Hard and Soft Systems Thinking

Term Paper, 2011

33 Pages, Grade: Distinction


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2.Hard Systems Thinking

3.Soft Systems Thinking

4.Comparison of Hard and Soft Systems Thinking and the circumstances where the two System Thinking may overlap

5.Design and evaluation of a decision process by using the case study “CELTIC TIGER PR(CT-PR)”

6.Critical reflection

7. Appendix 1

8. Appendix 2

9. Appendix 3

10. Appendix 4

11. Appendix 5

12. Bibliography


Checkland has been developing the system thinking and system developing for more than 30 years since 1970s. Undoubtedly, the greatest contribution of his work is his Soft System Methodology (SSM), which is playing a very significant role in the field of contemporary system practice. There is another system based methodology that can be used to apply system thinking to the resolution of the system. Checkland defined this kind of system thinking as Hard System Thinking (HST)(Checkland,1981). The success that human landed on the moon in 1970s is a good example of Hard System Thinking. Checkland (1981) found that Hard System Thinking has the weakness of dealing with the diversity of human activity system, especially in case of the difference and conflict of world views and values within human organization. Finally, Checkland (1999) shows that SST and HST are two different stances in contemporary system practice (Zexian and Xuhui, 2010).

This paper focuses on discussing the Hard and Soft thinking and methodologies. The first section will present the definition and process descriptions of the two systems. Later, the second section will represent the comparison of the Hard and Soft System Thinking and it will also represent the circumstances where the two system thinking may overlap. Then, the third section will demonstrate a Rich Picture, a Flow Chart and evaluate the decision process by using the example of the case study “Celtic Tiger PR”.

Hard Systems Thinking:

According to Teale et al (2003, p. 137), “Hard System Analysis (HSA) enables us to look at parts of the system in greater depth.” HAS is linked closely with organization’s goals and objectives. It assumes that every system can be disaggregated into a number of subsystems.(Teale et al,2003). According to Kirk (1995), Hard system thinking considers system that has a clear purpose and well-defined goals and is useful for designing solutions that achieve those goals. This represents a model which has precise objective and these objectives can be expressed in quantitative terms allowing the development of mathematical models. It is assumed that the essence of the hard system approach consists of a number of subsystems and that the components of those subsystems can be identified and quantified to provide an explanation of the workings of those subsystems. Therefore, the whole system is the combination of all subsystems. A variety of tools like diagramming techniques, structured flowcharts of the processes involved, and mathematical representations based upon the application of management science techniques used to describe and analyse systems. An example of hard system is illustrated in the appendix 1. Hard system consists of various stages, and these stages include awareness and commitment, constraints, objectives and goals, generation of alternatives, assessing alternatives and model construction, evaluation and implementation. The awareness and commitment stage is to develop awareness of the problem situation. Later, agreement is reached concerning the purposes and the scope of the study and attempts are made to define the problem. Then, commitment is very important to implement a solution because a project without commitment will fail. In case of the constraints, objectives and goals stage, constraints and objectives that are relevant for the system are being studied to establish the nature and direction of the organization. The nature and direction of the organisation is established which can be expressed in the hierarchy of statements. The main purpose of the organization’s existence is its mission statement. These missions are the objectives of the firms for both long and medium terms. Moreover, a firm will set goals to meet the objectives. After establishing the objectives, in the generation of alternatives stage, a possible range of alternatives are explored to address the related issues and meet the objectives. If no alternatives exist, then the system, mission, and objectives are reassessed in order to create a review of the analysis. Later, in the assessing alternatives stage, we measure the alternatives against a set of criteria that allow us to make a value judgement as to the effectiveness of the proposed paths for objective attainment. Moreover, the measures of performance can be classified as the four Es: Effectiveness, Efficiency, Equity and Efficacy. Finally, in the model construction, evaluation and implementation stage, to model the system there need to be systematic description and evaluation in order to determine its credibility and evaluation of the alternative routes to the objectives (Jennings & Wattam, 1998).

