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Systems explained by Peter Checkland

Updated Wednesday 18th May 2005

Peter Checkland recalls how a shortage of management education led him to develop his theories.

Systems Thinking has been described as multi-disciplinary and is associated with a well established academic and practitioner community. It arose out of necessity. As society has become increasingly connected and the interactions between peoples have increased, traditional ways of operating have no longer sufficed. Through no clearly discernible reasons, projects overran budgets, communications systems between people broke down, and it became increasingly obvious that the human factor was playing a large role in these problems. Many of the early systems thinking methodologies did not model people as part of the equation - they were what is now described as systematic rather than systemic.

One of the first people to recognise this was Peter Checkland, who subsequently became known as the creator of "soft systems methodology", a once radical approach to management problem solving which is now used and taught world-wide. Checkland, originally from Birmingham, studied chemistry at Oxford in the 1950's and worked as a technologist and then a manager for ICI fibres. But when he made the move from research to management he found that little existed in the way of training and preparation for his new role.

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Copyright The Open University

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When I became a manager I found it mysterious, that transition. I thought, "I need to know how to do this job." Management education was in a very rudimentary state at that time. ICI would send you on a 3 day course on discounted cash flow modelling and odd things like that but that was all. You learnt to be a manager by making mistakes, watching other people and following them and so on.

Managing Projects

I thought that the problem of managing a project which by definition would normally be a purposeful action which will cut across organisational boundaries was a very interesting problem both of a human and an intellectual kind. And what I sought was the opportunity to reflect and garner the lessons from real world experiences. And a post graduate department of systems engineering at Lancaster beckoned and seemed to offer an opportunity to do that.

Checkland became aware of systems thinking and systems analysis through his project management work at ICI. When he made the move to Lancaster University, he set up an action research project to work outside the university tackling business problems. But one of these projects was bigger than he had anticipated.

How progress was made

We made progress by making mistakes and finding that the systems engineering thinking that we were armed with intellectually was not rich enough to cope with the problematical situations that we were trying to deal with. And an early dramatic example for me was when we were invited by David Farrow who was a director of the British Aircraft Corporation which was the British part of the Anglo-French concorde project to go into that project and see what good advice we could offer from a systems engineering viewpoint.

Everyone knew at the time that this project was years late and was costing millions more of taxpayers money than anticipated, so it was a very problematical situation and thinking like systems engineers, we asked, systems engineering questions: What is the System of Concern? The Concorde Project. What are its objectives?

Passenger jet scenario

To make the world's first supersonic passenger carrying jet aircraft within a certain time, at a certain cost, to meet a given technical specification and under various constraints such as that it mustn't unacceptably pollute the environment and it must get the airworthiness certificate, otherwise the public won't be allowed to fly in it. But of course we then quickly discovered the significance of the fact that this was the "Anglo-French" concorde project. You had to take it as a political and a legal and an economic project as well as a technical engineering project. And that was the kind of experience that led me to think there is something "not rich enough" in the thinking of systems engineering as we tried to apply that approach to human management situations. And that initiated the rethink.

 

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