2001 Conference Proceedings

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VIEWING A PROBLEM AS A QUALITY UPGRADE OPPORTUNITY AN INTRODUCTION TO SOFT SYSTEMS METHODOLOGY IN MATCHING DISABLED PERSONS NEEDS WITH TECHNOLOGY TOOLS

Chris Falk
University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore
Queensland, Australia 4458
cfalk@usc.edu.au

Background

In 1994 University of the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland Australia was little more a set of objectives, a mission statement and perhaps a dreamlike vision that a few people knew about. In 1996, University opened its doors and has since continued to grow a physically, academically and professionally. Consisting primarily of three faculties -- business, arts and science, the University is relatively small in comparison to many of its counterparts. The above points shed an interesting perspective on the provision of assistive technologies to persons with disabilities. With such rapid development taking place in the provision for persons with disabilities a reliable and consistent model for addressing problematic issues and client needs seemed a key requirement. Collaboration with colleagues in Organisation Development and Action Research helped generate a wish list of properties for an effective methodology.

The properties (wish list) for the Model.
Simple and elegant.
Needs to include all stakeholders.
Disabled persons need to feel empowered as well as included.
Can be implemented in real-time and makes effective use of time.
Is pro-active and not just a way of listening to past grievances.
Scalable from the classroom setting through to regional focus groups.
A Turn key operation.
Economic.
Based on solid research.

Models

While a systems approach seemed obvious most models seemed too inflexible. Systems models in engineering provide admirable functions in scientific method, but offer too little scope for the model to be dynamically responsive to changing conditions (new information, insights, changing social conditions etc.) which occurred during the research. Initially the emphasis was to follow some form of Structured Systems Analysis and Design methodology. The main reason for this was because the members had some existing knowledge with processes that provided a structured and sequential set of tasks to follow. Kendall and Kendall (1999) proposed the following tasks were performed sequentially to fully analyse and resolve a problem.

1. Identifying problem's opportunities and objectives.
2. Determining information requirements
3. Analysing system needs
4. Designing the recommended system
5. Developing and documenting processes
6. Testing and maintaining the system
7. Implementing and evaluation the system

The above methodology requires that after completing step one you would then move onto step two and would not start step two until you had completed step one. However, having initially done step one and then moved onto step two a dilemma presented, new information came to light during the second phase thus changing the nature of the problem in step one.

As the above methodology seemed to be too restrictive for this type of setting, particularly as the management of the situation was more obscure and complex than first anticipated. At this point was decided to pursue a Systems in Management methodology that allowed sub-systems in the methodology to be repeatedly performed.

Applied Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) provided the base model, with the addition of a convergent interviewing technique as a means of generating information about the situation provided the opportunity for ongoing sensing of issues in real-time. The formulation of a structured questionnaire format gave researchers a means of gathering qualitative data in a non intrusive way. All questions were formulated in the same fashion so the questionnaire supporting the convergent interviewing could be completed in approximately three minutes.

The methodology

Checkland (1999) argued that due to the outstanding variety and complexity of social problems, and problem solving purpose of action research, a set of principles is needed to provide a framework within which research methods are used rather than a methodology which is too prescriptive and technical.

Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology is characterised by thinking about the problem situation in the real world using a systems approach to develop conceptual models that from the basis for future action.

Together with the seven stages from Soft Systems Methodology plus the use of Bob Dick's (1990) convergent interviewing which simultaneously helped develop a rich picture of the problem situation and an increasingly clearer expression of the situation, the model was explicitly positioned to emphasise implications for team leaders, managers etc..

Key definitions

Key definitions were stated to create a threashold of understanding. These include:

Understanding systems... as a set of elements, mutually related such that the set constitutes a purposeful hole and the elements participate to sustain the whole. The three elements are inputs, transformations and outputs.

Systems in engineering... as a linear function like an equation.

Systems in management... a cyclical function.

Participants were defined as:
Customers... the beneficiaries of transformations
Actors... carry out transformations
Owners... control transformations


Transformations... The conversion of inputs to outputs.

An Holon... A conceptual system with properties that enable it to exist as an entity.

The World View... The meaningful context in which transformations take place.

The Root Definition... Expresses the core purpose of the activity system.

Rich Pictures... Pictorial representations of the upgrade opportunity and the Root definition.

Values... Beliefs about what is important that enables performance to be categorised as 'good' or 'bad'.

Building the model.
1. Recognising the problem as a quality upgrade opportunity.
2. The situation expressed.
3. The Root definition.
4. Combining concept models into Holons.
5. Comparing concept models with the real world view.
6. Is the process leading to a desirable and feasible change?
7. Take action to improve the situation.

The model in action.
1. Recognising the problem as a quality upgrade opportunity.
Using adaptive technology to assist persons with disabilities is viewed as a quality upgrade opportunity systemically.

2. The situation expressed.
Improved group and organisational effectiveness through the empowerment of all individuals to have effective input involvement.

3. The Root Definition.
People with disabilities have that need to use adaptive technologies including computer hardware and software to assist them in function effectively in academic environment. This set of systems will help identify label and work with those tools in a way that's comfortable affordable and empowering.

4. Combining concept models into holons.
The following holons were constructed:
4.1 Maximising performance through the recognition of a dynamic interplay between systems people in tools.
4.2 Systems and tools can be used as a means of leveraging human effort.
4.3 Although systems people and tools have their own men unique characteristics, views and priorities they can be combined to achieve quality outputs.
4.4 It is very important for policymakers manages and leaders to base action on the appropriate set of values for the subject situation.
4.5 training needs differ considerably from person-to-person. An effective process allows each individual to scope to feel comfortable with their own rate of progress in acquiring knowledge and skills.

5. Comparing with the real world view.
The model, so far, can be seen to describe the functioning of an orchestra. The musicians use the tools, follow a set of systems guided by the conductor to produce a great performance.

6. Is process leading to a desirable and feasible change?
Issues once classed appropriately can be directed to the responsible agent, (Team Leader, Manager, Committee etc.) for consideration as systemically desirable and culturally feasible.

7. Take action to improve the situation.
Implementing the model, now empowers more people and involves high levels of commitment to a quality upgrade on the identified situation.

References

Checkland P. 1999, "Systems thinking, Systems Practice", John Wiley & Sons, West Susex Checkland P. & Scholes J. 1999, "Soft Systems Methodology in Action" John Wiley & Sons, West Sussex

Dick Bob 1990, "Convertgent interviewing" Version 3, Interchange. Chapel Hill

Kendall Kenneth E & Kendall Julie E 1999, "Systems Analysis and Design", 4th Edition, Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey


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