A Brief Discussion on Perspectives in Soft Systems or,

Why the Rail System is a Problem!

One of the Business Analysis techniques that we teach these days – the so-called Soft Systems approach – originates from the work of Peter Checkland. I don’t believe Checkland himself ever called it this but the name has stuck.

Checkland’s work involves recognising and describing the different views that individuals or groups may have about a business or business area. Any BA with experience will have suffered that moment on a project when you realise that you are struggling to cope with divergent requirements, or that the key stakeholders appear to hold conflicting views on the purpose of the business. I used to think that it was a failing on my part, that I had made a mistake somewhere in my analysis (and perhaps I had!) but the general case is that different stakeholders will hold different views. In the terminology employed these days they have different viewpoints, perspectives or world views (their view of the world they are working in).

Recognising that these different perspectives exist is key to developing good business solutions.

Of course, there are examples of businesses where all stakeholders would agree on its purpose – they share a common perspective. Oh that life were always that simple!

A perspective is a viewpoint. Inherent in it is a view of purpose. A purpose can be achieved by activities (or processes or functions, whatever your term for the work conducted in a business). So, one perspective would be supported by a particular set of business activities. Note that these are business activities. Checkland’s work and, I would suggest, the main activity of a BA, is firmly focused on the business, not on a computer system. That comes later.

One perspective relates to one set of activities. These activities would be those which, if implemented in whatever fashion, would achieve the purpose of the perspective. But we may have multiple perspectives, each of which would need its own set of activities to achieve its purpose. The likelihood is that these two sets will share in common a majority of their activities. The more perspectives, however, the more sets of activities. The more sets of activities the greater the difference in the set of required activities. The greater the difference in the required activities the quicker dark hair turns grey and falls out!

This is real life. To a greater or lesser extent all business systems developments will suffer from stakeholders holding differing views. In many cases they will be relatively minor and the BA will see pretty swiftly that a compromise approach can satisfy everyone, at least sufficient to the need. Checkland’s works talk of ‘accommodation’ whereby the stakeholders accept a single set of activities which might not do everything that they would wish, but enough that they can live with it.

What does this mean to the BA on a project? Well, firstly accept that there is unlikely to be a single view of what you are being asked to achieve. Secondly, recognise that these ‘soft’ situations mean that there is unlikely to be a nice, neat, single problem which you can define and then seek to remove. (That does not invalidate problem analysis but don’t imagine that it’s as simple as the texts may suggest.)

Ensure that you seek stakeholder views. Ask them to explain what they see the business to be about. Try to make sense yourself of the view that the stakeholder sees and of the context and constraints within which they are thinking. Use modelling techniques to document perspectives and to discuss them with sponsors and stakeholders.

All the time focus on the business. After all, you’re a business analyst. Leave thoughts of technology to a later day.

Accept that you will need to find an accommodation between vying perspectives – it’s rare that we can satisfy everyone and sometimes business systems seem to satisfy no-one.

I was reminded of this multiplicity of views by a radio interview with a government minister who was trying to wriggle out of an unfortunate earlier comment of his. He had appeared to suggest that ‘roads were good and rail was bad/expensive and the realm of richer people’. His justification for this strange conflation appeared to be that we have one of the most expensive rail systems in Europe and therefore only rich people could afford to travel on it. I expect I misheard him and I’m probably doing him a disservice, but no matter. It started me thinking about the purpose of the railway system.

The purpose of the railway system, from whose perspective? There are many stakeholders, from passengers (I refuse to speak of customers in this context), to the train operating companies, to train manufacturers, to government. Let’s play with perspectives and ask the purpose as seen, perhaps, by some of these stakeholders.

  • Some customers see the railway as a means of travel.
  • Some customers see it as a way of practising standing up while staring at the back of someone else’s head.
  • Train operating companies see it as a source of revenue and profit for their shareholders.
  • Train manufacturers see it as a cash cow, provided you are not based in this country. If you are then you have no view any more as you are no longer a stakeholder.
  • The staff of the train operating companies see it as a device for receiving abuse from customers when the service fails.
  • Government sees it as a failed example of privatisation, but will not admit to it.
  • Some extremely unkind people think of it as a way of transferring public money to private pockets via an amazing system of subsidy payments which do nothing visible to improve the service but keep senior employees of certain companies very happy.
  • Some customers see it as a source of employment for incompetent contract drafters (if such a role exists) who have managed to create a privately-owned and privately-run service that can renege on contracts without penalty and manage to receive public subsidies to bolster the profit of the train operating companies.

I would stress that these viewpoints are made up for the purpose of this note and are my own assessments. Any relationship to reality is just good luck and a result of innate cynicism!

An exercise such as this shows the diversity that can exist. Of course I have been deliberately tongue in cheek but let me propose an interesting exercise. Ask what activities would need to be in place for some of these perspectives. Then compare these with the activities that are actually conducted today. I wonder how close they would be.

This is exactly what you might do in a real project. The business is going wrong somehow; you identify some perspectives, even some seemingly cynical ones; you model required activities and compare with actual activities; you find a match. That might be the answer you need – it’s going wrong because the activities are consistent with the ‘wrong’ purpose!

All this perspective stuff is really quite powerful. It can sometimes appear esoteric but once you have grasped its core simplicity it provides an invaluable tool for analysis. But it does require practice.

Remember, stakeholders will have varying perspectives. It is the BA’s job to find an accommodation which will be acceptable to all. And be thankful you are not the Transport Minister – not only would you have the problem of the railway but you would also have people making fun of your difficulties!

And finally ...

Of course you can learn more about perspectives in our Business Analysis Practice course.

You will also gain from reading the book shown. This contains one of the easier descriptions of root definitions and perspectives with some interesting examples and asides from the original author. Definitely worth a read.