Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Using a WWW-based group support system to facilitate teaching of soft systems methodology

John R Venable
School of Information Technology
Murdoch University
This paper describes a pilot study using a WWW-based Group Support System (GSS) to facilitate students learning Soft Systems Methodology (SSM). The students were each given fictitious stakeholder roles to play in a hypothetical, but realistic situation. The instructors acted as the facilitators of the process. The students were asked to represent the interests of their fictitious role. The use of the GSS allowed them to remain anonymous to the other students, while still interacting at a deep level. Students discussed each other's perspectives, raised issues, and created and discussed SSM products, including rich pictures, root definitions, and conceptual models. The students were surveyed afterwards and also wrote papers critiquing their experience. This paper describes the process used, the results obtained from the student surveys and reports, as well as the instructors' experiences and impressions. We further describe planned future research, including discussion of the possibility of using this method to support distance education.


This research concerns teaching Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) (Checkland and Scholes, 1990). As an applied method, SSM has both theoretical and practical components. It is important that students receive opportunities to apply the methods practically; otherwise they will neither truly understand the ISD method nor be able to apply it in the future. This paper describes teaching SSM using a Group Support System (GSS).

Soft Systems Methodology is a general method for investigating and learning about a problem situation, then taking suitable action to improve on the situation. SSM is useful in situations with conflict among stakeholders or where the goals of a system are uncertain and/or debatable. Generally, the person applying SSM guides the problem stakeholders to use the SSM techniques themselves, so that they determine and implement their own solutions. A SSM practitioner must teach SSM concepts to the stakeholders.

GSS can be defined as "interactive computer-based environments which support concerted and coordinated team effort toward completion of joint tasks" (Nunamaker et al, 1996). GSS commonly support meetings and group decision making using tools for brainstorming, ranking, voting, and/or structuring discussions (posting messages/assertions and attaching comments to messages, comments to comments, etc). Teaching and learning are also common group activities that GSS can support. GSS have been proposed as a way to facilitate the group processes in SSM (Galliers et al, 1991, Travis et al, 1996), including in situations where the stakeholders are too widely distributed to meet face to face (Venable and Travis, 1996a, b). A large part of the difficulty in applying SSM to a distributed group of stakeholders via a distributed GSS is in conveying the SSM concepts in essentially a distance-learning situation.

The author recently ran a pilot study researching the use of a to support the distributed application of SSM (Venable and Travis, 1998b). The pilot study involved 46 third year students/participants, presenting a good opportunity to investigate additional questions about the usefulness of a GSS to enhance teaching and learning about both SSM and GSS.

Teaching, learning and research goals

The research studied both the use of a distributed GSS to support the distributed application of SSM and teaching and learning of SSM and GSS. We also wanted to give the students a good learning experience. The goals of the pilot study included:

Teaching and research design

The research design simulated a situation with highly distributed, highly heterogeneous stakeholders and a controversial problem. We invented a fictional study of the requirements of a hypothetical information system, to be called WAFIS (Western Australind Forest Information System), which would serve the needs of the public and policy makers by providing information about Western Australind forests and their usage within the context of the heated debate about Western Australind's forest and the regional forestry agreement. The investigation was conducted by a fictional consulting group using SSM and a web-based GSS (DiscussionWeb, McQueen, 1996). Each student was randomly assigned a fictional role and used their fictional names throughout the study. The roles were designed to give a very broad cross-section of the relevant stakeholders. Examples of some of the roles are given below.

Maureen Abreu
Yeong Au
Roger Bird
Elizabeth Carlisle
Claudio Casella
Amy Chin
Gavin Colvin
Diana Cunningham
Warren Delahunty
Logger, Karridale
Tree farmer, Mount Barker
Woodchip plant shift supervisor
Craft store owner, Pemberton
Town councillor and part-time tour guide
Secondary school teacher (science)
Opposition party politician, Perth
Feral Green, Albany
Aboriginal (Nyoongah) tour operator

As an assignment for a 3rd year IS project unit, the students were required to participate in the study and then to write two reports afterwards: a summary of the findings of the fictional SSM investigation and a critique of the study. The participants were surveyed before and afterwards, to get a baseline on their demographics and prior experience with SSM and GSS, as well as to get quantitative data about their subjective ratings of their experiences.

The WAFIS home page introduced the project and described how the fictional study would be conducted (Venable and Travis, 1998a). The home page contained links to other pages about forests and to a page that informed the participants about what the current activity was. The home page also linked to web pages explaining SSM, including the various stages and techniques involved (Travis and Venable, 1998). Finally, the home page linked to DiscussionWeb.

DiscussionWeb provides facilities for structured discussion, brainstorming, ranking, and voting. It is relatively simple and easy to learn using a built-in tutorial. Anyone with a web browser can use it. We organised the discussions and posted informative messages to DiscussionWeb where all participants had easy access to them.

