Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.4.1 Using SSM for participatory catchment management in Thailand

Vignette 5


This example is of a systems practitioner employing SSM to devise a process for working with multiple stakeholders in a small river catchment, called Khlong Nam Thin, in Thailand. A catchment is the geographical area of a river and its tributaries which collects all the water that ultimately flows into the river (as with systems it is possible to use the concept of hierarchy to talk about sub-catchments and sub-sub-catchments). The practitioner was from an external agency concerned with preventing further land degradation and rural development, including poverty alleviation.

Two villages were located in the area. Until a logging concession established a road in the 1960s there had only been isolated households in the forest. Dryland farming (based on rain, not irrigation) subsequently developed based on crops such as maize, but over time the fields were abandoned because of loss of fertility. After its abandonment the land reverted to bamboo and perennial grasses. A range of institutions have a stake in the area such as the Forestry Department, an Agricultural Reform Department and many more. Local households tend to be extended family groups. Most families have members who work away from the area and send wages home. Thus household incomes are based on a diverse array of agricultural and non-agricultural sources.

From his description the systems practitioner certainly experienced it as a complex situation.

Initiating a process of inquiry

Who caused this ‘study’ to happen? It was initiated by the external agency concerned about land degradation and the systems practitioner jointly. This could be described as an externally motivated intervention into the affairs and issues of a particular community (defined geographically by the boundaries of a catchment). I would contrast this style of intervention with a process that was initiated internally by a member, or members, of the community and resulted in an invitation being issued to the practitioner.

The systems practitioner’s reflections

Initiating a process of inquiry is problematic in itself. SSM was used as a guiding process for an analysis of stakeholders’ perceptions of problems and to explore how collaborative management of a project might be developed. Time was needed for establishing the project via a chain of introductions between myself and various stakeholders. This period of introduction was crucial for developing relationships with patronage networks. At each step of my introduction, an institutional transaction took place, reinforcing the relationship between the introducer and introducee and my incorporation within a hierarchy of patronage.

The process of logic-driven inquiry of SSM was applied as follows:

  1. Determine key stakeholders and their responsibilities.
  2. Determine stakeholders’ perceptions of problems and opportunities.
  3. Derive key transformations from opportunities identified.
  4. Develop models of human activity systems for a range of worldviews.
  5. Use these models to support planning discussions between stakeholders.
  6. Monitor ongoing planning and implementation.

My colleague, Sue Holwell based on her own systems practice offers the following reflections:

I do not see that the six steps have the status of the logic driven inquiry as depicted in Figures 11 and 12. Are they intended as a particular ‘version’ of the 7 stages of the logic stream or are they activities of a ‘system to do the study? I see it as the latter. The difficulty for practice comes from the list of ‘activities’. They are not explicit enough about their focus e.g. is it a ‘process to do the R&D (for sustainable development)’ or ‘a process to identify R&D opportunities for sustainable development’ or ‘ a process to do sustainable development’ or ‘a process to manage ongoing development’? Steps 3 and 4 above also need to be linked surely?

I provide Sue’s comments to aid your thinking about your own simulation. There are no absolute rights and wrongs only better ways of doing things. For the time being I will stay with Attwater’s six points as if they constituted the logic driven inquiry.

Making sense of what was done using SSM

At this stage I am going to interrupt my presentation of Vignette 5 to ask you to complete two activities and an SAQ which will use SS-methodology to make sense of what was done. These should take up to 40 minutes. I have organised the activities in this way because I want to refer to the six activities in the logic driven inquiry listed above by Attwater.

Checkland (1999) has developed two models to act as guides in the development of activity models in SSM (Figures 15 and 16). Look at these figures and answer the activity and SAQ associated with them.

Figure 15 A logical procedure to follow when building activity models in SSM (Checkland, 1999, p. A26)
Figure 16 A partial activity model embodying the process of activity modelling in SSM that was described in Figure 15

In Figures 13 and 14:

  • T is transformation
  • I is input
  • 0 is output
  • E123 are the three Es, E1 efficacy, E2 efficiency, and E3 effectiveness;
  • PQR expresses ‘do P by Q in order to contribute to achieving R’; this is an alternative to CATWOE as a way of expressing a root definition which answers the question: What to do? (P), How to do it? (Q) and Why to do it? (R).

