ThesisPDF Available

Leading Public Housing Organisation in a Problematic Situation: a critical soft systems methodology approach

Leading Public Housing
Organisation in a
Problematic Situation
A Critical Soft Systems Methodology Approach
JÜRGEN STAADT - Leading Public Housing Organisation in a Problematic Situation
ERIM PhD Series
Research in Management
Erasmus Research Institute of Management -
Design & layout: B&T Ontwerp en advies ( Print: Haveka (
Our modern world has brought about many problems such as climate change which
require governments and their public organisations to be adaptive and open to learning.
This concerns, for instance, the sustainable (re)development of residential areas due to
their widespread impact on the living conditions of future generations. Understanding the
reasons why a public organisation fails to cope with these challenges can provide the basis
for adaptations to be made in the public sector. In this regard, the kind of investigation
into an organisation is crucial and should incorporate approaches which equally consider
aspects such as complexity, dynamics as well as behaviour.
This dissertation, which is based on a critical soft systems methodology (SSM) inter -
vention, deals with this issue by thoroughly investigating the problematic situation of a
leading public housing provider. The results reveal the usability of the logic-based stream
of SSM in the modelling process but also highlight the weakness regarding its stream of
cultural analysis. The power-laden environment within the organisation required the adop
tion of a multi-methodology approach in the fourth research phase which further resulted
in a purposeful activity model for strategic redesign. This suggests that SSM should leave
its mere interpretive stance for a more flexible approach.
With regard to the organisation, its culture is shaped by a socio-political system that
suffocates learning, aborts sense-making processes and represses efforts to cope with the
situation. The constant development of the hierarchical structure lifts the most powerful
person and his group of internal advisors onto an almost incontestable position for other
organisational members as well as citizens. This disrupts possible efforts to further
democratise the organisation which questions authoritarian approaches especially in the
context of pressing societal problems.
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B&T14056 omslag Staadt
Leading Public Housing Organisation
in a Problematic Situation
A Critical Soft Systems Methodology Approach
Leading Public Housing Organisation
in a Problematic Situation
A Critical Soft Systems Methodology Approach
Toonaangevende organisatie voor volkshuisvesting in een problematische situatie
Een kritische benadering op basis van soft systems methodology
to obtain the degree of Doctor from the
Erasmus University Rotterdam
by command of the
rector magnificus
Prof.dr. H.A.P. Pols
and in accordance with the decision of the Doctorate Board.
The public defense shall be held on
Thursday 20 March 2014 at 13:30 hours
Jürgen Ludwig Staadt
born in Ayl, Germany
 
 Prof.dr.B.McSweeney
 Prof.dr.L.C.P.M.Meijs
 Prof.dr.J.R.Turner
    
The elaboration of this dissertation was a long-term undertaking which entailed many
challenges. I would like to express my gratitude to the people who supported me
throughout the process.
First and foremost, I would like to deeply thank my supervisor Slawomir Magala who
accepted my research project and provided me with the academic freedom to develop
into a reflexive and critical researcher. The transition to Erasmus University would not
have been possible without Rodney Turner, the director of the PhD programme of the
Skema Business School in Lille, France, where I initially started my doctoral journey. He
was involved in much of the research and initiated the contact to Slawomir due to his
former activity as professor for project management at the Erasmus University. My
thanks go to Rodney and equally to the other members of the doctoral committee,
particularly to Gerhard Fink for his invaluable recommendations.
My initial intention was to provide the organisation with new management capabilities
since first participant observation had revealed deficiencies, especially with regard to the
management of projects. This initiative to support the organisational development by
means of an academic study was gladly accepted by the board of the organisation. I
would like to thank all the members of the board for giving me this opportunity and for
allowing me to use the organisation in a case study. However, further advancement in the
process revealed that the management problems perceived at the beginning were only a
symptom of the true problems which were predominantly located in power relations that
had developed over more than a decade into an oppressive social environment. It is
hoped that the results of this thesis will encourage the board as well as the government
to eventually develop an organisational design that corresponds to the challenges of the
21st century.
Important insights into organisational as well as sense-making processes would not have
been possible without the commitment and support of the people working for the
organisation. Consequently, I would like to deeply thank my colleagues as well as the
members of the select board for their invaluable contributions to the study.
Unfortunately, due to ethical reasons, I cannot mention their names as co-researchers.
Furthermore, I would like to thank the members of the different ministries who
participated in the fourth research phase. The results of this final phase demonstrate that
other methods and methodologies can be used in a soft systems methodology
intervention eventually bringing about purposeful activity models.
Not to be underestimated in this long-term undertaking is the support as well as help
from close friends and family. I would like to particularly thank my wife Bärbel and my
daughter Hanna for their love, encouragement and permanent support which gave me
the energy to eventually finish this ambitious project. Furthermore, I would like to thank
my friend Dianne Gove, a psychologist, who just recently finished her PhD in dementia
studies. She supported me with many fruitful discussions and provided me with more
insight into the human domain. Finally, I would like to mention that this thesis is
dedicated to my parents, my father, Ludwig, who died much too early, and my mother,
Agnes. Their caring as well as education provided me with the ability and the necessary
skills to realise my academic plans.
Jürgen Staadt
Rotterdam, January 2014
Preface i
List of Illustrations v
Chapter One – Introduction ........................................................................ 1
1.1 Impact and importance of the housing domain .................................................... 1
1.2 Research problem and questions .......................................................................... 5
1.3 The project oriented organisation under investigation ........................................ 8
1.4 Organisation of the thesis ................................................................................... 12
Chapter Two – Literature Review .............................................................. 15
2.1 Problems, paradigms and systems thinking ........................................................ 15
2.2 Soft systems methodology: Activating the learning cycle .................................. 25
2.3 Organisations as complex systems ...................................................................... 35
2.4 Importance of learning in systems thinking and management .......................... 43
2.5 Theory of complex responsive processes of human relating .............................. 47
2.6 Conclusion ........................................................................................................... 52
Chapter Three - Methodology ................................................................... 53
3.1 Introduction to the research story, ..................................................................... 53
3.2 Participant observation starts the intervention - first phase .............................. 56
3.3 Developments in the interview session - second phase ..................................... 62
3.4 Documents provide background information – second phase ........................... 73
3.5 Group work and interviews complete data collection – third phase .................. 80
3.6 Importance of further participant observation – fourth phase .......................... 89
3.7 Relevant systems for improvement and learning ............................................... 94
Chapter Four – Data Analysis ................................................................... 103
4.1 Introduction to data analysis ............................................................................. 103
4.2 Management issues dominate – first phase ..................................................... 105
4.3 Interview session – second phase ..................................................................... 112
4.4 Group work session – third phase ..................................................................... 131
4.5 Further evolution of the organisation – fourth phase ...................................... 141
4.6 Actors in the problematic situation ................................................................... 145
Chapter Five – Discussion / Conclusion .................................................... 151
5.1 Discussion of the findings .................................................................................. 151
5.2 Summary of the findings ................................................................................... 154
5.3 Limitations and further research ....................................................................... 160
5.4 Conclusion ......................................................................................................... 162
Reference List .......................................................................................... 165
Appendix A: Notes taken between 2007 and 2012 .................................. 179
Appendix B: Data collected in the interview session ................................ 182
Appendix C: Data retrieved from documents ........................................... 183
Appendix D: Data collected in the group work session ............................ 185
Appendix E: Interview protocol ............................................................... 186
Appendix F: Example of a transcript ........................................................ 187
About the Author .................................................................................... 193
List of Illustrations
Figure 1: Development of new units and personnel within the last three decades ......................... 6
Figure 2: Organisational chart of the public entity ........................................................................... 8
Figure 3: Suggested sequence of subchapters of the thesis ........................................................... 12
Figure 4: Symbolic model of purposeful activity ............................................................................. 23
Figure 5: Four main activities of soft systems methodology .......................................................... 26
Figure 6: The LUMAS model as an action thinking approach.......................................................... 27
Figure 7: Primary model concepts of soft systems methodology ................................................... 32
Figure 8: Cultural and logic-based analysis of soft systems methodology...................................... 37
Figure 9: Configuration model of organisational culture ................................................................ 39
Figure 10: Model of organisation life cycles ................................................................................... 42
Figure 11: The connection between SSM and the research methods adopted .............................. 54
Figure 12: Rich picture of the organisation: structural complexity ................................................. 60
Figure 13: Primary task systems to satisfy the need for affordable housing .................................. 68
Figure 14: The three different levels of the primary task systems (holarchy) ................................ 70
Figure 15: The life cycle perspective - strategic facility management ............................................ 72
Figure 16: The strategic, the operational and the human domain (manual analysis) .................... 84
Figure 17: Issue-based relevant systems about communicative interaction .................................. 87
Figure 18: Excerpt of the computer map elaborated with ‘Decision Explorer’ ............................... 93
