The theoretical underpinnings of soft systems methodology-comparing the work of Geoffrey Vickers and Humberto Maturana
Brocklesby J. (2007) The theoretical underpinnings of soft systems methodology-comparing the work of Geoffrey Vickers and Humberto Maturana. Systems research and behavioral science 24(2): 157–169. Available at http://cepa.info/2800
Table of Contents
Vickers and Maturana as systems thinkers
Basic epistemological propositions
Implications for soft systems methodology
The What Question
The Where Question
The How Question
This paper seeks to juxtapose the work of Sir Geoffrey Vickers and Humberto Maturana with a view to thinking more about the theoretical underpinnings of Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology (SSM) and of soft systems and soft operational research more generally. The paper argues that Maturana’s ’Theory of the Observer’ can usefully complement Vickers by specifying more precisely the nature of the cognitive structures that underpin people’s descriptions of situations, by clarifying the relationship between cognitive creativity and the historical and relational constraints that bear upon people’s descriptions and explanations, and by providing a more complete description of the dynamics that underpin individual and social learning.
Key words: appreciative system; soft systems; theory of the observer.
In seeking, a posteriori, to articulate the theoretical underpinnings of soft systems methodology (SSM), Peter Checkland (1986, 1995) identifies Sir Geoffrey Vickers’ work as providing a convincing explanation of what is involved when people deliberate and act in relation to complex situations of concern. Although Vickers is not the only theoretical influence, it is on this basis that Checkland nominates Vickers’ epistemology as an appropriate description of the process of inquiry embodied in SSM. Recast in the form of a model, Checkland and Casar (1986:4) outline this epistemology ’…in the hope that (the model) will make it easier to relate Vickers’ work to that of others.’
The work on which this paper is based began some years ago as a direct response to Checkland’s invitation. At the time I knew enough about Vickers work to recognize some surface similarities between his epistemology and that of Humberto Maturana whose work was then occupying most of my attention. Maturana, the eminent neuro-biologist and systems thinker is perhaps best known for collaborating with Francisco Varela in developing the theory of autopoiesis (see 1970, 1980, 1987). Of late however, he has written extensively on the same kind of topics that interested Vickers (see 1988a, 1988b, 1990, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2003, 2006). Even a cursory reading of this literature shows that despite their very different backgrounds (Vickers an administrator and lawyer, Maturana a biologist) there is a surprising large area of common ground between them.
In working through these resonances, it struck me that some of Maturana’s theoretical propositions were particularly helpful in making sense of some of my own diverse experiences over many years of working with SSM. In fact Maturana’s theory matched my experiences very closely; it seemed to provide possible answers to questions such as why on some occasions I had witnessed SSM generate episodes of great insight and a strong sense that positive outcomes had been achieved, yet on other occasions there had been more than a little frustration with the process and disappointment with the outcomes. This raised an interesting possibility that a more thorough assessment of SSM from an explicitly Maturana-inspired perspective might explain these disparities and perhaps point to ways in which things might be approached or done differently.
The structure of the paper is as follows. I begin by outlining a number of basic similarities between the general approach taken by both Vickers and Maturana. This focuses on what they have to say about the conditions and limitations of human beings as observers, focusing specifically on distinctive characteristics of their approach that identify them as systems thinkers. Next I consider their epistemologies, by which I mean their accounts of the process through which people generate meaning in relation to, and knowledge of, the ’realities’ in which they exist. Finally, since Vickers’ work is regarded as a major theoretical underpinning for SSM, I use the Vickers/Maturana comparison to take a fresh look at SSM.
Vickers and Maturana as systems thinkers
Although they have very different backgrounds, Vickers and Maturana share a number of common concerns. Fundamentally they both look to describe and explain the processes that occur as people go about extracting meaning from their experiences. Maturana refers to this as a process of ’observation’ and his ’theory of the observer’ is couched in these very general terms. Vickers agenda is similar but defined somewhat more precisely. On retirement from professional life, he set himself the task of making sense of his experience in the various legal and administrative settings that had consumed his working life. According to Checkland (1995:8), Vickers’ project was to come up with an epistemology which would ’account for what we manifestly do when we sit round board tables or in committee rooms’ and, ’to construct an epistemology that can provide a convincing account of the process by which human beings and human groups deliberate and act.’ (see, for example, Vickers, 1965, 1970, Open Systems Group, 1984, Adams et al., 1987).