Soft Systems Thinking:

“Soft systems methodology (SSM) was developed by Peter Checkland (1981) as a strategy for analysing complex problem situations and identifying acceptable improvements that could be made to those situations.” (Checkland, 1981, in Jennings & Wattam, 1998, p. 36) The aim of the SSM is to achieve improvement to the system; this is attained through a multistage process of information gathering, description, analysis and debate. (Jennings & Wattam, 1998). Appendix 2 represents an outline of Soft Systems Methodology and Appendix 3 represents the stages of SSM. The first stage in an SSM consisting of the careful observation of the problem situation with all its intricate details, and the recording of all that is perceived. This involves collecting qualitative data such as attitudes and opinions concerning the problem situation, including reactions to interference in matters as well as quantitative data, and recording this in the form of a ‘picture’ which is known as rich picture (Appendix 4). Then, models of these systems that are consistent with different viewpoints expressed within the descriptions are drawn. Finally, several comparisons are made of the models with the observations of the real world situation, which are used in a discussion with the problem owners to suggest systemically desirable and culturally feasible changes that are hoped will lead to improvements in the problem situation. (Checkland & Scholes, 1990) The stages of the Soft System Thinking will be described briefly during the evaluation of the decision process by using the example of the case study “Celtic Tiger PR”.

Comparison of Hard and Soft Systems Thinking and the circumstances where the two System Thinking may overlap:

It is necessary to know why Checkland developed two different systems. According to Checkland (1996, p. 190), “The main difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches is that where the former can start by asking ‘What system has to be engineered to solve this problem?’ or ‘What system will meet this need?’ and can take the problem or the need as given.” In case of Soft System methodology, there is a comparison stage, which has no equivalent in the Hard System methodology. In comparison stage, soft system thinking provides a structure for a debate about change which hopefully ensures superior quality as a result of the insight captured in the root definitions. On the other hand, hard system thinking is always busy preparing to implement the designed system. Moreover, Soft system thinking is considered for the general case and hard system thinking is considered for special cases. Soft system thinking improves the conceptual model using the formal system model and other systems thinking. On the other hand, hard system optimizes the design, using the defined performance criterion and select the alternative which best meets the need and is feasible. In case of soft system thinking, when problem is not clear, it requires an additional stage which uses system analysis as a mean of orchestrating debate about change. This additional stage is a reflection of the main characteristic of human activity system. However, the human activity can never be described in a single account which will be either generally acceptable or sufficient in case of hard system. Moreover, soft system implements the agreed system and hard system implement the designed system. (Copeland, 1996). The following table 1 compares the author’s approach with both the RAND corporation (1950) version of system analysis and the account given by Jenkins (1969) from which the hard system started.

Table 1:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Checkland P., (1996), Systems thinking, systems practice, Chichester: Wiley

According to Zexian and Xuhu (2010), the main difference lies between the hard system and soft system is the interpretation of the concept of system. Hard systems thinking consider the system as an objective part of the world. On the other hand, Soft Systems Thinking considers system as epistemological concept, which is subjectively constructed by people rather the objective entities in the world (appendix 5). Hard Systems Thinking presumes that a system should have a good structure and a specific goal. Soft Systems Thinking considers these difficulties and employs another strategy to deal with human affairs. Moreover, Hard system thinking assumes that there are problems and people have enough ability to deal with them. However, Soft system thinking believes that the interaction and interdependence between the observer and observed object build a problematic situation because the observer is involved in the observed situation (Zexian and Xuhui, 2010). After comparing the hard and soft system, “it is clear that SST achieves a paradigm shift which makes applied system thinking change from ‘hard’ approach to ‘soft’ approach” .(Zexian and Xuhui, 2010, p. 144)

Some of the differences between hard and soft system are given below in the table 2 to summarize the main differences:


illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: (cs.stir.ac.uk, Accessed on 5th July 2011)

There are some circumstances where the hard and soft system can overlap. The hard system is separated from the soft system is the traditional view. Applied system thinking leverages the combination of these two approaches. The blue arrow in the figure 1 represents the need for these two approaches to work together.


Excerpt out of 33 pages


Hard and Soft Systems Thinking
University of Lincoln
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This paper achieved distinction in this module of Masters of Business Administration.
Hard Systems Thinking, Soft Systems Thinking, Comparison of Hard and Soft Systems Thinking and the circumstances where the two System Thinking may overlap, Design and evaluation of a decision process by using the case study “CELTIC TIGER PR(CT-PR)”, Critical reflection
Quote paper
PhD Candidate, MBA, BBA Md. Rajibul Hasan (Author), 2011, Hard and Soft Systems Thinking , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/208273


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