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October 22, 2010

Review of “Learning for Action” by Peter Checkland (SSM)

“Learning for Action” does exactly what it says on the tin. It clearly and straightforwardly meets the claim of its subtitle – “A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students”. 

In the book the authors define SSM as “an action orientated process of inquiry into problematical situations in the everyday world; users learn their way from finding out about the situation to defining/ taking action to improve it. … ” 

The book describes how SSM should be used, and gives case-study examples of it in action. Two key learning points, that I hadn’t appreciated before, emerge for me: 

Firstly SSM does not seek to map actual physical systems or entities (such as an organisation); rather it is an intellectual device to aid understanding of problematic situations. These situations may be task based (i.e. specific problems) or issue based (more philosophical questions). 

Secondly, SSM specifically addresses the fact that different people involved in any given problematic situation have different viewpoints (called worldviews). SSM seeks to encompass these worldviews in order to achieve understanding between the participants (note that the authors think that “consensus” between worldviews is only rarely achieved). 

This second point on actively addressing different worldviews is not well illustrated in the book’s case-studies. In fact I found the whole case-study section weak. The book does a great job of describing the SSM model and how it should best be used, but then presents case-studies which only seem to use limited elements of SSM. 

As a practitioner, I find the terminology of SSM unhelpful (analysis one, two three; PQR; E,E,E; and so on). The authors appear keen not to ascribe meaning to their descriptors which (academically at least) makes sense, but doesn’t help explain the process to a group of people who’ve never used it before. Inevitably you will have to ascribe some sort of meaning to the steps, and the book doesn’t really give much guidance on how to do this. “PQR” for example is a simplified process description or map. 

Overall this is an excellent book. SSM should be a core part of any organisational development practitioner’s toolkit, and this book is the best guide available on what it is, and how to use it effectively.