In both cases then, the main subject of inquiry is the experiential world of human beings. Neither Vickers nor Maturana theorise on independently-existing ’real’ phenomena and there are no claims of objectivity. All experiences and explanations, even scientific ones, are, they claim, observer-dependent. That is they reflect the cognitive structures, or as Vickers’ (1963) puts it the ’systems of appreciation’ of whoever is doing the explaining. They further believe that this inescapable human involvement in knowledge production creates an obligation for people (managers, scientists and policy makers in particular) to take responsibility, especially for decisions and actions that others might see arising in the name of ’truth’ or of ’the facts’.
Consistent with this, Maturana (1988a: 123) presents his ideas not as universal truths, but – as he puts it – as ’abstractions of the coherences of experience’. Similarly, Vickers (quoted in Checkland, 2005: 288/289), adopts the clever phrase ’moored in vacancy’ to describe the lack of absolutes and dogma in his work. His theories are grounded in human experience: they ’provide a framework for making sense of the real, the actual, social process (emphasis added).
Beyond this shared concern with human experience as both the subject of inquiry and as the source of ideas about it, there are a number of other aspects of Maturana and Vickers’ work that earmark both as systems thinkers.
First, in seeking to convey the idea that human beings are intimately connected with each other and very much part of the fabric of the world they inhabit, they both strongly emphasise holism, connectivity, and relationships. Until quite recently Maturana has tended to focus mainly on providing a theoretical framework that integrates biological phenomena such as cellular biology and neuronal architecture, with social phenomena such as cognition, perception, social interaction, language, emotions and human behaviour more generally. Of late however (see 1997, 1998) he has turned his attention to matters pertaining to issues of global concern which brings him closer to Vickers. Vickers interest in connectivity has always been in practical areas such as ecology, technology, and local, national and international politics. One of Vickers’ great insights is to conceptualize public policy as involving a system-wide constant adjusting and fine-tuning of human connections and relationships especially on these issues of global importance (see Johnson, 2005).
In addition to emphasizing connectivity and relationships, both take a process approach in explaining phenomena. As Ison (2005: 280) points out, it was Vickers awareness of process as prior to objects, and his appreciation of pattern, history and feedback processes that attracted him to systems in the first place. Likewise Maturana’s entire theory of the observer is process-based. For him ’observing’ is not an endowment or characteristic of being human; rather it is the outcome of a generative process. It arises through a sequence of historical events that starts with the basic idea of life itself and culminates in the ability of human beings, through the mechanism of language, to reflect upon and explain their experiences. Within this framework, language itself is taken to be a process. It is not, as many would argue, an abstract set of symbols for describing an observer-independent world, rather it is coordinated actions between people in constantly unfolding social networks. Through this process of languaging objects ’arise’ as proxies for coordinated actions; they are not pre-existing entities. This is remarkably similar to Vickers suggestion that when we categorise entities as ’objects’ the key is not the object as an entity in-itself, rather it has to do with how we relate to the object, in other words what we do with it.
Third, Maturana and Vickers both reject the logic of linear chains of cause and effect. For Vickers, what arises as behaviour is an emergent property of what he refers to as ’interactive fields’; it is not reducible to component causes. Maturana makes a similar point. His pivotal concept of ’structure determinism’ aims to get across the idea that ultimately what happens to a system can only ever depend on its own architecture and internal dynamics (see, for example, 2006: 91). On this account, although the structure of a system conserves a history of past interactions, what happens ’inside’ that structure cannot be explained as a result of what might be happening ’outside’. Beyond this, what then shows up as ’behaviour’ is, something that arises as a relational phenomenon as systems in ’networks of structural coupling’ (c.f. Vickers’ interactive fields), interact with other systems and with the environment more generally. I shall say more about this later.
Fourth, Vickers and Maturana are both highly critical of goal seeking models of human behaviour. They are prepared to acknowledge that goals and goal seeking show up in people’s descriptions and explanations, and have some value especially in the technical arena. However in the social domain and in life more generally, goal-seeking models have limited explanatory value. Vickers regards goal seeking as secondary to the need to monitor and maintain relationships with objects and events and with other stakeholders whose perspectives may vary. Maturana considers goal-seeking and other mentalistic explanations of behaviour to be only a subset of a much more fundamental process of cognition that applies to all living systems, including – but not limited – to human beings. Since this perspective on cognition is bound up with the process of structural coupling and with the process of living more generally, it resonates quite strongly with Vickers’ relationships-maintaining view.
