Bridging from phenomenological research methods to systems interventions: a case study of SSM

G Edwards, M Yearworth

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The development of systems practitioners at the doctoral level in Engineering has revealed the need to address the integration, or bridging, between the basic research methods of engineering management and systems problem structuring methods (PSMs). The metaphor of bridging is appropriate since this emergent need is not entirely addressed by the use of multimethodology. Whilst action research might be viewed implicitly as the research strategy of systems practice, sitting within the overall paradigm of phenomenology, we argue that basic research methods, in the broadest sense, require practical integration with PSMs in order to meet the needs of socio-technical systems research projects that span the boundary between engineered hard systems and social systems. Our observations arise from the experience of delivery of an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in Systems Programme of research that now includes more than 65 individual projects with a wide range of engineering companies spanning the water industry, defence aerospace, energy production, rail transport and construction. In this paper we explore this need for integration with respect to the case of Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), although the approach could have been applied to other PSMs. We conclude that integration in this case needs to focus on a number of key aspects across all stages of the SSM methodology. Prominent among these are widening the range of techniques for initial exploration of the problem situation, early consideration of potential ethical issues involved in system intervention, improved modelling approaches to describe purposeful activity holons, advanced hard systems modelling and longitudinal studies to capture learning from a series of sequential interventions, and active definition of additional detailed data gathering and research to support the stakeholder debate on initial intervention options.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusIn preparation - 31 Aug 2011

Bibliographical note

This research was supported in part by the EPSRC Industrial Doctorate Centre (IDC) in Systems (EP/C537556/1 and EP/G037353/1)


  • research strategy
  • research paradigm
  • phenomenology
  • action research
  • systems practice
  • problem structuring methods
  • soft systems methodology
  • multimethodology
  • engineering doctorate

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