Linking Research and Teaching: An Applied Soft Systems Methodology Case Study

Linking Research and Teaching: An Applied Soft Systems Methodology Case Study

Lynda Holland (University of Wolverhampton, Stafford, UK) and Joy Garfield (University of Worcester, Worcester, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/IJITSA.2016070102


This paper links research and teaching through an applied Soft Systems Methodology case study. The case study focuses on the redevelopment of a Research and Professional Skills module to provide support for international postgraduate students through the use of formative feedback with the aim of increasing academic research skills and confidence. The stages of the Soft Systems Methodology were used as a structure for the redevelopment of module content and assessment. It proved to be a valuable tool for identifying complex issues, a basis for discussion and debate from which an enhanced understanding was gained and a successful solution implemented together with a case study that could be utilised for teaching Soft Systems Methodology concepts. Changes to the module were very successful and resulted in significantly higher grades and a higher pass rate.
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Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), developed by Peter Checkland (1981) to provide a method for dealing with complex real-world problems in organisational, management and policy contexts, takes the premise that organisations are open systems that interact with their environment. Furthermore it recognises that problem situations are unstructured or soft in nature and involve people that have differing viewpoints about the problem’s origins and nature, ways to address it and goals to be achieved. In essence it provides a way of thinking of and reflecting on the problem situation. Through use of the approach clarification and an enhanced understanding of the problem situation can be achieved throughout the development process. The methodology involves a number of activities: finding out about a problem situation; formulating relevant purposeful activity models; using the models to debate the situation; ascertaining desirable and feasible changes that would improve the situation; accommodating conflicting interests; and taking action to bring about improvement (Checkland, 1999). In other words, it enables a better understanding of the problem and ideas for improvement through a comparison of the world as it is and the world as it might be. In contrast, hard approaches formulate a best possible solution to address the circumstances of the problem situation. A hard systems approach would be difficult to implement within an ill-defined problem situation where stakeholders are unsure of the finer details of the current working system (Checkland and Poulter, 2007).

SSM has successfully been applied to various contexts (e.g. Biggam, 2002; Warwick, 2008) over a number of years. This research is essentially an action research case study aimed at improving educational delivery on an Information Systems (IS) and Information Technology (IT) postgraduate module which covers research methods and aims to prepare students for writing their masters level dissertation and for working as an IS /IT professional by encouraging the development of holistic skills including data collection, critical analysis, reflective thinking and presenting structured arguments. Such skills are essential for professionals working within IS /IT if they are to contribute actively to the development of the profession and their own career. SSM is taught on IS /IT degrees and extensively used within the profession for solving complex issues that are difficult to define. Improving student performance presented the staff with a complex issue that involved a diverse range of stakeholders all with very different expectations. The University wanted a module that achieved its learning outcomes; staff wanted to deliver learning material that students would enjoy and understand, while students failed to appreciate how the skills the module taught fitted into IS work so they were reluctant to attend or participate. SSM therefore presented the ideal tool not only to help the staff identify and progress problem solving, but also to involve the students in research that used a valid IS method to solve a ‘soft’ work related issue and show the role of SSM applied in a real life situation.

The original seven stages of SSM, not SSM Mode 2 (Checkland & Scholes, 1990) (based on the activities above and shown in Figure 1), are used as a structure for the research which is essentially a descriptive case study that collected information from one institution, a post 1992 University with an unrivalled widening participation policy (Layer, 2012, p.3).

Figure 1.

Soft Systems Methodology stages (Adapted from Checkland, 1999)

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