One final observation about Vickers and Maturana that is worth mentioning is that like many other systems scholars, they are both extremely strong independent thinkers. Neither shows much respect for traditional academic boundaries, nor have they shown much interest in possibly relevant literature from other sources. Checkland (2005: 286), claims that Vickers preferred to leave the matter of exploring connections to others; choosing instead to focus on mining his own experiences. In contrast, Maturana claims that pursuing connections with others would detract from the careful interweaving and inter-linking of ideas around an internally consistent worldview. Since this systemic feature is arguably one of the strongest features of Maturana’s work (Brocklesby, 2004), this is not an unreasonable line to take.
Basic epistemological propositions
Rarely when someone makes a statement or formulates a proposition about an event or situation, does the statement ’come out of the blue’. Nearly always it is grounded in some greater whole. Vickers uses the term ’appreciative system’ to describe this greater whole.
The starting point for understanding Vickers’ epistemology (see Checkland, 1995) is the ’Lebenswelt’: an interacting flux of events and ideas unfolding through time. The meaning that an actor attaches to the Lebenswelt depends upon his or her ’appreciative setting’, which is a state of readiness to see and value things in one way rather than another. Underpinning the appreciative setting are three sets of judgments: about the ’reality’ of the situation (’reality judgements’), about whether this is good or bad (’value judgements’), and about what might be done to improve the situation.
These judgments are developed in earlier appreciative cycles which create a predisposition to see new situations in particular ways. Thus events and ideas that appear in the Lebenswelt are evaluated using pre-existing standards. Once made these various judgments contribute to the ideas stream of the Lebenswelt and provide the standards that carry forward to further cycles of the appreciative system. They are also the basis for action that is designed to improve the situation in terms of maintaining or changing relationships. Such action contributes to the events stream. While the basic form of the appreciative system remains constant over time, its lived manifestation, that is, how it is realized in practice and in particular cases, is under constant modification.
For Vickers then, the meaning that someone attaches to a problem situation depends upon some appreciative system. For Maturana it depends upon what he refers to as an ’explanatory domain’. An explanatory domain arises as someone seeks to explain a set of experiences in relation to some situation. As with Vickers’, this is historically conditioned. It also has two elements, one physiological the other social. Physiologically, experiences are made possible by specific patterns of neuronal activity. These may be triggered externally but are structurally, and are therefore historically, determined. However experiences do not directly correspond with neuronal activity. Experiencing something happens through language, the very nature of which is socio-historical.
Within this sodo-historical or relational domain the process of explaining has two key aspects. First, drawing upon their past and present experiences, people seek to create a sequence or history of events (or a ’generative mechanism’) that provides, what for them, an adequate account of the phenomenon to be explained. Thus, if for example the experience to be explained is a problem situation, then the generative mechanism would be a reformulation of the observer’s experience into a story or sequence of events not just of ’what is going on’ (i.e. Vickers ’reality judgements’), but also a reformulation of how it came to be.
The second component in producing what might be taken to be an adequate explanation involves the individual applying some other criterion in assessing the validity of the generative mechanism. This might simply be a preference for one ’type’ of explanation over another. For example, someone might have a preference for explaining natural phenomena scientifically rather than spiritually. They might also be predisposed to attribute the problems of organisations to the deficiencies of individuals than systemic factors. Alternatively, like Vickers’ ’judgements of value’, such a criterion might arise out of preferences based on value, that is, on good or bad and/or on relationship maintaining or breaking.
Aggregating all of the objects, events and processes that are contained in both the generative mechanism and the informal criterion creates an ’explanatory domain’ (see Maturana, 1988a: 33-34). Generated historically and socially, each domain has its own ’operational coherence?. This latter notion conveys a sense that for the observer the various experienced components (i.e. elements, concepts, claims, facts, speculations, myths, nuances and reflections) belonging to the domain hang together in a regular and predictable manner. In other words they fit together as a systemic whole much the same as with the appreciative system.