Figure 19: Concept of a system for constant improvement and collaborative learning ................ 96
Figure 20: Relevant systems for constant improvement and collaborative learning ..................... 97
Figure 21: Network view of the first research phase .................................................................... 111
Figure 22: Network view of the second research phase ............................................................... 125
Figure 23: The socio-political system and its power related connections .................................... 127
Figure 24: Relevant systems for strategic redesign of the public organisation ............................ 143
Table 1: Main systemic methods/methodologies embedded in three paradigms ......................... 18
Table 2: Open, axial and selective coding according to Corbin and Strauss (2008) ........................ 56
Table 3: Contents of the first relevant 20 notes: resulting codes used in Atlas.ti .......................... 58
Table 4: Contents of relevant notes 21 - 35: resulting codes used in Atlas.ti ................................. 59
Table 5: Gender, age and years of service: n = 20 interview partners ............................................ 63
Table 6: Employees’ meeting and distribution of personnel in 1997 and 2007 ............................. 64
Table 7: Primary task systems of the organisation (T-process)....................................................... 67
Table 8: Components of the case study database .......................................................................... 74
Table 9: Gender, age and years of service: N = 13 group work partners ........................................ 80
Table 10: Issue-based relevant systems – communicative interaction (T-process) ........................ 86
Table 11: Constant improvement and collaborative learning (T-process) ...................................... 95
Table 12: Attribution of documents to the different analytical methods ..................................... 104
Table 13: Composition of categories and codes (N = 55) .............................................................. 105
Table 14: Categories identified in the first 35 notes (N = 3,826 coded quotes) ........................... 106
Table 15: Further categories identified in the first 35 notes (N = 3,826 coded quotes) ............... 106
Table 16: Codes co-occurrence table of the first 35 notes – first phase....................................... 107
Table 17: Categories identified in 20 interviews (N = 3,826 coded quotes) ................................. 112
Table 18: Further categories identified in 20 interviews (N = 3,826 coded quotes) ..................... 113
Table 19: Codes co-occurrence table of the interview session – second phase ........................... 114
Table 20: Codes co-occurrence table – people of the inner circle (N = 4 interviews) .................. 128
Table 21: Categories identified in 5 group work sessions and two interviews ............................. 131
Table 22: Categories identified in the four research phases (N = 3,826 coded quotes) ............... 132
Table 23: Comparison of the primary task systems with the situation ........................................ 134
Table 24: Comparison of the issue-based relevant systems with the situation ........................... 138
Table 25: Strategic redesign of the public organisation (T-process) ............................................. 142
Chapter One – Introduction
1.1 Impact and importance of the housing domain
One of the important issues for mankind is to have an acceptable dwelling that provides
shelter against the weather and a secure place to live. Modern societies and their efforts
with regard to housing go beyond these fundamental needs since we are now living in a
more complex world which has brought about many problems such as climate change
(Whiteman et al., 2013). New housing development projects try to cope with the
principles of sustainable development which aims at ensuring that the future generations
can enjoy the same conditions as their predecessors1. The housing sector plays an
important role in the reduction of our carbon dioxide emissions e.g. due to fossil fuel
consumption for heating and the location of dwellings since their distance to the
workplace and local amenities has a vital impact on the use of private cars or public
transport. There is thus a need for technical innovation as well as fresh thinking in terms
of urban and regional development which incorporates existing buildings. Governments
all around the world have an important role to play in making appropriate political
decisions and with regard to their operational public and semi-public entities which can
act as pioneers within their specific sectors. Public organisations thus play a vital role in
providing aid to government and in developing as well as realising societal projects.
The prime minister of the country in which this study was undertaken publicly declared in
2005 to have failed in providing all citizens with affordable dwellings (Appendix C: D.30,
D.40)2. This is astonishing since the leading public housing organisation, responsible for
the delivery of affordable housing, has been active in this domain since its inauguration in
1979. The chairman, a high civil servant, who has been the head of the organisation for
more than 20 years, acts at the same time as first governmental advisor to the housing
minister and thus has a considerable influence on housing policy. With regard to the
political system of this small country within the European Union, since the end of World
War II, the Christian Socialist Party has almost always been the governing party. Their
figurehead has been ruling the country as prime minister for 18 years. Furthermore, the
ministry of housing has, over the last few decades, been solely led by ministers of this
party to which the chairman also belongs. Given these circumstances, the question arises
as to why the constantly growing public organisation has not been able to adapt to the
changed environment. Continuous economic prosperity in the wealthy country has
1 The Living Planet Report 2012 from WWF warns us that the Earth’s natural capital is limited and reminds us that the
choices we make are highly interdependent (see:
2 Appendices A to D provide an ov erview presentation of the data collected within the study. The different data sources
are abbreviated as follows: N. = Note; I. = Interview; D. = Document; G. = Group work.
Chapter One - Introduction 1
triggered a remarkable growth in population which, due to the constantly rising price of
lots and properties, has more and more pushed aside the vulnerable groups within society
such as older people, young families and people on a low income. Since the thorough
investigation into the organisation raises many ethical issues, neither the country nor the
organisation is named. Furthermore, in order to protect the anonymity of the people who
participated in the research project, pseudonyms have been used instead of people’s real
names (Van der Waal, 2009).
Although the country was slightly affected by the financial crisis in 2008, it is experiencing
an ever-growing population. Official statistics from 2009 indicate a 12% population
growth rate between 2001 and 2009, thus representing a continuous evolution. This has
had an impact on many different areas such as the housing sector and calls for necessary
adaptations so as to respond to the growing need for affordable housing in accordance
with the challenges described above (Tainter, 1988). Interestingly, the programme of the
new government in the country, formed in July 2009, took this into account and formed a
ministry which is concerned with sustainable development and infrastructure. The focus
of this ministry is on regional planning, the environment and public construction as well as
transport. That the importance of housing in this contemporary construct is well
understood by the government is demonstrated by the fact that the housing minister is a
delegate of the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Infrastructure. However, this
legal basis constitutes just a first step and does not automatically result in new methods
and methodologies to adequately address tame, messy as well as wicked problems
(Hancock, 2010). The necessity to deliver affordable housing inherently confronts
planners with wicked problems such as the insertion of new housing within the urban and
regional context or the constantly rising price for lots and properties. In contrast to
mechanical engineering, where many trial and error runs can yield an unsuccessful
performance prior to implementation, the construction of new habitats is irreversible
which has, apart from financial implications, long-term consequences for future
generations (Rittel and Webber, 1973). With regard to sustainability, Magala (2012)
points out that climate change foreshadows the more important threats to human
societies such as the growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, environmental degradation or
social injustice.
1.1.1 Public housing system and management
The public housing system in the country is composed of three leading housing providers
which act as public developers. The most important one is an autonomous public body
which is supervised by a member of the housing ministry. The second provider is a joint-
stock company whose shareholders are the state, some municipalities and some public
institutions. The third actor is represented by the municipalities of the main towns and
cities. The organisation which is used in this single case study is the first one i.e. the one
which is under the tutelage of the housing minister and thus plays an important role in
the future development of the country with regard to housing as well as its inherent
areas. The organisation has different tasks such as the construction of affordable housing,
the acquisition and development of sites or the renovation of housing which indicates a
close connection to project management3. As we heard before, the public housing system
is not merely composed of the housing ministry since there is also the new ministry
concerned with sustainable development. This requires that the external influence is also
taken into consideration since the tasks as well the legitimisation of the organisation
affect the internal environment (Dauber et al., 2012; Ackoff, 1973; Maturana and Varela,
1980). Furthermore, this suggests the need to adopt a systems approach where the
different parts can produce more than just the sum of those parts (Seddon and Caulkin,
2007). This refers to the fundamental systems idea of emergent properties which have no
meaning in terms of their parts such as a bicycle which once assembled enables someone
to cycle from A to B (Chapman, 2004). The organisation anticipated for the case study is
one of the parts or rather a subsystem of the public housing system. However, it can also
be regarded as a system with further internal subsystems.
“A system is more than the sum of its parts; it is an indivisible whole. It loses its essential properties
when it is taken apart. The elements of a system may themselves be systems, and every system may
be a part of a larger system” (Ackoff, 1973, p. 664).
The challenges within the housing system described above are enormous and concern a
wide variety of highly complex projects which require a management that goes beyond
mere construction project management. The construction industry is one of the industries
where projects have long become recognised as a valid way of working (Turner and
Simister, 2000; Dinsmore and Cooke-Davies, 2006). Nevertheless, the task or rather
challenge described above necessitates going beyond the scope of traditional project
management since it concerns a multitude of projects, disciplines and stakeholders. The
organisation under investigation needs up to date management in order to prepare,
develop and realise single, multiple as well as far reaching projects such as urban or
regional developments. This incorporates, for example, project portfolio management as
well as stakeholder management since these projects involve a multitude of people with
many different and constantly changing world views. These complexities with regard to
the housing system and the tasks of the organisation call for a more holistic view such as
systems thinking. Nevertheless, these important tasks are contrasted by a situation within
the organisation which is, due to internal power relations, shaped by tension, mistrust
and oppression. First participant observation suggested that this situation has to be
3 In order not to confuse project management with public management which has the same abbreviation (PM), the
terms are always written in full.