Activity 8 Modelling protocols in SSM

What do cloud shapes in activity models in Figure 15 suggest to you that squares and rectangles would not? Describe the sequence for reading activity models based on your understanding of the dependency sequence recommended in Figure 15.


Checkland answers these questions in the following way.

  1. He prefers hand drawn models using clouds to start with for psychological reasons. He feels that by doing this it is acknowledging the model’s role as a pragmatic device to aid learning about the real situation, rather than one that produces definitive, once and for all statements;
  2. For Checkland, the golden rule for ‘reading’ a model is always to start from the activities which are not dependent upon other activities but have others dependent upon them, i.e. those that have arrows from them but none to them. He suggests this is something which many people unconsciously straitjacketed in linear thinking find difficult.

SAQ 20 The partial activity model

Work through Figure 16 establishing that you understand its logic. When you have done this add an arrow to the model which would indicate to you a possible route to follow if the use of a model to question the perceived problem situation was proving unproductive.


Redraw the figure with an arrow going from 7 to 1.

The new arrow you have drawn is to make the point that if the model is not proving particularly helpful – i.e. not much new learning is occurring – than iterate back through the process which, in this activity sequence commences at 1.

Activity 9 Developing an activity model

Complete tasks 1 to 3.

  1. Imagine Attwater’s six points above are the main components of a soft systems-type activity model. Look at Figure 16 and follow its logic. Use the six points Attwater makes above as the raw material ‘X’ and follow the sequence to develop an activity model that incorporates 7±2 activities. You can also use the material in Appendix A to help you complete this and the next task. Note down any questions or insights that you have as you undertake this task.
  2. Suggest a root definition and CATWOE which could give rise to the activity model which you have just drawn.
  3. Select either activity 1 or 2 in the list you developed in task 1 and using the 7±2 rule again, develop a possible set of sub-systems for the activity you have chosen. Use the local authority context and stakeholders that you identified in Activity 39 to develop your answer. The sub-systems you identify will very much depend on your own perspective and the declared world-view that I hope you have built into your particular root definition.


Task 1

After completing the activity and the associated SAQ, the first thing I did was to identify the verbs in the six activities listed by Attwater. I have italicised these in the following list.

  1. Determine key stakeholders and their responsibilities.
  2. Determine stakeholders’ perceptions of problems and opportunities.
  3. Derive key transformations from opportunities identified.
  4. Develop models of human activity systems for a range of world views.
  5. Use these models to support planning discussions between stakeholders.
  6. Monitor ongoing planning and implementation.

This was not hard to do but as I did it I became aware of other verbs that were sometimes implied in each point. For example in the first activity, was it actually two activities (‘determine key stakeholders’ and then ‘determine key stakeholders’ responsibilities’) or just one? I wondered about how world views might be elicited, thus suggesting another activity which was ‘elicit a range of world views’. You may have found others as you worked through this process. I felt it was worth noting these insights and questions as I worked through it because I felt they might be helpful later.

I then asked myself what activities of the six could be done first – and then what logical dependencies followed? I did not find this process overly illuminating because these activities seemed to almost constitute a linear sequence (see Figure 15).

One of my colleagues reviewing my answer said:

I agree. I think it’s to do with the nature of the raw material (i.e. it’s not that raw so Attwater has partly done what you’re doing here already. I liked the process shown in Figure 13 because I thought it might be very helpful in working out where and how to start ... but this example is a bit disappointing for this.

Engaging with the material through the logic of Figure 15 did however make me aware that activity 2 was dependent on 1 but that 3 and 4 were iterative. Therefore it might be possible to start with either after activities 1 and 2 (for the moment I decided to leave activity 1 as a single activity). I also became aware of a jump or gap that I felt uncomfortable about in moving from activity 5 to activity 6. My concern seemed to be something about the lack of a comparison stage, typical of Mode 1 SSM, and also the question about ‘taking action’ based on the learning from the planning discussions using the activity models from 4. I also wondered about what accommodations between interest groups might have to be made before action could be taken and where this fitted in the activity sequence. What I learned from asking these questions was that I had perhaps lost sight of who the developer of this activity sequence was and thus his context and purpose (the world view of an outsider doing research).