An explanatory domain specifies domains of ’facts’, ’rationality’ and ’reality’. In other words it has its own ’truths’ that pertain to it, it will respond to deductive reasoning within its boundaries, and it is lived as though it existed independently. It also specifies a domain of ’legitimate actions’, that is, it contains or implies actions that the observer regards as legitimate because they are supported by the explanations that he or she accepts in that domain. Again all of this is very similar to Vickers. Vickers argued that what counts as a fact is essentially a judgement that depends on the appreciative system of the inquirer. Moreover, the relation between judgments of fact and value and subsequent actions is close and mutual. When someone acts on the basis of ’the facts of the situation’ these are only relevant in relation to some judgments of value and judgments of value are operative only in relation to some configuration of fact’.
Maturana’s description of how explanatory domains emerge and evolve is also similar to Vickers’. For Vickers, appreciative systems alter as they contribute to and reflect what is perceived to be happening in the daily flow of events and ideas. Maturana (1988a) agree that the viability of explanations is contingent upon there being a congruence between the elements of an explanatory domain and what he refers to as the ’praxis of living’ experience of the observer. In other words, as people’s experiences change, so do their explanations. As their explanations change, their actions change. However in emphasising how the viability of explanations is also contingent upon there being a reaffirmation of deduced as well as immediate and actual experiences, Maturana places the observer in a much more active role than seems to be the case with Vickers.
To summarize, although Maturana and Vickers’ various propositions have been derived in different ways and are explained using different terminology, there are a number of key points on which their views would seem to converge. First, since attempts to explain the world as if it existed independently and/or to elucidate external ’causes’ of behaviour are considered futile, primacy should be given to peoples’ experiences. Second, ’facts’ about the world are relative to the historicity of cognitive structures such as appreciative systems and explanatory domains. Third, multiple equally legitimate versions of social reality are always available. Fourth, people’s cognitive structures develop through social processes. Fifth, people’s ’knowledge’ of the world is the result of actions carried out by active not passive beings. Sixth, the social world is one of flux and transformation – a constantly changing pattern of interactions that reflect and create new phenomena, new explanations of these, and new actions. We live in a constantly changing world and the world is transformed each time we participate in recurrent interactions.
Although there are these areas of commonality between Maturana and Vickers, there are variations in the level of detail provided. As we have seen Vickers’ main project was to comment on matters of global concern, and it has been left to others – Checkland in particular – to piece together the details of his epistemology. Maturana’s epistemology, by contrast, is more developed and has been constructed in much more detail, often painstakingly so. In the light of this, the next section attempts to take a fresh look at SSM through the lens of Maturana’s work. The aim is to consider what theoretical and practical benefits there might be in terms of enhancing our understanding of the SSM process or improving its practice either by plugging gaps left by Vickers or through a more detailed understanding. The aim is not to suggest that Maturana’s work ought to replace Vickers as the major theoretical underpinning of SSM; merely to suggest that it can generate some useful additional insights that might assist and improve practice and perhaps stimulate further research.
Implications for soft systems methodology
According to Checkland (1981:260), in the first instance SSM was pressed into service with virtually no theoretical backing. Only later, having examined SSM to ascertain what theory was implied by it, does he align it with Vickers. It was discovered, says Checkland, that the process of SSM mapped to a remarkable degree the ideas Vickers had been developing, hence, that SSM ‘…makes practical use of Vickers concepts’, and, in particular, ’SSM offers a way of discovering what Vickers refers to as the appreciative setting’ (Checkland, 1995: 5/8).
SSM can be seen as a way of formally orchestrating the workings of the appreciative system social process in a number of ways. First, the role played by Checkland’s ’Weltanschauung’ concept, that is as mediating between the so-called ’external’ world and an observer’s interpretation of it, is broadly akin to the role played by Vickers’ appreciative setting. Second, the process envisaged in the idea of the appreciative system of comparing judgments of fact and value with envisaged alternative relationships and comparing reality judgments with standards, that is comparing the ’actual’ with the ’norm’, mirrors one of the key defining features of SSM. This is to compare conceptual models based on declared Weltanschauungen with each other and with their so-called real world equivalents. Third, Vickers’ claim that the world is a constantly changing pattern of events and ideas is mirrored through the SSM intervention process, that is, there is an on-going cycle of action and reflection and no permanent solutions.
Let us consider these elements in more detail.
The What Question
For Checkland (1981: 220) ’… every statement about a problem situation must be a statement about the system plus a particular Weltanschauung associated with it’. Thus the notion of Weltanschauung (’W’ hereafter) arises as a central and distinctive feature of SSM. Indeed Checkland (1981: 18) goes so far as to claim that ’… this concept is the most important one in the methodology’.