Chapter One - Introduction 3
thoroughly understood in order to determine whether cultural issues such as behaviour
suffocate organisational adaptability. Soft systems methodology (SSM) is used for
collaboratively investigating the problematic situation as it has been developed to foster
organisational learning and constant improvement (Checkland, 2000).
1.1.2 Positioning of the researcher
A first insight into the organisation was possible as the researcher had been working since
November 2006 as an architect and project manager in the organisation. This possibility
of exploring the day-to-day activities in detail corresponds with organisational
ethnography (Ybema et al., 2009; Wastell, 2010). At-home or insider-ethnography is a
study where the researcher has a natural access to the organisational setting and where
he acts as an active participant under almost the same conditions as the other
participants (Alvesson, 2009). Insider-ethnography is, according to Sykes and Treleaven
(2009), particularly useful for investigating critical issues such as power and knowledge.
Analyses of the inequalities of power are largely absent in organisational realities (Magala,
2009). According to Maxwell (2005) each research project is very much influenced by the
researcher’s background, experience and relationship to the subject and the organisation
under investigation. Langley and Royer (2006) stress the value of personal research
stories and reflexivity.
“A constructivist-interpretive perspective means that ethnographers need to inquire into their own
meaning-making processes” (Ybema et al., 2009, p. 9).
Being an organisational member makes it possible to think from within but requires the
researcher to take a dual stance i.e. being totally immersed but keeping at the same time
a certain distance from the situation which is especially key in participant observation
(Ybema and Kamsteeg, 2009). The researcher’s Master’s thesis proposed the merger
between city planning and project management by means of underlying management
cybernetics and in particular the viable system model (Beer, 1995) in order to cope with
the complexity in the co-operation process. According to Jackson (2003), before Beer
started to develop organisational cybernetics only organisation charts were available as
models of enterprises. The viable system model thus changed the metaphor from a
machine, which is connected with hard systems, to the metaphor of an organism with a
brain (Jackson, 2006). Social viable systems theory is concerned with social processes and
was to a great extent motivated by the viable system model (Yolles, 2006). The researcher
has to be aware of his/her influence on the research setting and the possible bias this
might have (Pidd, 2003). Dale and Vinson (2013) argue “that apparent inconsistencies
among perspectives are driven by the observer’s methods, goals, etc., of inquiry: The
manner in which the observer is observing. It is well known in various areas of science
that observers inherently disrupt the system that is being studied. But even after we have
measurement schemes (or theoretical apparatus) for collecting maximally observer-
untainted behavioural data, there remains an inextricable observer-centred influence” (p.
1.2 Research problem and questions
Since the researcher is working for the organisation, profound insight into organisational
issues as well as influencing factors in the external environment could be obtained right
from the start. A preliminary analysis of business reports based on housing units produced
and the development of personnel revealed a possible starting point for the problem
situation at the time of the transition to the 21st century. Early consultation with the
people in the organisation confirmed this starting point but indicated at the same time
that the situation could be better regarded as being messy or wicked since evolving
negative internal socio-political arrangements constitute a persisting hindrance to further
development. According to Ackoff (1973), a system’s performance is evaluated by its
functioning as part of the larger system which justifies in a way the pragmatic analysis of
housing units produced.
1.2.1 Performance outcomes of the organisation
First participant-observation suggested a multitude of management deficiencies which
triggered a preliminary investigation into organisational documents (see Appendix C).
Symptoms such as long project duration and budget overruns in many projects seem to
indicate a pure management problem. The business reports described the development
of the organisation over the last 30 years starting from its inauguration in 1979 right to its
state in 2010. This development with regard to the units produced for rental as well as
sales is depicted in Figure 1. The development is separated into the three last decades
and shows the growth rates of each decade in relation to the personnel. In the first ten
years, 734 units were produced with an average staff of eight people. In the further
development between 1990 and 1999 another 1,290 units were produced with an
average staff of 14 people. The following years between 2000 and 2010 show a somewhat
different result since an average staff, now of 36 people, produced only 964 units. What is
the justification for the growth in personnel in view of the fact that less has been
produced? Why did production decrease whilst demand was increasing?
A possible explanation could be the need for more personnel due to the greater amount
of rented units but this is not really justifiable as only 481 units anticipated for rental were
produced in the last decade. Alternatively, the organisation could have been given new or
Chapter One - Introduction 5
other tasks by government. However, since it is the political will to have more affordable
housing units on the market, this does not seem to be a plausible explanation either. An
indicator for the increased demand is the waiting list for an affordable dwelling, which has
increased between 2007 and 2010 from 1,000 requests to 1,400 requests (Appendix C; D.
34). This is in stark contrast to the 1,701 rental units currently available that were
constructed in the last 30 years. As described before, Figure 1 indicates a change in
performance at the end of the 1990s. The decrease in the production of new units is
contrasted by a disproportionate increase in personnel. There was a 250% increase in
staff between 2000 and 2010 compared to the period between 1990 and 1999.
Figure 1: Development of new units and personnel within the last three decades
Interestingly, this coincides with the interview session where many employees described
a cultural change within the organisation beginning at the time of the transition to the
21st century. The chairman has nested himself in the middle of all power-related
activities, thus creating a powerful/insider group and a weak/outsider group. The ensuing
evolution of an oppressive social environment based on the ingrained belief in hierarchy
suffocates learning, aborts sense-making processes and represses efforts to cope with the
situation. The apparently pure management problem perceived at the beginning of the
study i.e. within first participant observation is thus better regarded as part of a problem
situation as described by Checkland (2000) which cannot simply be solved by introducing
a new tool or practice as the root of the situation lies much deeper. Modern times have
brought about an ever-growing complexity of organisational as well as societal issues such
as bureaucracy (Yolles, 2006; McSweeney, 2006) and transparency (Ybema et al., 2009).
However, SSM has been criticised for serving the powerful (Kotidas and Mingers, 2006;
Jackson, 2009; Flood, 2001) especially if the facilitator is directly contracted by powerful
people (Callo and Packham, 1999). “Peter Checkland has also expressed his reservations
about systems methodologies being taken primarily by consultants on the grounds that
consultants are client driven” (Paucar-Caceres, 2009, p. 430). Since the research project
was solely initiated by the employee/researcher and since the board, which includes the
chairman, is willing to participate, the investigation into the disturbed organisational
culture provides an opportunity to test the strengths and weaknesses of SSM. The
situation thus constitutes the unit of analysis in this single case study.
1.2.2 Research questions
Research questions have been formatted according to the principles of the research
design of case studies (Yin, 2003). The case study approach has a distinctive advantage
when a how or why question is being asked. “But you should also be able to identify some
situations in which a specific strategy has a distinct advantage. For the case study, this is
when a ‘how’ or ‘why’ question is being asked about a contemporary set of events, over
which the investigator has little or no control” (Yin, 2003, p. 9). The investigation actually
started shortly after the researcher had started working for the organisation. This offered
the possibility to search for the right methodology whilst further observing the situation
in the organisation. During this process it was found that SSM was best suited to the
purpose and aim of this single case study. The literature review on the topic combined
with first participant observation in the organisation allowed for a further sharpening of
the questions.
The two research questions are as follows:
RQ1: How can the oppressive social situation be explained and interpreted4 by using soft
systems methodology so as to come up with an improved design/strategy for the
project-oriented organisation?
RQ2: How can the current and future problematic situations be monitored and controlled
so as to constantly improve and learn in an ever changing complex environment?
According to Yin (2003), how questions indicate a more explanatory study because such
studies deal with operational links that need to be traced over time. A closer look at the
public organisation provides more understanding about its structure and operations.
4 According to Weick et al. (2005), sense-making starts when people notice that something in their day-to-day activities,
such as a paediatric nurse observing the deteriorating condition of a recovering baby, signifies that there might be
something wrong. This means “inventing a new meaning (interpretation) for something that has already occurred
during the organizing process, but does not yet have a name, has never been recognized as a separate autonomous
process, objet, event” (Magala, 1997, p. 324).
Chapter One - Introduction 7
1.3 The project oriented organisation under investigation
The main task of the organisation is the provision of affordable housing in the country
which incorporates the management of the construction phase but also factors such as
urbanism and sustainable development. Because of the close connection to the
construction business, the organisation is at least regarded as project-based since projects
are its core activity. Nevertheless, the use of projects within the organisation go far
beyond the mere construction phase since they start early on in the political phase
incorporating many partners such as government or communities. Furthermore, projects
are the main strategic issue for the management board since projects start with the
acquisition of new lots and properties.
