three parts:

  • A role analysis, focusing on the intervention itself.  This seeks to identify the client, the would-be problem solver (the researcher), and the problem owner (roughly, stakeholders).  In the terms that we used in earlier sessions you could think of this as the diagnostic part of entry and contracting.
  • A social system analysis.  This identifies, for the problem situation, three sets of elements: roles, norms, and values.
  • A political system analysis.  This identifies the use of power in the problem situation.


4   Making and testing conceptual models

The researcher now draws upon her knowledge of systems concepts and models.  She develops descriptions, in system terms, of how the relevant parts of the situation might ideally function.

One of the important questions here is: ideals from whose point of view? If you adopt those who pay you as your client, you may well just help the organisation exploit its members more effectively.  If you adopt everyone in the system as a client, you will avoid this problem.  But perhaps people outside the system will bear some of the cost of this.  Here, as elsewhere, a careful identification of stakeholders can make a large difference to the outcomes.


5   Comparing conceptual models with reality

The purpose is not to implement the conceptual models.  Rather, it is so that models and reality can be compared and contrasted.  The differences can be used as the basis for a discussion: how the relevant systems work, how they might work, and what the implication of that might be.


6   Identify feasible and desirable changes

From the discussion at step 5, certain possible changes are identified.  They are likely to vary in desirability and feasibility:

desirable: is it technically an improvement?

feasible: especially, does it fit the culture?


7   Action to improve the problem situation

The most desirable and feasible changes identified at step 6 are now put into practice.


I would like now to offer a different description.  My hope is to do this in such a way that the cyclic nature of the process, and the use of dialectic comparisons, are made more evident. 


A different description

This is the same process being described here.  It is just that I'm taking a different perspective.  You can think of soft systems methodology as progressing through four dialectics.  It is in such terms that I describe it below.


The first dialectic between immersion
(the rich picture) and essence (the root

The researchers experience the situation as fully as possible.  When they believe they understand its logic and culture well enough, they stand back and attempt to define the essential features.

The researchers may include clients as co-researchers.  They alternate between immersion and essence.  When immersed, they ask themselves "How well do the root definitions capture the important part of what I am experiencing?" When defining the essence they ask "How well is the reality represented in the root definitions I am writing?"

Eventually the comparison is satisfactory.  The root definitions do capture the essential features of the situation, as far as they can tell.

(I suggest to novices that they use CATWOE, but begin with transformations.  What resources are transformed into what outcomes by the part of the situation they are studying? Checkland's CATWOE mnemonic then serves as a check that they have adequately covered the various features.  This may seem a little mechanical.  In practice, Checkland makes clear the importance of considering cultural, social and political systems in the analysis.  I agree.  In addition, you might also want to give deep consideration to the stakeholders: Who will you involve? To what extent?)


The second dialectic between the essence
(the root definitions) and the ideals (the
conceptual models)

The researchers now put the rich picture out of mind.  They work from the essential description to devise an ideal way (preferably several such ways) of achieving the same transformations of inputs into outputs.  In doing this, they try not to be influenced by the details of the actual situation.  This might blind them to more effective and creative ways of achieving the transformations.

As before, they now alternate between the two perspectives.  Do the ideals achieve all of the transformations captured in the root definitions? Considered from the perspective of the ideals, do the root definitions appear to be complete?

At this point, the researchers may choose to go back to the first alternation.  As Checkland argues strongly, it isn't intended to be a one-way process.  It can return on itself as often as the need arises.

This alternation, too, continues until the researchers are satisfied with the ideals they have developed.


The third dialectic between ideals
(conceptual models) and reality

It is now apparent that the root definitions allow the researchers to distance themselves from reality.  Now, in alternating between the ideals and that reality, they have a richer dialectic to work with.  Compare ideals to reality, and the differences become apparent.  These differences may suggest improvements to the ideals or to the actual situation.

Sometimes, researchers will discover important features in the situation which are not included in the ideals.  This implies that revision of the conceptual models is warranted.  (Sometimes this may require revisiting the earlier alternations.) More often, some features of the conceptual models will be found to be a technical improvement over those found in the actual situation, and culturally appropriate.  These are recorded as changes to be implemented.

For each of these changes, action plans are developed.  The action planning process archived as "etrack" could be used for this purpose.  It has the advantage that it builds monitoring activities into the plans, to check that they are working.  Its URLs are


The fourth dialectic between plans
and implementation

When plans are implemented, the implementers soon discover how well the plans match the reality.  Provided there is monitoring included in the plans, progress can be checked.

A mismatch can have several sources.  It may merely point out a gap in the planning.  Alternatively, the conceptual models may be at fault, or the root definitions may be lacking.  This is a sign to move back to the appropriate stage of the overall process.

You might summarise the overall process graphically as in the diagram.

I would draw your attention to a number of features of the process just described:

  • It uses both a process, and the theoretical concepts known as systems thinking.  You could substitute a different conceptual base -- a different set of concepts -- if you wished to.
    For example, you could substitute different systems models, or even non-systems models.
  • It contains multiple cycles within multiple cycles.  Each cycle is in some sense a test of the researchers' conceptions of the situation.  The implementation phase provides the final test.
  • As described above, it says more about the research than about the action.  All of the issues discussed in earlier sessions are relevant, especially those related to relationships and participation.