Given its centrality, the W concept is surprisingly underdeveloped. Checkland variously describes it as ’a view of the world’ (1981: 214); ’an in-built image of the world’ (1981: 217); ’a set of assumptions about a problem situation taken as given in communication between members of social groups’ (1981: 283); and ’an unquestioned world-image by means of which we perceive the world’ (1981: 285). This ambiguity in itself is not a problem. It only becomes one in the context of a methodology that serves to: ’ …change as well as to explore…people’s viewpoints…’ (Checkland and Davies, 1986: 109, emphases added).
Recognizing the vagueness of the W concept, Fairtlough (1982) identifies a number of different senses in which Checkland uses the term in SSM. In response Checkland and Davies’ (1986: 109) remark that the term is deliberately used in a broad sense and elect not to further elaborate claiming that little would be gained by pursuing debates about ’personality assessment’. This is a curious response since we are told that the whole point of SSM is to explore and change W. Surely Fairtlough (1982: 132) is right; if the aim is to change something, then we need to know what it is that we are changing. We also need to know something about where we direct our efforts and how we go about changing things.
Subsequently Checkland and Scholes (1990: 300) speculate more on the basic process that underpins how human beings come to experience and make sense of their worlds. In relation to some subject of discourse this involves creating a figure ground’ relationship that can be ’predicated’, i.e. something can be ’said about’ the figure. Characteristic of human beings, Checkland and Scholes then say, is their ability to formulate many alternative predicates. Discourse then involves comparing one predicate with another and /or with perceived reality. These comparisons create arguments in relation to evidence and underpin decisions to act in different ways. Clearly this mirrors the process in SSM in which conceptual models based on particular W are compared with real world experiences. Hence the claim that SSM …is a more organised and formal version of what we do anyway when we think purposefully … you cannot help but use the form of SSM whenever you do serious organised thinking … (which is why) … using it seems so natural.’ (Checkland and Scholes, 1990: 300).
Questions remain though about whether enough is said about the process through which human beings attribute meaning to situations in which they have an interest. To say that we make a set of distinctions, that we then say ’something’ about these, and that the various ’somethings’ can be compared, leaves a great deal to the imagination. Vickers’ notion of the appreciative setting is less vague, and hence more useful, since in explicitly identifying the various judgements and standards it provides a clearer picture of what processes like SSM seek to tease out. But questions still remain as to whether these concepts are fit for purpose.
Maturana, I suspect, would almost certainly concur with Checkland’s proposition about the figure-ground relationship. Relating mentally to any being, object, thing or unity involves making an act of distinction that defines ’it’ as being separate from the background in which it is located (Maturana and Varela, 1987: 40). The sole condition for existence is the cleaving of a unity from an ambience by the act of distinction made by an observer. Thus whenever we refer to ’it’ we are implying an operation that constitutes ’it’ or ’brings it forth’, in other words that brings it into existence. This position is somewhat different to the Vickers and Checkland position which is that cognitive structures such as appreciative settings and W act as a filtering device for extracting meaning from pre-existing phenomena. That aside, having enacted distinctions in our descriptions of experienced phenomena, we can then, as Checkland says, predicate or ’say something about’ whatever it is that has been distinguished. And it is here, in drawing attention to the generative process, to the ’informal validity criterion’ (or ’preference’), and to the coherences of the resultant explanatory domain, that Maturana identifies with much more precision what one might say methodologies like SSM ought to be revealing and exploring. More importantly, to the extent that an accommodation necessitates change in peoples’ viewpoints it identifies what, of the context from which a particular viewpoint emerges, needs to be changed.
The Where Question
The previous section sought to say more about the structure and content of the cognitive structures that processes such as SSM seek to reveal, explore, and in some cases change. Knowing more about what these structures are, or what they might be, is important, but if the object of the exercise is to encourage people to develop new understandings then we also need to know about where, as phenomena they reside and to whom or what they belong.