Figure 2: Organisational chart of the public entity
According to Gareis and Huemann (2000), a project oriented organisation defines
management by projects as an organisational strategy, perceives projects and
programmes as temporary organisations5 and has an explicit project management
culture. The legal basis of the organisation under investigation is grounded in the law of
1979 concerning measures to promote access to affordable housing which places the
organisation under the tutelage of the housing minister. The law explains the juridical
character, financial means as well as the management of the organisation. The
organisation is a civic entity that acts under the direction of the member of the
5 Turner and Müller (2003) define a temporary organisation as an agency for managing uncertainty and consider the
project manager as being the chief executive of that temporary organisation.
government responsible for social housing accommodation, who also has the political
responsibility. The different parts of the organisation (Figure 2) will be thoroughly
explained in order to understand the tasks as well as the functioning of the organisation
within the public housing system of the country.
1.3.1 Departments of the organisation
The current organisational chart as depicted in Figure 2 corresponds to a typical
hierarchical order with the management board on top and the different departments
underneath. The three different departments, namely general administration, customer
service and project development are further structured into different services:
General administration is responsible for accountancy as well as property management
which is further subdivided into a technical/administrative as well as a financial section.
The accountancy service is concerned with the payment of invoices which have been
approved and relegated by the other departments, as well as the booking of all financial
transactions including rentals. Another duty is the preparation of the annual balance
sheets and the subsequent organisational reports. The technical property management is
concerned with the repair and maintenance of the properties. According to the business
report 2010, the organisation is currently in possession of 1,701 rented units in different
parts of the country. For the maintenance of the units as well as their subsequent
properties, the organisation has blue collar workers such as crafts people and gardeners.
Customer service is the department which has the contact with the clients, either as
tenants or future owners. There are three services, namely rental/sales, the social service
and the reception. With regard to the tenants, people make a demand by filling in a form.
Social assistants then visit them at home in their own environment in order to carry out a
thorough assessment of their needs/wishes and their professional as well as financial
situation. This assessment is then presented to the commission consultative which makes
a decision based on the file. The people who are eligible for a dwelling are put on a
waiting list which is checked whenever a flat becomes available. Based on social criteria,
the people are then chosen. According to the business report 2008, the number of people
on the waiting list for a subsidized rented flat has reached 1,019 which is almost the same
as in 2007 when there were 1,015 demands. The rental/sales service is in charge of
managing the processes with regard to the incoming demand and the eventual allocation
of flats which also includes contractual issues. Furthermore, they stay in contact with
future landlords and organize the sales activities for flats and houses.
Chapter One - Introduction 9
Project development is responsible for the development and architectural as well as
technical design of the construction projects which incorporates follow-up on the building
sites. The department is divided internally according to these two areas i.e. the architects
and the technical engineer are responsible for the conception and the technicians are
responsible for the building sites. Nevertheless, architects are supposed to act as project
managers, thus taking on overall responsibility for their projects. However, the chairman
of the management board is the main decider on the overall shape and scope of the
projects which vary from small to large scale i.e. from the renovation of an old building to
urban developments. As a basic principle, each project takes on board a team consisting
of an external architect, engineers and special experts whereby each external architect
can only have one project at a time. The duties of the external project staff are the
elaboration, planning and realisation of the projects. Internal architects are thus
responsible for the management of the projects in accordance with the regulations of the
organisation. The process of how a project is started and eventually approved by the
management board is briefly described in the following section on the composition of top
1.3.2 Composition of top management
According to the law of 1979 (Appendix C; D.4), the organisation is administered by a
management board composed of twelve members. Two members represent the
employers´ associations, three members represent the most representative trade unions
in the country and seven members represent government incorporating different
ministries. One of the two members proposed by the housing minister is in charge of
leading the organisation as chairman of the board (Figure 2). He is a high level civil servant
from the housing ministry who leads the organisation with regard to private as well as
legal matters i.e. he alone manages the day-to-day work of the organisation.
Nevertheless, the chairman is supported by the select board, composed of four members
of the management board, which meets every week. With regard to their affiliation, the
select board is composed of one representative of the trade unions, one representative of
the employers’ associations and two representatives of government which includes the
chairman. They discuss issues and thus prepare the agenda for the next management
board meeting that normally takes place once a month. With regard to the project start
and its approval, a new project is allocated by the chairman to an internal architect who
then, together with the external project team, elaborates a first architectural, technical
and financial proposition. This proposition has to be first discussed with the chairman and
then presented to the select board. Once their approval has been obtained, it is
eventually presented to the whole management board for an overall authorization. Such a
presentation which is based on a first draft incorporates explanations about issues such as
the design of the flats, the facade of the building and its technical equipment. The
financial statement i.e. the estimation about construction costs is calculated on the basis
of square metre and cubic metre produced which is roughly compared with buildings that
have already been realised. The secretary of the board, who is an employee of the
organisation, takes the minutes and then writes a short statement about each project
approval incorporating the budget for the construction work.
1.3.3 Employees´ meeting as middle management
The employees´ meeting (Figure 2) is not technically speaking middle management but it
connects the different departments with top management. This meeting, which takes
place every Monday morning, aims to bring together all the different services in order to
prepare for the week and to discuss current problems. As an architect and project
manager, the researcher attends this meeting. The meeting is a mixture of departmental
leaders, service leaders and other personnel. General administration is represented by its
departmental leader as well as the heads of accountancy and property management (3
participants). Customer service is represented by the head of rental/sales as well as one
social assistant (2 participants). Project development is represented by all architects,
project managers, technicians and the technical engineer (8 participants). Furthermore,
there is the internal audit and the secretary of the board (2 participants) who also belong
to this department. The types of problems discussed during the meeting concern all
different domains such as clients, accountancy or construction. The intention is to
exchange information and to solve urgent problems or at least to allocate them to the
right people or the right group of people. Although the meeting is quite formal, there is
neither an agenda nor someone taking notes or preparing the minutes so as to have a
follow up of how problems have been solved.
1.3.4 Tasks and duties of the organisation
The tasks and duties of the organisation are described in the law of 1979 (Appendix C;
D.4). More details on the legal basis of the organisation are provided in the methodology
chapter and specifically in the section on documentation. The missions of the organisation
are described as follows: (1) to realise the acquisition and the preparation of sites as well
as the construction of housing destined for sales and/or rent, (2) to form a natural reserve
as well as a land reserve which will, in the medium or long term, be integrated in the
perimeter of the agglomeration, (3) to create new neighbourhoods, places of habitat and
spaces to live, (4) to promote the quality of urban development, architecture and
technique, (5) to reduce the cost for the preparation of sites, (6) to promote housing sales
on the basis of land lease, (7) to enlarge the park of rented public housing. The tasks of
Chapter One - Introduction 11
the organisation demonstrate its importance with regard to housing as well as to urban
and regional development in the country. This is further accentuated by the fact that the
chairman, as first governmental advisor to the housing minister, is involved in the
development of legal requirements such as the housing pact with the communities which
aims, for example, to reduce the constantly rising price of lots, houses and apartments.
1.4 Organisation of the thesis
This thesis is composed of five different chapters. The reader is invited to go through the
thesis either chapter by chapter or according to the proposition depicted in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Suggested sequence of subchapters of the thesis
The researcher would like to recommend following this proposition especially with regard
to Chapter Three and Chapter Four since the different methods and sources used are
performed in a sequential manner thus allowing each part of the process to be informed
by the analysis of the one preceding it. The content of the following chapters is as follows:
Chapter Two discusses previous literature on systems approaches and in particular SSM
which constitutes an organised learning system. The chapter investigates paradigmatic
and theoretical underpinnings and highlights in particular the weakness of SSM regarding
its stream of cultural analysis. Drawing on culture theory and management, the
configuration model of organisational culture complements the investigation into the
disturbances of the public entity. This is further supported by the model of organisation
life cycles as well as complex responsive processes of human relating theory. Chapter
Three describes how the research was conducted and the data collected. The connection
between SSM and the methods adopted are explained and their interrelations are
presented in chronological order. The relevant systems for constant improvement and
learning propose a feasible transformation of the organisation. However, the subchapters,
which are organised on the basis of the four different research phases, suggest SSM to be
more flexible so as to respond to power issues. Chapter Four uses the same underlying
structure as the methodology chapter in the sense that the subchapters are organised
according to the data collection. The sequential application of the different methods and
sources allows for each part of the process to be informed by the analysis of the one
preceding it, thus creating a documented learning process. The analysis of the data by
means of Atlas.ti provides an understanding of the influence of the socio-political system
on the development of the whole organisation. The relevant systems for strategic
redesign which resulted from the use of cognitive mapping in the fourth research phase
demonstrate the usability of a multi-methodology approach in an SSM intervention.
Chapter Five discusses the findings and highlights the need for a systems thinking
approach. This leads to a better understanding of the dynamic processes within the
organisation and its connections to the external environment. The research questions are
answered and methodological, theoretical, managerial as well as societal implications are
discussed. The limitations of the study and suggestions for further research are
considered, followed by the conclusion of the thesis.