Task 2

The questions and issues raised by engaging with the material according to the logic of Figure 16 led me to think of the activity sequence in terms of the activity model depicted in Figure 27.

Figure 17 An activity model derived from Attwater’s six original activities

I have listed two possible root definitions and CATWOE’s for the activity model I developed as Figure 17. The rationale for the two root definitions comes from the material I have available to me and my experience that activity of the type undertaken by Attwater is sensitive to initial starting conditions e.g. building trust through relationships.. In this case these were two root definitions that occurred to me at the same time and that I thought might be worth exploring.

My colleague comments:

I find the root definitions and the CATWOE’s pretty illuminating. It tells me a lot about how you are seeing the situation as well as raising some questions that might be taken further by defining the ‘E’s’ in the activity model ... though I don’t think there’d be enough data here to do that.

Tentative root definitions:

  1. A system designed by an outside researcher to initiate collaborative research and development (R&D) amongst multiple stakeholders managing sustainable development.
    • C stakeholders in the catchment (potential collaborative researches).
    • A Attwater, government officials, headmen, local residents, local residents living away from the catchment but remitting money.
    • T no collaborative R&D for managing sustainable development to collaborative R&D for managing sustainable development initiated.
    • W collaborative R&D amongst multiple stakeholders is needed for managing sustainable development.
    • O Attwater, possibly government officials and possibly Headmen.
    • E A history of poor collaboration amongst stakeholders in many sustainable development situations.
  2. A system designed by an outside researcher to initiate collaborative research and development amongst multiple stakeholders managing sustainable development and in which learning by the designer about the usefulness of the design is made explicit.
    • C Attwater, his University.
    • A Attwater, other researchers and systems thinkers, stakeholders in the catchment.
    • T A process design informed by SSM for managing sustainable development amongst multiple stakeholders in a particular context in which there has been no learning about usefulness to one where there has been learning about usefulness.
    • W It is feasible and ethically defensible to develop and learn from process designs in which the stakeholders have not been involved as major designers.
    • O Attwater.
    • E That process designs are under-researched and often not consider as a legitimate area for academic activity.

In my own working I have not, at this stage, iterated back from my root definitions and CATWOE’s to my activity model to examine the extent of their consistency or inconsistency. I am aware however that my inclusion of a monitoring and control system outside the boundary highlighted for me the question of where monitoring and control resided and who was involved in taking these actions? Having become aware of this issue I would see my activity model as being closer to root definition 1. This is because it sees the overall system as a system to do research in a particular way, and the monitoring and control is about the research, not about managing sustainable development which is inside the system boundary.

Figure 18 My second iteration attempt at an activity model based on Attwater’s six original activities

I expect that you will have answers and questions and insights that are very different than mine. What I have appreciated from the process of developing these answers is that by pursuing the logic of Mode 2 SSM practice I have asked a lot of relevant questions. These have clarified my thinking and have enabled me to learn a lot about the process that Attwater was engaged in despite the fact that I know very little about the specific area of Thailand and the content of the issues he was trying to deal with. I also discovered that it is possible to discover new insights by starting SSM in different places and either working forward or backwards.

My colleague comments:

Root definition 1 is sparse and I do not see activities connected to the verb ‘initiate’. Your list of Actors is not apparent from the root definition and who does the T (transformation)? Your conclusions about E are not apparent from the information available and further, what is the system you are building doing about the E? Here is how I would do it based on Attwater’s six points plus the background:

An outside researcher owned system to undertake collaborative R&D with multiple stakeholders that has been identified using activity models.

I have suggested this because it is not apparent to me that the activities ‘initiate collaborative research’ and ‘managing sustainable development are necessary from the original list and they suggest some additional activities.

The other root definition I would explore is:

A system to agree on collaborative R&D opportunities for sustainable development identified by the multiple stakeholders through a participative process informed by SSM activity models.

