Soft operational analysis (OA)

Contrasting soft OA with Churchman’s systems approach

It is not often that I come across a concept map in a systems book. In fact, in the more than six years that I have studied soft systems thinking, in particular Churchman’s systems approach, I have not even once come across a single proper concept map of the type devised by Joe Novak of the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC), which is of the  type that I would call a concept map (proper). This blog is full of them, so I am obviously a true-to-hart aficionado, even though I do not follow all IHMC recommendation in my drawing practice. In this post I will redraw the concept map that I found and will examine some of its key aspects.

Soft OA concept map     The first ever systems thinking concept map I have come across is the one depicting the key elements of ‘soft’ operational analysis (OA) on p. 49 of the “Analyst-Oriented Volume: Code of Best Practice for ‘Soft’ Operational Analysis” of the “NATO Guide for Judgement-Based Operational Analysis in Defence Decision Making”, which was published in 2012 and is available here. The report writes some very nice things about concept mapping: “This figure in itself is an example of ‘soft’ OA: a concept map where key concepts and their relationships are depicted in order to create a structured visual image of the ‘problematic situation’. Its purpose is creating clarity, focus and enabling communication and debate.”

Limits of concept mapping       I could not have said it better, except for one crucial point: In my experience it is very difficult, if not impossible, to represent the full problem space of any problematique  or wicked problem in a single concept map. There are simply too many conflicting decision or design issues involved. A ‘systems smart’ dissolution or resolution will always involve a mental jump of some kind, a kind of “ah-ha!” experience, before we see a way ahead. The NATO guide puts so much emphasis on validity and credibility that we may fall in the same trap as the past ‘rigour’ proponents, which may trouble our troubled view even further.

concept map of 'soft' operational analysisElements of soft OA      Very briefly, decision-makers are faced with ill-structured, wicked problems that have decision issues that are seemingly impossible to address adequately. Yet, they need action plans or at the very least get some very good ideas of how to move forward. Soft OA suggests that rational study designs can enable the structuring and understanding of the wicked decision issues. These study designs are carried out by the stakeholders involved, including the decision-makers and clients, using appropriate problem resolving methods suggested by ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ soft OA analysts under the guidance of ‘neutral’ soft OA facilitators. If the analysts follow best practice the validity of the study results can be assured, which in turn leads to credibility and acceptability to the key decision makers. Crucially, there is judgment in all the stages of soft OA, including the final decision to implement recommendations or not. That’s why the report prefers the term “Judgement-Based Operational Analysis. The adjacent concept map is by and large based on the concept map in the report.

Some difficulties in soft OA         The NATO report is full of good advice for all those who work in or for soft OA. I can ‘t help noting, though, that much of it could have come straight out of Churchman’s trilogy on the systems approach (1968, 1971, 1979). As I have pointed out earlier, the idea of multimethodology is at the origin of Churchman’s dialectical systems approach, which is in fact OA a long time ‘avant la lettre’. The report becomes a bit confusing where it talks of stakeholders and decision makers being clients. In itself this is nothing new, except that it ignores the solution proposed by Churchman: there are four roles in any plan to resolve or dissolve a wicked problem, represented by his four role categories of client/beneficiary, decision-maker, planner, and systems philosopher. Everybody involved can play one or more roles. One might even suggest that the more everybody plays all four roles in different ways, the better. Churchman adds that there are many fundamental relationships and patterns between these four categories and eight more categories. Some of these relationships are dealt with in some of the methods, models and best practices described or suggested in the report, but not all, and certainly not all in their full interdependency, which is another key principle in Churchman’s approach.

The scrutineer    In section 4.2 (p. 58) of the NATO report there is one individual that merits special attention, that of scrutineer or reviewer, auditor. I suggest that if a study is completed and the dialectical systems approach of Churchman has not been made use of explicitly, at least one professional scrutineer should use it as part of his task. It could be argued that if Churchman’s principles, concepts and insights have already been dealt with by the methods and models suggested by the analysts, then there is no need to apply them again. The question is: how can we know that this is indeed fully the case without checking? Another question is: what other approach or method or methodology is sufficiently generic and fundamental so as to be able to fulfill the same scrutinizing role as Churchman’s dialectical systems approach? Lastly, if a non-OA approach has been used to address a wicked problem (but then, has the problem been recognized as such?) it would appear even more wise to scrutinize the result using Churchman’s approach.

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About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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