Chapter One - Introduction 13
Chapter Two – Literature Review
2.1 Problems, paradigms and systems thinking
From the very beginning, the researcher was able to gain insight into the current situation
of the organisation. This was possible since almost all employees as well as management
were willing to contribute to the research project. This was a key consideration when
deciding on soft systems methodology (SSM) as a leading or guiding methodology which
seemed to offer a possible way to get out of the crisis (Herr and Anderson, 2005). This
differs from the selection of possible organisations based on an elaborated research topic
(Silverman, 2005). However, “all methodologies and methods (methodologies can be
regarded as the strategies, action plans, or designs that inform the choice of specific
methods, that is, procedures and techniques for data collection and analysis) flow from
philosophical positions that provide a theoretical context for the choice of methodology”
(Rudestam and Newton, 2007, p. 38-39). The literature review was further based on two
preliminary steps. First, in the context of management science, a general exploration was
made of the development, use and conceptualisation of SSM and its use in project-based
organisational settings. The intention was to decide on an appropriate theoretical
framework for the study. Second, the extent of the literature review was narrowed down
to the research problem on the oppressive social situation where power relations play a
decisive role in the future development of the project-based organisation. Our problems
today are multifaceted and range from tame problems to wicked messes.
2.1.1 Tame, messy and wicked problems
Rittel and Webber (1973) argue that societal problems linked to social policy are
inherently ‘wicked’ or ill-defined problems for which there is no solution as such. This is in
contrast to ‘tame’ problems which are definable and where a solution might be found.
Science, based on the classical paradigm, has learned to cope with tame problems6. With
regard to systems approaches, Rittel and Webber argue that approaches of the first
generation such as systems engineering are inadequate for dealing with wicked problems.
“Approaches of the ‘second generation’ should be based on a model of planning as an
argumentative process in the course of which an image of the problem and the solution
emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of incessant judgement,
subjected to critical argument” (Rittel and Webber, 1973, p.162). With regard to the
selection of systems methodologies and methods, Jackson (2006) argues that the
6 Batie (2008) argues that the linear model of conventional or normal science is inadequate for taming wicked problems
and that the development of new ways of thinking about how to conduct scientific research is required.
Chapter Two – Literature Review 15
consideration of all four paradigms (functionalist, interpretive, emancipatory and
postmodern) is necessary so as to cope with interconnected problem situations which are
described as ‘messes’. Since a mess is a system of problems, it calls for a different
approach (Ackoff, 1974).
“Thus, to work with messes requires the analyst to be able to see the links as well as the separate
issues. That is, the links may be as important as the separate parts of the mess, and these may need
just as much attention. One of the greatest mistakes that can be made when dealing with a mess is to
carve off parts of the mess, treat it as a problem and then solve it as a puzzle, ignoring its links with
other aspects of the mess. It is crucial that the various issues are dealt with while keeping a watchful
eye on the links to other aspects of the mess” (Pidd, 2003, p. 62).
Mackenzie et al. (2006) argue that messes or wicked problems are unstructured situations
where there is dissonance about what needs to be done, why and how it should be done.
They argue that decision support systems provide an excellent means for dealing with
tame problems. Hancock (2010) differentiates between tame, messy as well as wicked
problems. Tame problems have linear causal relationships and mostly lead towards single
solutions. The body of knowledge in project management responds favourably to this
type of problem. Messes, on the other hand, are systems of problems, characterised by
high levels of systems complexity, which call for a different approach since they cannot be
solved in isolation (Pidd, 2003; Hancock, 2010; Small and Walker, 2011). The systems
thinking approach is used to sort out messes by examining patterns of interaction
between the different parts. According to Hancock (2010), programme and portfolio
management was introduced so as to attempt to deal with this type of problem.
“Wickedness is characterized by high levels of behavioural complexity, that is, the extent
to which there is diversity in the opinions, mental models, and values of the key decision-
makers” (Hancock, 2010, p. 54). None of the current management literature or
techniques helps to resolve these issues. Behavioural complexity and dynamic complexity
interact thus forming wicked messes which require high level skills such as facilitation or
systems thinking (Hancock, 2010).
“We use the term ‘wicked’ in a meaning akin to that of ‘malignant’ (in contrast to benign) or ‘vicious’
(like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a
lamb)” (Rittel and Webber, 1973, p. 160).
Consequently, we have to go beyond the problem solving way of thinking towards a more
action oriented approach (Nelson, 2003). The design of the intervention plays a vital role
and is composed of theories, methods or methodologies that allow the parties concerned
to elaborate and to judge between a variety of alternative ‘solutions’. Once the wicked
problems have been tamed, the methods of operational research or traditional project
management become operational (Rittel and Webber, 1973; Rosenhead and Mingers,
2001; Small and Walker, 2011). The aim of the literature review is to clarify relationships
between the proposed research and previous work conducted on the topic (Rudestam
and Newton, 2007). A basic requirement is, according to Hart (2007), the understanding
of the history of the subject under investigation.
2.1.2 Positioning within contemporary systems approaches
According to Chapman (2004), there are three broad areas in which systems ideas are
used. The first is natural systems, the second engineered or designed systems and the
third purposeful activity systems (Khisty, 1995; Checkland, 1999). Purposeful activity
systems constitute the basis for this thesis. The natural systems are studied by biologists,
physicians and the like and include, for example, the human body or the weather.
Engineered or designed systems can be power plants or a car. Purposeful activity systems
on the other hand concern human beings in social roles trying to take purposeful action
which can take place, for example, in schools, ministries or organisations whether in the
public or private sector (Checkland and Scholes, 1990).
“It is the set of attempts in all areas of study to explore the consequences of holistic rather than
reductionist thinking” (Checkland, 1999, p. 92).
It thus constitutes a testing of the assumption that systems approaches allow us to tackle
the problem of organised complexity. The systems movement, according to Checkland
(1999), is divided into the study of systems ideas as such and the application of systems
thinking in other disciplines. The ideas as such are further divided into the theoretical
development of systems thinking and the problem-solving development of systems
thinking in real-world problems. In the area of problem-solving we find work in ‘hard’
systems, aid to decision-making and work in ‘soft’ systems such as SSM. Influences on
SSM are coming from philosophy, social science, the theoretical development of systems
thinking as well as work in ‘hard’ systems. The connection to the hard systems is no
surprise since SSM was developed when Checkland and his colleagues learned that
systems engineering could not be applied to complex management situations.
Table 1 provides a framework for the main systemic methodologies which are embedded
in three management sciences paradigms7: optimisation paradigm, interpretive/learning
paradigm and the critical/pluralistic paradigm. SSM belongs to the interpretative/learning
paradigm that focuses on improving situations. As part of the problem-solving
development of systems thinking, it concerns purposeful activity systems or rather
7 “… scientists, just like the rest of humanity, carry out their day-to-day affairs within a framework of presuppositions
about what constitutes a problem, a solution, and a method. Such a background of shared assumptions makes up a
paradigm, and at any given time a particular scientific community will have a prevailing paradigm that shapes and
directs work in the field. ….. (Casti, 1989, p.40)” (Yolles and Guo, 2003, p. 177).
Chapter Two – Literature Review 17
purposeful holons since all problem situations have in common that human beings in
social roles are trying to take purposeful action (Checkland and Scholes, 1990).
Table 1: Main systemic methods/methodologies embedded in three paradigms
Source: Adapted from Paucar-Caceres and Pagano, 2009, p. 346
Management Sciences Paradigms
Optimisation / Positivistic Interpretive / Learning Critical / Pluralistic
Approximate timescale
1940 - 1950 1960 - 1970 1980 - 2000
Methodological orientation / Research intention (Jackson, 2003)
Discovery of law relations amongst
variables, 'deep' structure and patterns /
Optimisation; problem-solving
Learn; understand perception and
people's purposes; improve problematic
situations / Bring consensus or
accommodation between stakeholders'
Enlighten / empower stakeholders,
especially those disadvantaged. / Reform
social order; systems thinking should
concentrate on the issue of inequality of
the participants
Metaphor for Knowledge (Jackson, 2003)
Classical OR; Machines; Systems
Dynamics; Flux and information;
Management Cybernetics: Brain
Cultural systems; Political systems Cultural system; Psychic prison;
Instruments of domination
Main contributors
Weiner, 1948; Kelly, 1955; Boulding,
1956; Bertalanffy, 1956; Ashby, 1956;
Churchman et al., 1957; Beer, 1959
Forrester, 1961; Vickers, 1965, 1970;
Beer, 1966,1979; Churchman, 1968,
1979; Jenkins, 1969; Habermas, 1970;
Checkland, 1981, 1999
Mingers, 1980; Ackoff, 1981; Beer, 1981,
1985; Eden et al., 1983; Flood and
Jackson, 1991; Mingers 1997; Jackson,
1997, 1999, 2000, 2006; Eden and
Ackerman, 1998, 2001
Main management science methods / methodologies
Cybernetics*; Theory of personal
constructs*; General Systems Theory*;
Operational Research; Management
Industrial Dynamics; Appreciative
Systems*; Organisational Cybernetics;
Social Systems Design*; Systems
Engineering; Soft Systems Methodology
Critical Systems Thinking*; Interactive
Planning System; Organisational
Cybernetics; Cognitive Mapping; Multi-
* Theoretical develo pments
According to Paucar-Caceres and Pagano (2009), there is indirect influence from SSM on
the critical/pluralistic paradigm and in particular on critical systems thinking which is a
relatively new development in management science that is based on the belief that social
systems are oppressive and unequal. However, an adaptation or further development of
the soft systems methodology towards a multi-paradigmatic or multi-methodological
approach has not occurred (Mingers, 2000; Jackson, 2003).