Self-evidently, one might claim, they ’belong’ to the people concerned. But how much? How much do they ’belong’ to individual observers and how much to the circumstances of their construction? Anecdotally there is plenty of evidence to suggest that after much debate and apparent learning people can enthusiastically champion a newly emergent course of action only later – and in different relational circumstances – to revert to previous understandings. What seemed like a good solution one day can be a source of serious angst the next. And what often seems like a good solution in one context can be quickly discounted outside it. As Nicholls (1987: 239) puts it: ’It is a mistake to think that the right reframing/problem structuring statement transforms experience – not for long it doesn’t’. It is in relation to questions such as these that this issue of where (new) understandings reside and to whom or what they belong, becomes important.
As we have seen, for Maturana, there are two domains involved in observing. There is the domain of physiology and anatomy, and there is the domain of interactions and social relations. These domains are related but conceptually distinct, and for that reason, it is vital to avoid ’collapsing’ the two domains into one. In other words phenomena that belong to one domain ought not to be explained in terms that pertain to another. For example, what we know of as observable ’behaviour’ cannot be explained anatomically since behaviour arises in the relational domain as a property that is emergent out of the interaction between anatomical movements and the physical, social and cultural characteristics of the context. They are, as Maturana and Varela put it, ’…an outside view of the dance of internal relations’ (1987: 166, emphasis added).
Anatomical movements are of course necessary for ’behaviour’ to occur but behaviour itself is something that arises out of the interaction between the body and the medium. The same anatomical movements that are involved in gesturing, walking, striking etc. result in very different behaviours depending on the nature of the medium in which these things happen.
Since the mechanism through which it takes place is language, and since language, by its very nature is a social or relational phenomenon, the same logic applies in relation to observing. It thus follows that when people think about, describe, and explain problem situations, as they are required to do in SSM, these activities very much ’belong’ to the circumstances of their generation even though these are made possible by the people involved. This rehearses an argument made by Kay (1997), namely that the W concept not only ’arises’ in the relational domain but, fundamentally, can only be explained through what goes on there.
Against this background, there is more than just a hint that Checkland commits the logical ’collapsing-two-domains-into-one’ error about which Maturana speaks. Witness, for example, his suggestion that there is some direct W-related physiological or anatomical structure – responsible for information processing – hard-wired into the brain. For example, ’(we have) … in our heads stocks of ideas by means of which we interpret the world outside ourselves’ (1990: 19, emphasis added), and ’… Weltanschauungen are the stocks of images in our heads … which we use to make sense of the world … ’ (1989: 81 emphasis added).
Although, on this view, these ’images’ are primarily taken to ’belong’ to the participating individual Checkland does acknowledge these are the result of historical and social conditioning. Despite this great store is placed by the ability of SSM to provide the catalyst for individual and social learning, and, ’given the irreducible freedom … (of people) … to select from a range of possible meanings’ (1981: 218), on creativity and change. Mingers (1984) notes Checkland’s primary focus on individual subjectivities preference and takes this to reflect his ’voluntarist’ approach in understanding human action and ’idealist’ stance in articulating the relationship between thinking and their action. Tsoukas and Papoulis (1996: 855) detect the same tendency in Vickers to underscore the role of individual creativity and experimentation and the concomitant changeability of appreciative systems.
If there is no localized structure inside the nervous system that corresponds with what we take to be cognitive frames such as W to be, then what is there? For Maturana it seems that the only such thing that is ’carried around in the head’ is a neuronal architecture whose structure reflects two things: its own internal dynamics, and its history of past interactions. This structure makes observing possible (without a nervous system there would be no observing), and, because of its historical conditioning, it enables and constrains what can and what cannot happen through particular relational encounters. Thereafter the specific understanding that emerges is a reformulation of the observer’s experiences in the relational domain, in the moment in which it occurs. On this account while human beings’ neurological structures are clearly important in terms of making meanings possible, the actual meanings and cognitive structures that emerge lie somewhat less ’in their heads’ and somewhat more in their relational encounters.
From this, although Checkland is undoubtedly correct in his assertion that SSM ’…embodies a paradigm of learning…’ (1981: 287); and it is ’ …a learning system’ (1989: 78), it does not necessarily follow that changes in W imply significant and sustainable changes in the people concerned. Clearly what happens in relational encounters can and do trigger structural changes in the architecture of someone’s nervous system. Indeed this is how Maturana and others (see 1988a: 74, and Winograd and Flores, 1987: 44-47) describe learning. However since they take place in the relational domain, and fundamentally since they are relational phenomena, it would be erroneous to automatically associate shifts in people’s thoughts and descriptions with learning. An equally plausible explanation is that they merely reflect the specific circumstances of the relational domain in which they occur. If there is not a clear distinction between these two domains, and an understanding of the relationship between them, one cannot account for such ’changes’ other than to assume that there has been learning.
