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Tuesday, August 4 • 17:00 - 17:30
Can We Use Maturana's Theory of Autopoiesis to Enhance Checkland's Soft Systems Methodology?

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Amongst the systemic methodologies available to systems practitioners, Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is one of the most used problem structuring methods. However, some critics have argued that it has serious shortcomings particularly in the initial phases when SSM attempts to structure the situation and when deciding which areas of a problematic situation are deemed to be selected as relevant. Also, issues of power and dominance are left to the SSM practitioner’s own devises; the tools offered, e.g.: rich pictures and the three analyses are only sketched guidelines/models and in some cases not useful and arguable difficult to operationalise. Furthermore, during and after an SSM intervention, during  the process debating changes, when SSM advises to implement ‘culturally desirable’ and ‘systemically feasible’ changes offers the concept of “accommodation” a key and subtle feature of SSM , the researcher is left with a vague idea about as to how to use it, leaving a frustrating gap in the methodology.  

As it has widely reported in the management science and system literature, Soft Systems Methodology operates under what is called the interpretivism paradigm. The main tenets of this paradigm are that reality is complex; it is socially constructed; and a product of continues people’ interactions (interpretivist Ontology); also it assumes that the observer is not independent that is: a point of view (perspective) influences whatever is studied. Under this paradigm, the aim of any intervention is therefore to understand reality through interpretative process in which meaning is attributed (anti-positivist epistemology). No perspective exhausts the richness of reality or distorts the nature of things; each view is unitary not global.

While Checkland approach lies certainly in the interpretivist camp, the philosophical implications of Maturana work are more difficult to frame. Maturana theories of cognition imply certainly an antirealist ontological position. Epistemologically, he claims that the world as we experience (or constitute) is a subject depend and that that objective knowledge (or transcendental knowledge as he labels it) is impossible. For some commentators, his position is inconsistent and rather than confining him into the constructivism, he can be better understood as critical realist. For others his radical claims denying the existence of any independent reality (make him a candidate of radical constructivism. In this paper, and for the purposes of contrasting the two approaches and seeking synergies between them, we will adopt the most widely argument of placing him in the constructivism camp.

The work of Maturana and Varela  on the nature of living, the biological nature of cognition and knowledge have been having a far reaching influence on the systems and various others fields. It has been argued that Maturana’s ideas lean more to a constructivist paradigm.  We argue that SSM popularity and some reportedly shortcoming in its application seems to be a consequence of the interpretivism position, and we proposed to address this by bringing concepts developed around  Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis (ToA) and Biology of Cognition (BoC).

This paper attempts to address SSM limitations and attempts to enhance the above SSM applications, by exploring how two key concepts from Maturana’s ToA and BoC namely: (i) Structured-Determined Systems; and (ii) Organizational Closure might help to overcome the limitations and complement Checkland's SSM process. In this paper, we propose a SSM autopoietic framework in which the above concepts are grafted in the well-known SSM 7-steps. This is a work in progress work and in this paper, we present the framework together with a number of questions to reflect as a way to refine the model before using it in practice. We hope to use the model in a real world situation later on.

Keywords: Autopoiesis; SSM; Biology of Cognition; Accommodation; decision process

avatar for Shankar Sankaran

Shankar Sankaran

Professor, University of Technology Sydney
Vice President Research and Publications, International Society for the Systems Sciences.SIG Chair: Action Research (see below for information)Shankar Sankaran specialises in project management, systems thinking and action research. He is a Core Member of a UTS Research Centre on... Read More →


Alberto Paucar-Caceres

Manchester Metropolitan University
ISSS Regular

Tuesday August 4, 2015 17:00 - 17:30 CEST
Elk Scandic Berlin Potsdamer Platz, Gabriele-Tergit-Promenade 19, 10963 Berlin, Germany

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