2.1.3 Paradigmatic reflexion: management and systems thinking
According to Mingers (2004), critical systems thinking is the third way in the
epistemological battle between positivism and interpretivism which has died down and is
in a period of stability (Jackson, 2010a). The existence of the systems movement
demonstrates the inability of reductionist science to cope with “complexity in general, the
extension of science to cover social phenomena, and the application of scientific
methodology in real-world situations” (Checkland, 1999, p. 74). This coincides with
Jackson (2003) and his claim that holism gained momentum based on the failure of
reductionism to cope with complexity, diversity and change (Flood, 2001; Batie, 2008).
Nevertheless, systems thinking is an attempt to keep much of the tradition of analytical
thinking but to supplement it by tackling problems through thinking in wholes. According
to Checkland (1999), the two will eventually be regarded as the twin components of
scientific thinking. “Within systems thinking there are two complementary traditions. The
’hard’ tradition takes the world to be systemic; the ‘soft’ tradition creates the process of
enquiry as a system” (Checkland and Scholes, 1990, p. 25). Juarrero (1999) argues that
contemporary action theory is influenced by the inadequate 350-year-old model of cause
and explanation which promises certainty and predictability, but social systems such as
organisations or society are inherently confronted with issues such as complexity,
dynamics, change and spontaneity which contradicts a certain, fail-safe world8. According
to Jackson (2006), the scientific revolution in the 17th century pushed aside holism whilst
concentrating on reductionism. Holism eventually regained attention in the middle of the
20th century with general systems theory as well as cybernetics which coincides with the
advent of modern project management on the basis of operational research. Checkland
(1999) differentiates between the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’ systems stance which is based on
systemicity. This separation is also made by Paucar-Caceres and Pagano (2009) who
describe the methods created in order to optimise operations i.e. the
normative/optimisation paradigm belonging to the ‘hard’ systems approaches.
“It was mainly an extension into management of what was the positivistic epistemology to natural
sciences. The belief that organisations can be seen as objective worlds was certainly underpinning the
early developments of classical OR [operational research]/MS [management science] methods and
techniques” (Paucar-Caceres and Pagano, 2009, p. 347).
Canals (2010) asserts, in his reflection about the organisation’s mission and purpose, that
management theory is dominated by economics and finance which puts emphasis on
maximising profit or market value thus neglecting aspects such as motivation, trust and
learning. Ghoshal (2005) questions management theory for its focus on maximising profit
just for shareholders. “Maximizing shareholder-value is an appropriate model for running
down a company and a country, not for building them up … Shareholder value is part of a
politics which is not merely indifferent to wealth inequality, but which accelerates it”
(McSweeney, 2008, p. 64). Pollack (2007) asserts that project management research
focuses on the hard systems approaches, thus emphasising quantitative techniques in
planning, scheduling and control. With regard to systems thinking, he depicts project
8 The author draws upon the theory of complex adaptive systems which regards systems as open, far from equilibrium
and in constant exchange with their environmental context.
Chapter Two – Literature Review 19
management as being influenced by methodologies which draw upon the hard paradigm
such as systems analysis, systems engineering and cybernetics. Project management thus
tends to adopt a problem solving rather than a problem structuring approach9.
Nevertheless, there is growing acceptance of the soft paradigm and this paradigmatic
expansion provides, according to Pollack (2007), increased opportunity for practitioners
and researchers. Cicmil and Hodgson (2006) explain that research in project management
maintains a functionalist, instrumental view of projects as well as organisations thus
embodying the scientific achievements of operational research. Ghoshal (2005) states
that current management theories are also predominantly informed by a causal or
functional mode of explanation. Although the 1960s and 1970s brought about an
expansion of the theoretical foundation, the development of computer-based technology
in the 1980s and 1990s led to a revival of operational research based research in project
management (Packendorff, 1995). However, since project failure seems to have become
the rule, Cicmil and Hodgson (2006) argue for a more critical engagement so as to cope
with complex social and political arrangements. They assert that different scholars regard
project failure as being based on strategic, social and behavioural factors rather than
technical problems which is manifested in processes of resistance in organisations10.
“From a Habermasian perspective, it might be argued that the objective, abstract and universal body
of knowledge claimed in a number of authoritative sources as proprietary to project management
fails to live up to the challenges of the embodied and power-laden realities of its operation” (Cicmil
and Hodgson, 2006, p. 118).
“Most importantly (and shockingly) I discovered the politics of organisational life. The projects that
never got started because certain people refused to cooperation or provide information; the project
that were eagerly welcomed because they could be used by one department against another; and the
antagonism towards us, and indeed attempts to sabotage, when our studies threatened the power
positions of particular groups” (Mingers, 2004, p. 166).
Checkland and Scholes (1990) claim that SSM is a systemic process of enquiry which
makes use of systems models. This process can eventually bring about an agreement on
some systems to be engineered. SSM thus subsumes the ‘hard’ approach which is a
special part or case of it (Checkland, 2010). This formulation is challenged by Huaxia
(2010) who claims that it is contradictory and suggests that hard and soft approaches are
based on different, inseparable paradigms. According to Jackson (2010b), we have to
consider that Checkland adopts a ‘diachronic’ model i.e. one paradigm replaces another if
the new paradigm can explain everything and even more than the old one. One paradigm
thus subsumes the other one. On the other hand, critical systems thinkers adopt a
9 „Some advocates of post-bureaucracy have depicted project management as the front-wave of post-bureaucracy, as
the fastest route away from bureaucracy …..[however, it] neither abolishes control nor those t ensions associated with it.
Instead it has distinct modalities of control, each of which generates quite specific tensions” (McSweeney, 2006, p. 29).
10 “In much contemporary management literature there is a big emphasis on developing a shared corporate culture, of
trying to manipulate employee behaviour so that it conforms to organisational values, and generally being invasive of
what Habermas (1985) referred to as the ‘life world’ of employees” (Mowles, 2011, p. 137).
‘synchronic’ model whereby different paradigms can coexist. Jackson (2010b) argues that
Checkland struggles with regard to issues such as power and conflict because of his
adherence to the interpretive paradigm11. The acceptance of a variety of paradigms
contradicts the still predominant positivistic paradigm in project management.
2.1.4 Operational research and applied systems thinking
Over the last decades, the fields of management science and operational research, which
constitute the advent of project management, have produced a number of systemic
methodologies (Paucar-Caceres and Pagano, 2009; Rosenhead, 2009; Ulrich, 2012). The
methodologies now available as described before have been successfully applied in
different areas of management. Jackson (2009) provides an account of the last 50 years
with regard to systems thinking and argues that operational research and applied systems
thinking have much in common and impacted each other.
“For example, some of the early pioneers of operational research [(Churchman, Ackoff and Arnoff,
1957)] later adopted the systems thinking label in preference to operational research; soft systems
thinking began life by defining itself in opposition to hard systems approaches such as operational
research (Ackoff, 1979; Checkland, 1978); and, more recently, both soft operational research and soft
systems thinkers have been involved in the development of problem structuring methods (see
Rosenhead and Mingers, 2001)” (Jackson, 2009, p. 24).
By using Boulding´s hierarchy of complexity (Ramage and Shipp, 2009), Jackson (2009)
identifies three different approaches to applied systems thinking namely ‘functionalist’,
‘structural’ and ‘interpretive’. Examples of the first one, i.e. functionalist applied systems
thinking, include systems analysis and systems engineering as well as the socio-technical
systems approach. Jackson argues that structuralist systems thinkers follow Ludwig von
Bertalanffy (Ramage and Shipp, 2009) in spirit and that the approaches with the most
impact in management are systems dynamics, organisational cybernetics and complexity
theory. The third strand, interpretive applied systems thinking, is connected with soft
systems approaches from Ackoff (interactive planning), Churchman (social systems
design) and Checkland (soft systems methodology).
Although enlarging the applicability of systems thinking to ill-structured problems or
messes, interpretive applied systems thinking has been criticised e.g. for its difficulty with
regard to achieving compromise or the problem that decisions are taken by powerful
people in their own interests (Jackson, 2009). Jackson completes his picture by explaining
recent developments in applied systems thinking such as critical systems thinking and
multi-methodology. The future of management science must be pluralistic, which means
11 The SSM intervention of this study thus requires the adoption of a rather pluralistic view, given the power-laden
environment within the organisation.
Chapter Two – Literature Review 21
using the diversity of methodologies and methods now available (Huaxia, 2010; Jackson,
2009). This should incorporate dialogue between operational research and applied
systems thinking so as to benefit from each other (Jackson, 2009).