In your second root definition I experience some confusion between the verbs ‘initiating’ and ‘managing’. I suggest the T you identify is not the same thing as implied by the root definition.

You might like to take some of my colleagues root definitions and play with these and see if they help you make better sense of the material you have to hand. I think that my colleague’s comments indicate that it is important to pay particular attention to the relationship between the root definition and the CATWOE and to feel satisfied with the rigour of your use of language. Semantic precision is important in doing SSM.

As task 3 in this activity relates to the local government authority context and stakeholders that you chose in Activity 7 I have not attempted an answer here.

Vignette 5: The systems practitioner continues his reflection

Key stakeholders in the catchment were identified through discussions with village leaders and local government officials. An iterative interview strategy was used with village leaders building upon general information on local economic history, and economic organisation and activity. Semi-structured (open-ended) interviews were used by me to explore perceptions of problems and opportunities in relation to local livelihood, agriculture, water resources and the environment. The village leaders’ perceptions were supplemented by villager’s perceptions by using a household survey. With agency and commercial stakeholders, questions to them were framed in terms of problems of achieving their responsibilities in the catchment.

The systems practitioner does not say whether he used rich picturing as part of the interviewing process. I imagine that the interviews and surveys themselves constituted the ‘rich picturing’ phase of his SSM practice. A wide range of problem and opportunity themes emerged from the interviews and survey.

Problem/opportunity themes which emerged

Village leaders’ problems included sources of income and food to sustain families’ livelihoods. The low and variable returns from dryland farming and the lack of economic alternatives were major concerns. The lack of water was a major limiting factor and this was exacerbated by land degradation, including erosion which meant that the rainfall that they had was not used effectively because it ran-off rather than being retained in the soil. Other stakeholders identified a different range of problems. Opportunities identified by village leaders included the possibility of managing funds at a local level through, for example, co-operatives, small-scale projects to manage water better, including increasing the range of tree crops.

I have deliberately not listed all the themes here, because I do not consider it necessary for you to know about these. I am more interested in conveying to you the process that was followed.

Building activity (conceptual) models

The systems practitioner then used summary statements of opportunities to build activity models of the type referred to in Figure 14. These were not developed in isolation by him but in collaboration with stakeholders in four different forums, a village council, a combined council from the two villages, a public meeting, and a group of agency officials. The models incorporated key management systems, nested control and communication, contingent needs and outputs to fulfil the key transformations identified. Questions used to facilitate the development of these models included:

  1. What management is needed, and who would be responsible?
  2. What inputs, such as labour, information, funds are needed, and from whom?
  3. What outputs would these systems generate and for whom?

SAQ 21 Transformation – possible traps

Based on your reading and understanding about the transformation process used in SSM, suggest a possible trap that the systems practitioner may have fallen into by using the question above about inputs to help facilitate the development of activity models.


It is possible that the systems practitioner has conflated resources needed for the transformation to occur (e.g. labour) with the activity that is an expression of the transformation (an example of an appropriate transformation would be sources of labour unidentified transformed to sources of laboured identified).

Further reflections by Sue Holwell:

Did Attwater use PQR and CATWOE to create root definitions from which to build a model or were the summary statements unconnected to this important aspect of SSM? Did the three questions that were posed inform the iteration between Root definition and CATWOE that is an important source of learning in enacting SSM? This is important because use of CATWOE is more than ticking a box to say that all elements are present in a Root definition.

Comparison of models with ‘real-world’ situation

After discussion with village leaders it was decided that an appropriate way to proceed was to convene a catchment forum (something which had not existed before) in the most upland village (i.e. the upstream village). The village leaders invited agency representatives to attend. Two activities were undertaken prior to the forum to facilitate this phase of the process. Firstly, all the data that had been collected was analysed and distributed to all interviewees. Then, opportunities were created for agency personnel to visit the villages, tour the catchment, and to talk with villagers in an informal manner prior to the forum.