Summarising this section, we can say that Maturana’s more precise clarification of the two domains that are involved in observing provides an interesting theoretical take on the problem that besets intervention approaches such as SSM, namely the ’non-stickability’ and often transitory nature of new emergent understandings. While people’s statements and understandings about a problem situation that might emerge through an interactive process such as SSM are realized through their historically conditioned anatomical structures, essentially they are social or relational phenomena that in any instant will, to a large extent, reflect the circumstances pertaining to this domain.
The How Question
By and large the SSM literature has not directly addressed the issue of how the methodology itself can assist in converting diverse viewpoints into an accommodation to take agreed action in dealing with a problem situation. Certainly there is an acknowledgment that ’learning’ is the key mechanism; however quite how this works remains shrouded in mystery. Checkland remarks that if his experience is anything to go by, accommodation does seem to happen, and that most of those who participate in SSM debates are willing to acknowledge that there has been learning. The success of the methodology, he claims, is: ’…measured by the readiness of actors to acknowledge that learning had occurred…’ (Checkland, 1981: 253).
Despite this, Checkland is not unaware of the complexities involved. Shared understandings, he admits/…will have to be established, negotiated, argued, tested, in a complex social process’ (1989: 76, emphasis added; see also Checkland and Davies, 1986: 111). He further acknowledges that ‘…getting to (the) … accommodation, and to the motivation to action which is an equal concern requires cultural knowledge.’ (Checkland and Scholes, 1989: 44)
For Vickers, reaching such an accommodation arises through comparing notions of ’what is’ (measured according to relationships) with notions of ’what could be’. In SSM this happens when various conceptual models based on particular W’s are compared with perceptions of the so-called ’real world’. Through this process Checkland (1989: 82) claims that we ’learn our way collaboratively to the most relevant perceptions in a particular situation in order to take action to improve the situation’. The difficulty is that while learning, communication and interaction are clearly pivotal to the SSM process, there are no compelling theories about how these processes work. Quite how the social process envisioned in SSM leads to the expected outcome is unclear. Reaching accommodation is left as some form of trick that the user must somehow conjure up as best he or she can, and/or as something that magically occurs as a result of learning.
Maturana’s contribution to this question revolves around his very detailed and elaborate theory of social process. Within this, the twin concepts of structure determinism and structural coupling assume great importance, as does the key dynamic that occurs in the space between structurally coupled human beings, that is what he refers to as ’conversation’. Space limitations preclude providing a detailed account of this here. However what can be said is that the structure determinism/structural coupling concepts provide a simple but theoretically sophisticated approach to understanding how systems including human beings interact, how they communicate, and how they and the relationship between them alters over time. It embodies a theory that takes into account previous historical interactions and learning, including what might be learned consciously as well as subconscious changes. ’Conversation’ is defined as a process which describes the interplay and inextricable interlinking between what is said and done (’languaging’) and people’s flow of emotions (’emotioning’). On this view, people’s explanations of the world (and therefore many of their conscious actions) are a result of the nature of the conversations that take place, which ones are ’dominant’ at any moment in time and, within these, how their emotions and distinctions flow over time. Moreover, as we have seen, languaging does not happen just at the level of people’s verbal descriptions. Rather, it is ’…a manner of flowing in living together in a path of coordination of the coordinations of coordinations of behaviour … it is not abstract … it pertains to the concrete domain of doings.’ (Maturana and Bunnell, 1998: 9).
Taken as a whole, there are a priori grounds for suggesting that Maturana can provide all of the major elements of a theory that explains how people might collectively learn their way towards shared understandings and coordinated action. There is a theory of how people explain their worlds and what explanations involve, a theory of how these arise intersubjectively, a theory of interaction between two or more actors, a theory of change and learning, and a theory that inextricably links words and language with actions and communal practice. In addition there are explanations of how the past constrains and connects with the present and how the individual connects with the social. To that extent, there is a significant plugging of theoretical gaps.
But what of practice? Again space limitations mean that I can only offer some general comments on why users of SSM, and neophyte users in particular, might find Maturana’s various propositions useful.