2.1.5 Intricacies of the term system
The systems movement can be regarded as being linked by the concept ‘system’ which is
according to Checkland (1999) the main achievement of the biologist Ludwig von
Bertalanffy since he insisted that the emerging ideas in the different fields could be
generalized in systems thinking (Yolles, 2006). Juarrero (1999) argues that Bertalanffy
(1981) first articulated a complement to the mechanistic understanding of classical
science regarding human beings as well as nature. He is thus regarded as being the
founder of the systems movement (Ackoff, 1974; Ramage and Shipp, 2009). His vision,
which is known as general systems theory, was the development of theoretical systems
that are applicable to more than just one discipline (Flood, 2001).
“... they all make use of the concept ‘system’: an adaptive whole, an entity having emergent
properties, a layered structure, and processes of communication and control that allow adaptation in
a changing environment” (Checkland and Haynes, 1994, p. 191).
Unfortunately, this brought about the use of the term ‘system’ as a label for parts of the
world (Christis, 2005; Checkland and Scholes, 1990). Various other words have been
suggested as alternatives such as org, integron or holon whereas only the latter has
acquired any significance (Yolles, 2006). A holon, inferred from the Greek word hólos, is
something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. To use an example from biology, a
human cell is as such a whole, but it is just a part of an organ which is on the other hand a
part of the body. The thus produced hierarchy is called ‘holarchy’ (Koestler, 1967). Since
the word holon was never adopted, we have to be cautious with the use of the word
system in everyday language. According to Pidd (2003), SSM uses systems ideas within
human organisations in order to help human beings to bring about change and to
understand its effects i.e. SSM is concerned with human activity systems.
2.1.6 Human activity systems are designed by humans
In order to understand human activity systems and their potential, we have to go back to
the basic model of SSM (Figure 4). But first of all, it has to be mentioned that human
activity systems differ from biological systems in that they have been created and
designed by humans (Pidd, 2003). The behaviour, as well as the stability of these human
systems, is subsequently a consequence of that design. Design thus plays an important
role and the design criteria that will be used in the process will often be subject to great
debate. SSM provides a way for people involved in a human system to address its design
as well as the criteria that will be used for guidance (Pidd, 2003).
A purposeful activity (A) is an expression of the intention of a person or a group (B).
Action will be carried out by some people (C) which will have some influence or impact on
another person or group (D). There will also be environmental constraints (E) and since
human activity is seldom autonomous, there will be some people or a group (F) that could
stop the action being taken (Checkland and Scholes, 1990). The fundamental purposeful
activity of this research initiated by the employee/researcher (B) is based on a design that
permits the investigation and analysis of the organisational culture (Dauber et al., 2012),
using a methodological framework that can cope with the oppressive social environment
(E). This is undertaken in collaboration with the organisational members (C) with the
intention to eventually provide sufficient affordable housing for vulnerable groups within
society (D).
Figure 4: Symbolic model of purposeful activity
Source: Adapted from Checkland and Scholes, 1990, p. 6
Participatory research approaches have been successfully used within the context of
research (Stephens, 2013; Franco, 2008). However, the full engagement with the group
that can stop the process (F), as well as their influence on sense-making processes, is
rather rare. Hjortso et al. (2005) argue that their “five step Rapid Stakeholder and Conflict
Assessment (RSCA) methodology addresses [the] critique” (p. 149) that participatory
approaches do not consider power relations and conflict. Nevertheless, RSCA constitutes
a powerful tool for the intervener or facilitator for preparation and reflection but it does
not address possible oppression or sabotage from powerful people. Issues of power, their
genesis, evolution, and sense-making in organisational settings are more often discussed
and interpreted in informal communication such as gossip than in formal research reports
(Magala, 2009).
Chapter Two – Literature Review 23
Design paradigm in management science
Design and the development of design methodologies are well known in areas such as
“architecture, engineering, urban planning, medicine, and computer science (e.g. Baldwin
and Clark 2000, Cross 1984, Jackson and Keys 1984, Long and Dowell 1989, Warfield
1990). Compared with these disciplines, the notion of design is less established in the
current state of organization theory” (Romme, 2003, p. 564). However, in order to shape
and further develop our organisations towards a more participative and human future,
people should be supported by drawing upon design research (Romme, 2003). Boland and
Collopy (2004) stress the predominance of a ´decision attitude´ paradigm in management
practice and education and contrast it with the ´design attitude´ paradigm whereby each
project is regarded as an opportunity to question mainstream thinking. Business schools
are more concerned with mathematics than the need to educate future leaders to
become designers, which calls for a basic reform of management education (Wastell,
2010). “The two defining characteristics of design science are its interest in field problems
and its solution focus, namely, the focus on interventions or systems that can solve field
problems” (Van Aken, 2007, p. 69). Van Aken (2007) mentions design science approaches
in the field of management such as operational research (Churchman et al., 1957) or hard
and soft systems approaches (Checkland, 1999) and concludes that the focus should be on
learning in organisation projects instead of representation. Furthermore, direct
stakeholders should be recognised as being fellow designers. The intervention gives
almost all employees and management the possibility to actively participate in the
research and hence to contribute towards the future design of the organisation (Zhichang,
2007). However, this also includes a critical appraisal of the organisational members since
human factors play a vital role in the current situation. The participation of organisational
members offers the possibility to foster systems thinking and consequently augment
collaboration and intended learning (Waldman, 2007).
According to Cicmil and Hodgson (2006), there is a need for more understanding with
regard to issues such as power and politics within organisations and their influence on
people’s interaction. The question of how to intervene in ‘coercive’ problem situations,
where compromise is difficult to obtain and decisions are most likely taken by groups
which possess power over other groups, is asked by Jackson (2006). In this respect, he
mentions two emancipatory systems approaches such as Ulrich’s critical systems
heuristics (Ulrich, 1983) and Beer’s team syntegrity (Mejía and Espinosa, 2007). Van Aken
(2007) emphasis the need to align business values with humanistic values such as mutual
trust, confidence or openness including ethical issues such as democracy or social justice
when taking on a design science perspective. In providing a conceptual framework for
science, humanities and design, Romme (2003) depicts the importance of systems
thinking, discourse, participation and experimentation in design as ideal-typical mode of
research. Whereas experiments in the natural sciences are mostly undertaken in
laboratories, experiments of organisational designers are rather understood as taking
action within the setting (Romme, 2003; Wastell, 2010).
2.2 Soft systems methodology: Activating the learning cycle
The difference between hard and soft systems thinking is based on systemicity which is in
hard systems thinking assumed to be in the world and in soft systems thinking the process
of coping with the world (Checkland, 1999). The goal orientation within the hard sector
contradicts the rather obscure situation in the public organisation and hence calls for a
soft approach.
“First, hard systems thinking assumes people are passive observers of the system; soft systems
thinking assumes that people actively construct and interpret elements of the system. Second, hard
systems thinking reflects a philosophy of ontology (i.e. that what exists can be represented), soft
systems thinking reflects a philosophy of epistemology (i.e. how people know and understand)”
(Johnson, 2008, p. 798).
Dongping et al. (2010) remark in their reflection on recent articles that Checkland (2010)
has used no less than eight times the term ‘real situations’ in his 3-page long paper thus
stressing the point that the use of SSM is situation oriented i.e. open to surprises and new
learning rather than methodology oriented. ”Even though the interpretivistic nature of
SSM is its main strength, it is in relation to this characteristic that the methodology has
received the most criticism” (Bergvall-Kåreborn, 2002, p. 310). The development of SSM
started when the founder, Peter Checkland and his colleagues, learned that the systems
engineering approach could not be applied to complex management situations
(Checkland, 2010; Christis, 2005). The development of SSM can historically be separated
into four different parts: (a) blocks and arrows 1972; (b) seven stages 1981; (c) two
streams 1988 and (d) four main activities 1990. “This version [i.e. the seven-stage
model12], though still often used for initial teaching purposes, has a rather mechanistic
flavour and can give the false impression that SSM is a prescriptive process which has to
be followed systematically, hence its fall from favour” (Checkland, 2000, p. S16). The four
main activities are used for this research process.
2.2.1 The four main activities of SSM
The four main activities (1)-(4) as depicted in Figure 5 form a learning cycle which is,
according to Checkland and Poulter (2010), best carried out by the people within the
12 Interestingly, the seven stage pr ocess has nevertheless been used in recent studies or described as being the basis of
SSM (Coelho et al., 2010; Jianmei, 2010; Siddiqui & Tripathi, 2011).
Chapter Two – Literature Review 25
problem situation (Herr and Anderson, 2005) and ideally is a never-ending process
(Chapman, 2004). The starting activity is concerned with the finding out about a problem
situation which incorporates cultural as well as political aspects (1). Informed by this first
step, relevant purposeful activities are modelled (2) which are then used for a structured
debate about desirable and feasible change (3). The objective of the debate is to find
accommodations between conflicting interests which enable action to be taken in the
situation (4) so as to improve the situation (Checkland, 2000, Checkland and Poulter,
2010, Wastell, 2010, Yolles, 2006). The four main activities are not simply a follow-up of
different steps since the debate about the situation, for instance, can lead to new finding
out thus yielding other purposeful activity models (Checkland and Poulter, 2010).