Actions taken

Village level implementation of collaborative activities has proceeded with all three of the agency and commercial stakeholders for whom models of human activity systems were developed. The school teachers at a village school have been involved in the establishment of a small integrated water supply scheme and associated water-users’ association and management committee. Demonstration plantings of a special grass to combat soil erosion and improve water management have occurred in collaborative schemes as has planting of short term coppice rotations of trees for timber (plywood). The management committee of the water-users’ association is seen as a key outcome in that it emerged from the process. It has established its own rules and defined responsibilities for monitoring water use by members. It has also instituted a simple user-pays system and local financial management of a revolving fund for maintenance and further developments in the interest of members.

Activity 10 Structuring thinking about desirable and feasible change

Checkland (1999) suggests that in general, thinking about desirable and feasible change can be structured according to the logic in the following diagram (Figure 19).

When you have considered Figure 19 see if it provides an adequate description of what happened in terms of the process of taking action in Section 11.1. Outline what elements seem present and what seem to be missing, or are not commented upon, in what was done or my description of it. You might like to consider what questions are raised by these missing elements or comments.

Figure 19 A conceptual diagram to show the process involved in thinking about desirable and feasible change (Checkland, 1999, p. A30)


I think it is fair to say that there are many gaps between Checkland’s model of what is involved in thinking about desirable and feasible change and my description of the Thai vignette. Since framing this activity I have had occasion to read the relevant section of the thesis by Attwater (1996) which was developed out of his work. What I gained from reading this was an appreciation that he was aware of many of the issues that Checkland raises but not in any systematic sense as depicted in Figure 23. My answer will therefore be more detailed than it is possible for yours to be. However, the extra background may be helpful in thinking about your own systems practice.

Attwater learnt Thai and lived for six months with one of the village headmen, so he devoted a lot of effort to immersing himself in the context and appreciating different local perspectives. In this process he developed trust and personal relationships. To do this he had to develop an appropriate language, such as using the metaphor of ‘catchment health’ to talk with the local Thai people about the issues professionals would normally label as ‘catchment management’. He recognised from the start that his role could only be catalytic, with the potential for implementation of collaborative management dependent on the local stakeholders – the people in the situation.

Attwater became aware of many of the structural, process and attitudinal changes that were required if a move towards sustainable catchment management (which was his proxy for ‘sustainable development’), the transformation in CATWOE, was to be achieved. [Please note that this is not the transformation depicted in my root definitions and models. As with many natural resource issues the time frame to judge whether such a transformation is possible is very long, and thus my focus was on the process of doing the research, not the potential outcomes of the research.]

By designing a process based on SSM he opened up a dialogue between local people and agency personnel that addressed structural issues (i.e. the lack of historical involvement of professionals with local people). Perhaps in this process attitudes changed simply because the issues were raised though he does not refer to this explicitly. An important cultural aspect that was embodied in his design was to move away from ‘debate’ (as described in Mode 1 SSM) to facilitating dialogue (in Thailand patron-client relationships are a fundamental and enduring social institution which strongly influences the form of communicative interaction between stakeholders. In this situation, debate, which means literally ‘to put down’ was not appropriate). Table 2 lists some of the features of dialogue-based communication compared to debate-based communication which has been generated from research experience in meetings between pastoralists and researchers in Australia (Kersten, 2000). In SSM the important aspect of this stage is to arrive at accommodations between different interests. This is an agreement to move forward and is not the same as consensus. Some of the considerations shown in Table 2 may assist in gaining some accommodations to issues that are of concern to different issues.

Table 4 Key distinctions between meetings based on debate and dialogue (Kersten, 2000)

DEBATE (factors restricting dialogue)DIALOGUE (factors enhancing dialogue)
Participants come to the meeting as leaders/representatives or members of a group Participants come to the meeting as individuals concerned with their own unique experience, uncertainty, and deeply held beliefs
Participants act as members of a group and articulate the group position Participants articulate their personal understanding at the meeting
Little time has been spent in building relationshipsTime has been spent on building relationships before and during the meeting
Participants have fixed general or stereotyped ideas about other participantsParticipants have no preconceived ideas about other participants at the meeting or they are prepared to set them aside

The atmosphere is threatening:

  • participants know each other before hand and are not prepared to set aside preconceived ideas about each other
  • participants defend or attack statements made by others
  • participants listen to re-establish preconceived ideas
  • participants listen in order to refute other ideas
  • participants do not respect meanings and understandings other than their own; they believe in one reality

The atmosphere is one of safety:

  • participants do not know each other beforehand and do not have preconceived ideas about each other, or are prepared to set them aside
  • participants are open to ideas and to asking for suggestions of other participants
  • participants listen actively to other participants with an open mind that is not blocked by preconceived ideas
  • participants listen to understand, and gain insight (learning) into the beliefs and concerns of others
  • participants respect other meanings and understandings. Multiple realities are acknowledged
Differences within the group are set aside or deniedDifferences between individual participants are revealed
Statements are predictable without new informationNew information surfaces
Success requires simple impassioned statementsSuccess requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed
Operates within the constraints of the dominant public discourseParticipants are encouraged to question the dominant public discourse

The catchment forum was the main enabling activity for planning desirable and feasible change (and also allowed the systems practitioner to withdraw from the facilitating role that he had been playing). Designing the catchment forum required a lot of work. It included:

  1. arranging informal visits to the catchment by external stakeholders (and building relationships in the process);
  2. sending official invitations to the Forum to external stakeholders accompanied by a document in Thai which presented the collected stakeholder perceptions of problems and opportunities, potential systems of interest and some models of human activity systems.

(It is worth noting that all of these interpretations in the final document were generated in an iterative process that involved checking out with stakeholders what had been written about their views. The process valued diversity and difference.)

The Forum was successful in that other stakeholders took responsibility and locally meaningful actions were taken. There was little attempt however to formalise the process by which judgements (and criteria) about success or otherwise would be determined. In this case, the addition of a monitoring and evaluation process was not well developed in the Thai context, although the systems practitioner has devoted considerable effort to monitoring and evaluating his own learning. In reflecting on his role and circumstances the systems practitioner made the following points:

  • a.SSM was a useful guide to undertaking the inquiry into stakeholder’s perceptions of problems and potential activity to improve the situation;
  • b.the application of SSM was not straightforward and required adaptation along the way (due to the relationships between him as a foreign researcher and the stakeholders as well as the relationships and protocols among the stakeholders). This is the usual situation with SSM practice;
  • c.the time available for involvement by the systems practitioner was fixed whilst all SSM-based inquiry is potentially on-going although it can be tailored to the circumstances – do it in 10 minutes or 10 years! I think it is fair to say that the nature of the engagement of the researcher and the cross-cultural issues limited the extent to which SSM as a process of inquiry could be ‘given away’ to the stakeholders in the situation.

Some reflections by the systems practitioner on his use of SSM

SSM can guide processes that build a dialogue. This is based on different stakeholders’ perceptions of problems and opportunities and identifies actions that promote sustainable development. In this case the engagement of a range of agency and commercial stakeholders in dialogue with villagers was crucial. The most successful activities that were undertaken as a result of using SSM were those for which mutual benefits could be derived. It is this process of a search for mutually beneficial improvements (accommodations) that is at the core of SSM.

The following activity is designed to draw together some of the questions that you may still have after engaging with the material on SSM and the application of SSM in the Thai example. I would suggest that you do not devote more than about 20 minutes to it.

Activity 11 Reflecting on use of SSM in Vignette 5

Jot down a list of questions that you would like to ask the systems practitioner in the Thai catchment example about his use of SSM. Use Figures 11 to 13 and the two readings as background.

When you have finished jotting down your questions organise them into categories or common themes. Then return to the figures and readings and see if they are able to provide answers to some of your questions.

I have not provided any answer to this activity but in the text that follows I have listed some of my own questions as well as some of those raised by my colleagues including the systems practitioner in the Thai situation. There is (and can be) no definitive answer and the diversity of questions raised reflect his and my own experience of the complexity of the situation. Remember that collectively all of us have different experiences and perspectives and for this reason the questions raised are likely to be different to your own.

