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Systems engineering: Challenging complexity
Systems engineering: Challenging complexity

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3.7 Systems methodologies for managing change

The use of systems concepts and models forms part of a process of investigation that is often described in the literature of systems, design and decision-making as a ‘methodology’, where a methodology is a process of enquiry, not a method to produce a predetermined result.

A systems methodology has the following characteristics.

  • It is, or it provides, the means for the investigator to draw up a plan for studying a situation. This encourages important avenues to be explored and considered.

  • It is not a simple checklist of actions that will lead to the ‘right’ answer; instead, it poses open-ended questions that can be answered in a variety of ways.

  • It is generally iterative; stages may well be passed through several times before the investigation is complete.

  • It enables a statement to be made of the objectives of the study and allows these objectives to be reviewed and modified.

  • It provides guidelines for tackling problems, based on proven experience with similar types of problem.

  • It provides team members and others with a common language for discussing the project.

  • It is a framework for setting objectives, timescales and cost targets for the project.

  • It makes it easier to manage project progress, identify problem areas and put things right.

Systems methodologies developed from operational research work during the Second World War and from subsequent work on technical and social problems by the RAND Corporation and others in the United States. Since then, systems engineering methodology has developed. Today there are two main generic variants:

  • the hard systems approach – used when problems and opportunities can be clearly defined

  • the soft systems approach – used when there is little or no agreement about the problem.

The development of systems engineering methodologies will be discussed in detail in the next section but I will outline briefly the two major generic variants here.