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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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5 Peter Checkland (b.1930)

Systems thinking is 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 approaches did not model people as part of the equation – they were what has been described in this course as systematic rather than systemic.

One of the first people to recognise this was Peter Checkland [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , 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 and which he most notably wrote about in two versions of his book on Systems Thinking, Systems Thinking, Systems Practice (1981 and 1993) Soft Systems Methodology: A 30 Year Retrospective (1999). Checkland, originally from Birmingham, studied chemistry at Oxford in the 1950s 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.

Activity 5 Soft systems methodology

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes for this activity.
  1. Spend a few moments referring back to Figure 1 and, using the free response box below, make brief notes on how Ray Ison has located soft systems methodology in the various systems traditions.
  2. Listen to this 15-minute recording of Checkland’s thoughts on this change of role and make notes in your journal on key points and systems concepts that I have already covered in this course. Read the transcript of the recording as well and record any points you find yourself disagreeing with or that accord with your own experience.
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The work of Peter Checkland is influenced not only by his personal experiences but also by second-order cybernetics which itself was influenced by first-order cybernetics and some other subject disciplines. Because of this it falls very much into seeing systems as epistemologies.