A Reflection on SSM as a Critical Social Action Research Method: Towards Improvement of Project Governance


  • Carin Venter




Critical social research; Action research; Critical systems thinking; Soft systems methodology; Project governance; Project decision support


Academic research is often regarded as less than helpful for practice, while knowledge practitioners are accused of failing to apply relevant research in their industries. This study successfully bridged the theory‑practice gap in that it resolved a real‑world problem and added to the body of knowledge, i.e. it aided to: identify underlying social root causes of a flawed project governance process and associated decision support software; define actions for improvement; and realise generalisable theoretical and applied knowledge to improve both theory and practice. It illustrates that collaborative academic research adds value to both academia and industry. This paper discusses an empirical study where soft systems methodology (SSM) was applied as an interventionist action research (AR) method, positioned in the critical systems thinking (CST) and critical social research (CSR) paradigm. SSM is defined as a learning system that facilitates the identification of actions for improvement of problematical social contexts—it gives epistemological guidance to systematically explore perspectives of individuals involved in and affected by social (e.g. organisational) settings, to identify actions for improvement. However, SSM is found to be most often applied interpretively by academia, i.e., to understand a problem context, rather than to improve it, and by practitioners as a consulting tool. SSM successfully facilitates exploring of problematical social contexts, but, according to users of it, fail to effect real and lasting change. It is also quite difficult to extract generalisable learning from its output. In this study, the researcher argues that SSM have the potential to live up to its original intent. So, she positioned SSM in the CST/CSR paradigm by applying an enriched version of it. She guided participants to reflect on inherent flaws in the scrutinised project governance business process and associated decision support software. Hence, by applying methodological pluralism, she also guided them to reflect on actions for change in light of the organisation’s socially constructed structures and their effects on involved and affected stakeholders of the process. SSM was enriched by also reflecting on the output of facilitated workshops, which aimed to identify required transformation to improve upon deficient project governance, from the perspectives of: the role of the participant(s) in the organisation; the effects that identified organisational decisions and changes may have on them; and by asking probing questions about the crux of statements made, e.g. if it is presumed to be true, what would the effect be, or vice versa. The outcome was emancipation, as key underlying social and structural causes for the organisational deficiencies surfaced.



23 Feb 2021