As far as can be judged from the literature, soft systems methodology is often used with low to moderate levels of participation.  Often, it seems, the people in the system are involved primarily as informants.  However, it can be used easily and effectively with very high levels of participation.

Soft systems methodology is also primarily used for problem solving, or for system improvement.  The second of these uses implies that it can be used for process evaluation.  And indeed it can. 


Soft systems methodology for evaluation

Soft systems methodology serves well as a process for process evaluation.  You need to make only minor changes to the process to use it for this purpose.

In normal use, you begin by identifying the problem.  Then you choose a situation which is large enough to contain the problem.  In using soft systems methodology for evaluation, a program or project or unit (and enough of its immediate environment) becomes the situation evaluated.  You can include the environment easily by making an appropriate choice of stakeholders.

In other respects, you can follow the same process described earlier in this session. 



  1. Checkland, P.  (1981) Systems thinking, systems practice.  Chichester: Wiley.  back ]
  2. Checkland, P.  (1992) From framework through experience to learning: the essential nature of action research.  In C.S.  Bruce and A.N.  Russell, Transforming tomorrow today: Proceedings of the Second World Congress on Action Learning.  Brisbane: Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management Association.  [pp1-7]   
    There is also a strong and explicit action research flavour in his more recent book, especially pages 18-28, and Chapter 6:
    Checkland, P., and Holwell, S. (1998)  Information, systems, and information systems: making sense of the field.  Chichester, UK: Wiley.
    back ]
  3. This may be why it has come under fire for maintaining the status quo.  Similar criticisms are commonly offered to systems-based approaches generally.  I don't think the criticisms are necessarily justified.  It depends who you regard as the client, and how you define the goals.  back ]
  4. Checkland, P.  and Scholes, J.  (1991) Soft systems methodology in action.  Chichester: Wiley.  [ back ]


Archived resources

There is a file in the areol archive, "sofsys2".  The URLs are


Other reading

The two books mentioned in the notes by Checkland (1981) and Checkland and Scholes (1991) are valuable.  The first of them provides a solid rationale for using systems-based and qualitative methodologies.  The second provides more hands-on detail, and a stronger emphasis on the cultural analysis.

A detailed case study is described by Lynda Davies and Paul Ledington.

Davies, L.  and Ledington, P.  (1991) Information in action: soft systems methodology.  Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan.

The discussion also provides some insights into the political dimensions of field research.

Most of the descriptions of the methodology say more about the overall process than about the fine-grain methods which it uses.  A book which is written from a practitioner's viewpoint, and which does go into some detail is:

Patching, D.  (1990) Practical soft systems analysis.  London: Pitman. 



A thought experiment

CATWOE is a useful checklist.  If you are familiar with it, you can use it to gain a wider perspective on some of your actions.  Its heart is the "transformation".

For a thought experiment, you might choose a problematic situation you find yourself in as a researcher.  (Choose something trivially problematic if this is your first experience of soft systems methodology).

Identify the transformation achieved.  What are you (or the system) doing? What resources are you trying to turn into which outcomes? How might you do it differently?


An individual activity

Repeat the thought experiment above, but on a larger situation and in more detail.

  1. Choose a situation you would like to understand better.
  2. List the activities which are carried out in the situation.
  3. For each activity list the resources consumed, and the outcomes desired.  You can do this as a 3-column exercise -- resources; activities; outcomes.
  4. Use the CATWOE checklist to ensure that you have adequately considered the view of consumers, actors, and owner, and that you've taken the culture and the constraints into account.  Check that you have included in this the culture and politics of the situation.
  5. Erase the middle column.  Devise better ways, more satisfying to the stakeholders and yourself, for turning the inputs into outputs: for achieving those outcomes within the same resource constraints.
  6. Consider how you might implement the improvements suggested by step 5.


For your learning group

As with the Snyder process, imagine facilitating a soft systems process for some clients.  Do this individually, noting the points at which you have trouble imagining it.  Then, in your learning group, help each other flesh out the difficult bits.



In summary ...

In this session I've given a very brief description of soft systems methodology, both as Checkland provides it, and a version which emphasises the cyclic nature.  I've mentioned that the earlier sessions on participation on action research can be applied to soft systems methodology.  I've suggested that you might also regard it as an evaluation process.

This brings us near the end of the areol program.  In the next session I provide some suggestions for next steps, and seek your reactions to the program as a whole.

See you then.  -- Bob


Let's practice action research on areol.  What ideas do you have for improving this session? What didn't you understand? What examples and resources can you provide from your own experience? What else? If you are subscribed to the email version, send your comments to the discussion list. Otherwise, send them to Bob Dick



Copyright © Bob Dick 2002.  May be copied provided it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown.

This document may be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (2002) Soft systems methodology Session 13 of Areol - action research and evaluation on line.





Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 11.05w; last revised 20021118

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