Soft Systems and Hard Contradictions*
Lars Mathiassen Peter A. Nielsen
Abstract. Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology for defining and solving problems in organizations is presented on the basis of an application of the methodology. In many ways this approach represents an improvement in relation to more traditional approaches to computer-based information systems. Based on an experiment we explore the possibilities of combining the practical usefulness of soft systems thinking with the analytical power offered by dialectical thinking. Soft Systems Methodology already shares several basic elements with dialectical approaches to social theory and action. It does not, however, include the key element of dialectical analysis: explicit thinking in terms of contradictions. The paper presents experiences, ideas and arguments, but it contains no final answers. At this stage it is our intention to engage others in critical and constructive reflection on further developments of Soft Systems Methodology and on dialectical approaches to computer-based information systems in organizations. Keywords: computer-based information systems, Soft Systems Methodology, dialectics, contradiction.
273 * Published as: Soft Systems and Hard Contradictions - Approaching the Reality of Information Systems in Organizations. L. Mathiassen & P. A. Nielsen. In: Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, Vol. 16, 1989.
Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology, SSM (Checkland 1981) has in general proved powerful as a systemic approach to organizational change, cf. (Checkland 1985). Therefore, it is only natural to consider SSM as a more specific approach to computer-based information systems in organizations (Wilson 1982; Schäfer et al. 1986), Within information systems we are confronted with challenges on several levels. Our first and most deep concern is the use of information systems in organizations. On this level SSM can be used to analyze, design, and change overall strategies and specific applications. Secondly, we are concerned with the process of changing organizations through development of specific computer-based systems. Here SSM can be used to understand the situations involved and to improve our ability to design and manage systems development projects. Finally we are concerned with improving the environments in which systems development takes place. Particularly, we want to understand and develop the competencies, traditions and working practices involved in information systems development. At this third level SSM can be used to introduce new methods and to change the working practice and tradition within the development organization. Personally, we have become fascinated by the elegant way in which SSM combines in an elegant way insight into the nature of human activities and organizational learning with fundamental elements of systemic thinking. Earlier we have tried to enrich the area of computer-based information systems by using Schön's ideas on reflection in action (Schön 1983; Lanzara et al. 1985; Jepsen et al. 1989), and by using various dialectical approaches to social theory and action (Israel 1979; Mathiassen 1981, 1987; Mathiassen et al. 1988). From what we have learned through these studies, SSM looks as a constructive and attractive approach to some of the challenges within our field of interest. SSM shares several basic elements with dialectical approaches, but does not include the key element of dialectical analysis: explicit thinking in terms of contradictions. Experiences using SSM shows that it is useful to think in terms of soft systems to support organizational learning, but organizational actors face many hard contradictions in their daily activities, i.e. the contradiction between efficient use of resources and quality of outcome in systems development or the contradiction between established organizational forms
SOFT SYSTEMS AND HARD CONTRADICTIONS