In essence SSM involves a process through which new descriptions of a problem situation emerge that are the basis for new actions. We can surmise that these are underpinned by new or redrawn distinctions, descriptions and explanations that fix both the way the problem situation is viewed and the outcomes deemed to be acceptable as solutions. Thinking about this from a Maturana-inspired perspective raises an interesting paradox. In daily life it is the ’doing things together’ in naturally occurring social networks that is the basis for developing shared explanations and collective action.
It seems to me that this, ’doing things together’, is exactly what is envisaged in SSM. For instance in a classic SSM intervention people might be involved in working on rich pictures, constructing root definitions and conceptual models, and they might spend time comparing these with their experiences of the so-called ’real world’. These things all involve ’doings’, that is it involves people actively creating things that can be shown, discussed, examined and refined. When people do these things together and when they talk about it, the process of mutual structural adjustment which involves learning to appreciate other perspectives and move forward can certainly occur. Questions might remain about whether the various tools of SSM are centrally important or are merely catalysts for people to actively engage with one another. Nonetheless, on the face of it, there is an almost perfect congruence between Maturana’s theory and SSM practice.
The problem however is that only rarely do SSM interventions take place in a setting that might be described as natural and/or spontaneous. Typically an SSM intervention occurs through a sequence of ’events’ or workshops where people are brought together to work on a set of problems or issues. This is far removed from daily life where people’s explanations and actions arise out of the intersections of a multitude of conversations, where linguistic distinctions are underpinned by specific behavioural coordinations, and where people’s couplings are complex and multidimensional. When people come together in the context of an intervention we cannot automatically assume that they will be structurally coupled at all, let alone that there is sufficient ’dimensionality’ to this to provide for the ’to and fro’ process of mutual adaptation on which shared understandings depend. Neither, in an intervention setting, can we assume that conversations will ’just happen’ as they tend to do when people are engaged in their everyday communities of practice. And when they do happen they are not always effective or satisfying to the people involved, neither are they always acted upon beyond the immediate setting.
Hence there are some major challenges: getting people coupled, dealing with the intransigence of historically-ingrained worldviews, opening people up to realising that their views do not necessarily reflect the way the world is, getting them to frame situations differently, making conversations happen, managing their ’emotional flow’, understanding the behavioural and emotional underpinnings of different descriptions of events, dealing with possible conflict between these, finding a place for the ’SSM conversation’ among the cacophony of ’noise’ that occurs beyond the intervention setting, bringing about tangible change by transforming individual learning into organisational learning. And this list is not exhaustive.
One view is that since SSM is simply a more organized and formal version of what human doings do anyway when they think purposefully, there is no great mystery in using it (Checkland and Scholes, 1990: 300). On that basis, it ought to be possible to ’ …give away the approach, to hand it over to people in the problem situation…’ (Checkland and Scholes, 1990: 10). I am not so sure. Dealing with the aforementioned challenges requires a good deal of effort, thought and skill on the part of whoever is managing the process, and arguably, on the part of the participants as well. Creating a community of practice in an intervention setting that can nullify, challenge or extend the influence of naturally occurring ones may not be impossible, but it is by no means easy.
In order for this to happen users of SSM and similar methodologies need to understand the main elements of the underlying social process and they need to be sensitised to and forewarned about the likely difficulties. All of which requires adequate theory.
This paper has attempted to identify a number of similarities between Vickers’ and Maturana’s explanations of the process that underpins how human beings individually and collectively think about their worlds and take action in these. Such comparison enables a fresh look at SSM and, in the process, points to a number of areas where Maturana’s contribution might add value. I have suggested that his more precise specification of the cognitive structures that underpin people’s descriptions of problem situations is useful since users of SSM need to have a clear understanding of what its process seeks to reveal, explore, and possibly change (the ’what’ question). I have suggested that his clarification of where phenomena such as Weltanschauung reside is important in understanding the nature of the relationship between individualistic creativity, which SSM strongly emphasizes, and the constraining relational/social/historical processes that underpin people’s descriptions (the ’where’ question). Finally, I have suggested that Maturana’s theory of social process provides a useful basis for better understanding the complex process through which diverse perspectives might be transformed into sustainable agreements. I am not suggesting that Maturana’s epistemology ought to replace that of Vickers as the main theoretical underpinning of SSM. Rather I am suggesting that there is sufficient common ground between them to provide the basis for their complementary application.
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