The planned process was to guide the participants through the first four stages of SSM and to get them to use the different SSM techniques, using the web pages as a guide. Each participant could ask questions at any time via DiscussionWeb. All of the participants could then read the answers. The planned activities included raising issues and using SSM techniques, including rich pictures, CATWOE, root definitions, and conceptual models. Participants drew rich pictures and conceptual models using a drawing package or PowerPoint or by hand-drawing and scanning the drawing. Each contribution was then uploaded, linked, and discussed via DiscussionWeb. We also planned to use the decision support tools (ranking and voting) to try to reach consensus on a single root definition and conceptual model.

In this way, the students would all get first hand experience using the SSM techniques, seeing how others used the techniques, and discussing and critiquing how they were used. Additionally, they would see how stakeholders perceived the situation differently, and how GSS might be used to help address the difficulties in reaching agreement. Finally, they (and we, the researchers) would see how a web-based GSS might be used to support SSM where the stakeholders could not see each other face to face.

Experiences and results

We experienced several difficulties relating to the reliability of DiscussionWeb, which delayed the study and prevented us from using its decision support features. We also determined that there was insufficient time for significant iteration and improvement of the models developed during the study. Allowing more time and insuring that technical facilities functioned correctly well ahead of time were lessons learned. One of the student participants suggested use an email list as a more reliable and obvious way to communicate tasks to be accomplished to the students as the study progressed, which we instituted and used effectively.

There was a substantial level of participation, as evidenced from the statistics given below:

Additionally, we thought there were a number of positive experiences: Following the study, we surveyed all 46 participants about the facilities provided, the process, and their learning experience. Ratings were on a 7-point Likert scale, from 1=strongly disagree, through 4=neutral, to 7=strongly agree. The average ratings of their learning experience were quite positive (especially given the problems encountered during the study).

Learned a lot about SSM
Learned a lot about GSS
Learned by reading SSM pages
Learned by creating and posting
Learned from others' contributions
Learned from others' comments
Learned by writing outcome summary
Learned by writing critical report
Fictional role playing is a good way to learn
Fun creating rich picture
Fun to play my fictional role
Enjoyed reading others' perspectives

Many comments were also positive, noting things like how the experience was enjoyable and a nice break from other ways of learning. We also received many useful suggestions for improvements and reports of problems.

Conclusions and future research

We learned a lot about what worked and what didn't. We identified many areas of improvement, some of which can be put to immediate use and some of which must remain longer-term goals. Our results on the suitability of using GSS to support distributed application of SSM will be reported elsewhere (Venable and Travis, 1998b).

Our immediate plans are to make some improvements to the facilities and to run another study while teaching SSM. Once we are satisfied with the results, we hope to try it out for distance education and real application of SSM with distributed stakeholders.


Checkland, P. and J. S. (1990). Soft Systems Methodology in Action. Wiley, London.

Galliers, R.D., D.J. Klass, M. Levy, and E.M. Pattison (1991). Effective strategy formulation using Decision Conferencing and Soft Systems Methodology. Proceedings of IFIP 8.2 Working Conference on Collaborative Work, Social Communications, and Information Systems (COSCIS). In Stamper, R., P. Kerola, R. Lee, and K. Lyytinen (eds.), Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp. 157-179.

McQueen, R.J. (1996). DiscussionWeb. http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/dw/ (accessed 25 Jan 1999). The WAFIS discussion pages are currently available there, but will likely be archived in the near future.

Nunamaker, J.F. Jr., M. Chen, and T.D M. Purdin (1991). Systems Development in Information Systems Research. Journal of MIS, Winter 1990-1991, 89-106.

Travis, J., G. Boalch and J.R. Venable (1996). Approaches for the Learning Organisation: A Comparison of Hard and Soft Systems Thinking. Proceedings of EDPAC'96, Promaco Conventions, Canning Bridge, WA, pp. 487-500.

Travis, J. and J.R. Venable (1998). Introduction to SSM. http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~jvenable/wafis/ssm_intro.html (accessed 25 Jan 1999).

Venable, J.R., J. Travis and M.D. Sanson (1996a). Requirements Determination for an Information Systems Digital Library. Proceedings of IIMA'96 (Steinke, G. ed.), pp. 35-46.

Venable, J.R., J. Travis and M.D. Sanson (1996b). Supporting the Distributed Use of Soft Systems Methodology with a GSS. Proceedings of WITS'96 (Sen, A. ed.), pp. 294-298.

Venable, J.R., J. Travis and R.J. Mcqueen (1997). Researching the Use of a GSS to Support a Very Large Group. Proceedings of OASIS'97 (Russo, N.L. and S. Johnson, eds.), pp. 22-26.

Venable, J.R. and J. Travis (1998a). WAFIS Home page. http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~jvenable/wafis/ (accessed 25 Jan 1999).

Venable, J.R. and J. Travis (1998b). A Pilot Study Using a Group Support System for the Distributed Application of Soft Systems Methodology, under review, available from author.

Please cite as: Venable, J. R. (1999). Using a WWW-based group support system to facilitate teaching of soft systems methodology. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 462-466. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/venable.html

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