Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Book review: Learning for Action (SSM)

I’ve just finished reading Learning for Action by Peter Checkland and John Poulter (2006).  The book is an introduction to Soft Systems Methodology, or SSM for short.  Now I’ve read the book I have an understanding of what SSM is, how it might be used and why it would be useful.  I’m not about to run out and do any SSM but I now know when I might find it useful.

The book is well written and short – always a positive feature, although a little on the expensive side.  It is intended more for students than the casual readers but this doesn’t get in the way.  I think I made the right choice by starting with this SSM book rather than any other.

So, why did I read it?  Two reasons really.  First I’ve been talking about “Systems thinking” with some people and was wondering “How do you do it?” so I wanted to know more.  SSM is itself a form of systems thinking.  Second, I’d come across references to SSM on several occasions in the past and always meant to go back and read up on it so this was my chance.

Normally I run a mile from anything that claims to be a Big-M Methodology but on this occasion I’m quite impressed.  I think this is because SSM is very self-aware and the authors know the dangers of Methodology.  The roots of SSM are in Systems Engineering and related fields like Operational Research, the authors respect these fields but it was through recognising the limits on these techniques that SSM came to be.

So, despite my fear of Methodology I think this methodology looks useful in helping people step outside their normal environment and consider that environment from outside.  As such SSM facilitates and triggers learning – hence the title of the book.  It turns out that SSM is also a form of Action Research which is also from where Appreciative Inquiry began.  Once you know this several things fall into place, for example, SSM does not addresses “problems” but “problematic situations.”

Having read this I hope to have the opportunity to get involved with an SSM exercise in the not too distant future.