Figure 5: Four main activities of soft systems methodology
Source: Adapted from Pidd, 2003, p. 121 and Checkland, 2000, p. 16
Consequently, the activities have to be regarded as going on in a simultaneous manner.
The finding out has a particular status since it constitutes a continuous process. The SSM
process itself does not necessarily stop after the intervention since the study will bring
about a new situation and consequently an on-going learning process. The way that the
user should move through the process i.e. the different parts such as rich picture building
or root definition, will be explained in terms of definition as well as usage in the chapter
on methodology.
As the name indicates, SSM is a methodology which emerged in the true sense of the
word as a variety of principles which can be used to design a specific approach for a
particular situation involving the people concerned (Checkland, 2001). The methodology
is based on three inseparable elements, namely the user, the methodology as words on
paper and the problem situation as perceived by the user (Checkland, 2000). The learning
process in the LUMAS model as depicted in Figure 6 also pictures how soft systems
methodology was developed. “The user U, appreciating a methodology M as a coherent
set of principles, and perceiving a problem situation S, asks himself (or herself): What can
I do? He or she then tailors from M a specific approach A, regarded as appropriate for S,
and uses it to improve the situation. This generates learning L, which may both change U
and his or her appreciation of the methodology” (Checkland, 2000, pp. 36-37).
Figure 6: The LUMAS model as an action thinking approach
Source: Adapted from Checkland, 2000, p. 37
The necessity to closely engage with the people within the situation (Checkland, 2000;
Flood, 2001; Stacey, 2001; Pidd, 2003; Crawford et al., 2003; Stacey, 2007) i.e. within the
organisation, suggests a case study research approach. “No matter how small our sample
or what our interest, we have always tried to go into organisations with well-defined
focus – to collect specific kinds of data systematically” (Mintzberg, 1979, p. 585).
2.2.2 Case study research
Although it is well known that case study research can incorporate qualitative as well as
quantitative data, it is, however, more associated with qualitative designs (Rudestam and
Newton, 2007). According to Yin (2003), evidence for case studies can come from six
different sources which are: documents, archival records, interviews, direct observation,
participant-observation and physical artefacts. The sources mostly used in this study are:
participant-observation, interviews and documents. The use of multiple data collection
methods is typical for theory building researchers (Eisenhardt, 1989). The choice of this
particular single case for a thorough investigation was not based on the research question
and subsequent specification of possible organisations as described by Eisenhardt (1989)
but rather on the problematic situation experienced, the importance of the organisation
in the public housing domain and its accessibility (Silverman, 2005). This does not
Chapter Two – Literature Review 27
correlate with Maxwell (2005) who argues that the design of a research project constantly
revolves around the different parts such as goals, methods etc. but is justified as the
organisation is specific and unique with regard to its tasks and its individuality in the
country and hence within a system (Stake, 2000). Furthermore, it opens-up the possibility
for in-depth insights since the researcher is a member of the organisation, which is
comparable to the study of Houchin and MacLean (2005). Regarding the question of using
one or more cases, Mintzberg (1979) argues that it is better to study one organisation in-
depth than just scratching on the surface of many organisations. This coincides with
Eisenhardt (1989) and Yin (2003) who say that the case study approach can involve either
single or multiple cases. According to Harrison (2002), case study research is particularly
useful where the theory base is rather weak and the situation under study is messy.
Sankaran et al. (2009) argue that SSM has a close connection to action research since it
uses a collaborative process between the researcher and the people within the situation.
However, it also adheres to the framework, methodology and action (FMA) concept.
2.2.3 FMA concept - action research
It is useful to have a set of linked ideas gathered together in an intellectual framework F
and to apply these ideas by means of a methodology M to a particular area A such as
human affairs (Checkland, 1985). The use of the methodology can bring about learning
about F, M and A (Flood, 2001). With this FMA concept, Checkland identifies the nature of
learning in any action research intervention (West and Stansfield, 2001). Checkland and
Holwell (1998) argue that the cycle of action research starts when the researcher using
SSM has declared the framework of ideas F to be explored in the research. According to
Greenwood and Levin (2007), action research is a way to foster change by organising
collaborative research processes. Action research has become increasingly interesting for
researchers involved in the study of organisations (Eden and Huxham, 2002). As the term
action research is sometimes not well defined they assert that:
“Action research involves the researcher working with members of an organisation over a matter
which is of genuine concern to them and in which there is an intent by the organisation members to
take action based on the intervention” (Eden and Huxham, 2002, p. 255).
Lüscher and Lewis (2008) conduct action research in their examination of managerial
sense-making since it offers, according to them, exceptional access to how meaning13,14 is
created in organisations. Sense-making is, according to Weick (1995), about processes,
the flow of events or activities which qualifies action research as an appropriate means to
address a particular problematic situation in an organisation or community (Rudestam
13 Flood (2001) argues that systemic thinking is useful for the construction of meaning.
14 The question as to whether meanings can be outsourced and values recycled by professional bureaucracies is asked
by Magala (2009).
and Newton, 2007). There are not many written examples about outcomes of action
research according to Eden and Huxham (2002) which is mainly due to the way that the
results are presented which hides the method.
This coincides with Lüscher and Lewis (2008) who argue that action research is largely
absent from mainstream journals although it permits paradigmatic boundaries to be
crossed. Sykes and Treleaven (2009) depict strong links between action research and
organisational ethnography based on their common epistemologies and methodological
assumptions. They stress the importance of third-person action research which involves
three audiences namely: self, participants and community. Yolles (2006) asserts that an
action research intervention that embraces the knowledge of all participants seeks, firstly,
to transform a mess into a difficulty or tame problem and, secondly, to bring about
strategies that can improve the situation. The meaningful understanding of any situation
necessitates, according to Flood (2001), the study of its cultural context as well as the
perceptions of the people.
Theory of action research
According to Rudestam and Newton (2007), most action researchers draw on the work of
Lewin (1948) and his proposed plan-act-observe-reflect cycle that leads to a continuous
learning process. Due to his development of a theory of action research, this form of
research eventually became fully respected in the social sciences (Herr and Anderson,
2005). This cyclical approach to action research should be better regarded as being
composed of two interlinked cycles. On one hand, there is an interest in problem solving
and on the other hand there is a research interest which describes the interdependence
between practice and theory (McKay and Marshall, 2001). “Theory leads to practice; but
the practice is itself the source of the theory; neither is prime; the process generates
itself” (Checkland, 1985, p. 757). Consequently, practitioners should be reflective about
their activities and academics should engage in practice. With regard to project
management and its lack of a strong theoretical basis (Shenhar and Dvir, 2007; Bredillet,
2010), the conduct of action research can lead to new insights (Sankaran et al., 2009).
A cornerstone of action research is the participation of and with people which is also
favoured by soft systems thinking (Flood, 2001). One of the followers of Lewin (1948) is
Checkland (2000) who argues that researchers using SSM always try to take part in the
change process instead of observing the action from the outside. Mowles (2011) argues
that the dominant theory in management assumes leaders and consultants to be
detached, objective observers who can, for example, convince resistant employees by
rationally explaining the necessary change. In contrast, the author suggests that the
manager, consultant or researcher acting as participant-observer is inherently involved in
Chapter Two – Literature Review 29
the web of power relations as well as organisational politics. Their understanding as well
as action both influence and are influenced by the local and global patterning.
“[Many authors repeatedly observed] a significant scarcity of research projects [in organisational
science] devoted to the problem of power, power struggles, individual passion and interest devoted to
the attempts to acquire or maintain power at the expense of the other members of formal
organizations” (Magala, 2009, p. 26).
With regard to action research, Checkland (2000) points out that there is one issue which
is almost completely neglected in the literature. In order to be accepted as part of
‘scientific knowledge’ findings have to be repeatable over and over again. Findings in
human situations do not match this strong criterion. The opposite of repeatability is mere
plausibility, a rather weak criterion argue Checkland and Holwell (1998) who suggest that
the in-between way is the conduct of action research in such a way that the whole
process is recoverable. The SSM approach is the process of coping with the world and is
organised as a conscious enquiry into a problem situation. The models are used as devices
for learning rather than prediction (Winter, 2006). These types of model which are based
on soft methods can be used in order to explore the consequences of different
worldviews. This allows modelling to help people understand each other’s viewpoints
which can lead to the development of a commitment followed by sensible action (Pidd,
2003). With regard to action research in the context of systems thinking, Checkland
(2012) regrets the rarity of work undertaken within actual situations. This is partly due to
the limited use of action research in universities and the reluctance of academics to
become accountable for their contributions as participants15. Furthermore, as long as
scholars are judged on the basis of their number of publications, they will not privilege