In preparing material for this unit I invited Roger Attwater to comment on what I had written about his use of SSM in Thailand. His responses answered some of the questions I had as a result of reading his reports on what he had done. For example he said:

Rather than a pictorial ‘rich picture’ a rich description was developed over a number of months through living in the villages and talking to village leaders and villagers. All discussions were undertaken in Thai which strongly influenced my interpretation of a number of stages of SSM. The rich description was meant as one way to build [and improve] upon [methodologically] the systematic [research] approaches developed, such as for farming systems and traditional social sciences, and as a basis for developing systemic perspectives of opportunities held by stakeholders. The rich description included developing an understanding of biophysical resources, village organisation and local economic history, resource control and land tenure, economic organisation (e.g. enterprise and labour budgets), and household livelihood strategies.

Roger Attwater’s comments reflect a useful distinction between a rich picture as a diagram and as one (of many) means to gain a rich appreciation of a situation (from my perspective the word description has some limitations suggesting, perhaps that a situation is describable in objective terms – something I consider impossible). His comments also answered some of my questions about taking action (this relates to Figure 19 in Activity 10):

A summary of all perceptions and diagrams, in Thai, was put together as a background document for a catchment forum. Prior to the forum invitations for village visits by agency officials were facilitated. My role was more of initiating contact. As the inquiry progressed, and... relationships between village leaders and officials [developed], further contact was undertaken through local and more formal protocols. [Thus the] ownership of the process was transferred from myself to the village leaders and involved parties. At the catchment forum I was only part of the audience, who had assisted with drawing together background information and documenting different perspectives.

As SSM is a user-dependent methodology I continually had to flex and adapt given the social situation and [because I was] working in Thai rather than English.... I generally focused on responsibility, what was needed to manage [the transformations], and what would result.

(Attwater, 1999, pers. comm.)

Sue Holwell reflects:

So there is some tension between ‘the system to do the job’ and his ‘system to manage it’ – this clarifies some of the ambiguity in the original six point list.

Attwater also comments on the politics of intervention that Mode 2 use of SSM draws attention to:

The social arrangements for ‘intervening’ in situations continued after the initial introductions. I was not representing one agency, but came with patrons from the Department of Land Development, a regional NGO, and two Bangkok Universities.

Reflecting on this overall activity, Mike Haynes, a systems practitioner and critical reader of the unit (as well as the author of the second reading in this unit) expressed his concerns about:

... the cultural stream of analysis – intervention, political and social aspects of the problem situation – or Analysis 1, 2 and 3 in basic SSM. In order to progress to Mode 2 use it is absolutely essential that students not only understand the importance of these parts of the methodology but know how to go about doing it. This is one of the weakest parts of SSM and is not addressed in any depth in the course as far as I can recall (at least explicitly). A Mode 2 user must be highly attuned to the cultural elements if he/she is to successfully interact – and I regard it as one of the keys to making the ‘natural’ transition [to] Mode 2 use of SSM.

Mike Haynes, as an experienced user of SSM goes on to make the following point:

I am not... convinced that Mode 2 use can be taught (based on Figure 12). It is something that is acquired over time and as a result of much experience. My conclusion is that it would be better to present Mode 2 use as a goal that demonstrates the achievement of mature SSM practice and to concentrate teaching effort on getting students to apply and use basic Mode 1 rigorously, i.e.:

  • focusing on semantic precision;
  • construction of defendable models;
  • iterative development of the [CATWOE–root definition–model] loop [and] ensuring consistency between the three elements;
  • proper understanding and use of transformation;
  • use of SSM as an organised learning system; and
  • not modelling the real world (probably the most common mistake made by naive users).

In other words to develop a high level of skill and expertise in the use of the basic elements of the methodology – building analytical confidence and methodological excellence will provide the necessary building blocks for students to make [a] ‘natural’ transition to Mode 2 use.

It is worth keeping Haynes’ views in mind as you embark on the next activity. Mode 2 use of SSM is not better than using Mode 1 – they are different but interrelated. They are distinguished by awareness of the practitioner, and as Haynes points out, much of this awareness arises through experience. Both Mode 1 and Mode 2 use are dependent on an appreciation of the conceptual thinking that underpins SSM and adhering to the logic and rigour of this thinking. See how you get on with the following activity.

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