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Soft systems methodology and dialectics in an information environment: a case study of the Battle of Britain.


How we conceptualize a real-world situation adequately for the purpose of intervention or analysis is central to both information systems (IS) development and research. In this paper, we analyse two alternative methods of conceptualisation--soft systems methodology (SSM) and materialist dialectics--by reference to the historical account of the Battle of Britain presented in Checkland and Holwell (1998, Chapter 5). Having outlined some concepts from the study of dialectics, we contrast their account with a more adequate history, given the explanatory goals which they have set for themselves, and demonstrate how the latter is rooted in the dialectical method of conceptualization. This indicates similarities and differences between two meta-frameworks: SSM and materialist dialectics.

Our purpose is not to provide an overall analysis or critique of SSM, but rather to raise certain questions which are important for IS theory and practice. Our objectives within the context of the case study are:

* to examine the consequences of deciding how and where to draw the boundary between a system and its environment;

* to achieve a deeper understanding of the role and function of processes of abstraction in defining our concepts and thus the models used in IS;

* to identify the problems of interpretivist methods of analysis.

We begin by outlining some of the basic concepts of materialist dialectics that will be employed and suggest how these are related to the way these problems are identified in the IS literature.


Dialectics is a way of seeing the world that is distinct both from the common-sense reasoning we take for granted in our everyday life and from the formalized reasoning found in mathematics and symbolic logic. Advocates of dialectics believe that we acquire a richer and more accurate understanding of the world by seeing it in terms of processes of change, interconnection and contradiction (Levins, 1998a; Robinson, 1998).

Where dialectics have appeared in systems theory, this has usually been in the context of the existence of counterposed arguments (thesis and antithesis) and the means for their resolution in a synthesis (Churchman, 1979; Mason and Mitroff, 1973, 1981). Thus Mason and Mitroff state (1981, p. 129): 'A system may be said to be dialectical if it examines a situation completely and logically from two different points of view.' While this version of dialectics can draw on the Ancient concept of reasoning as a dialogue of contradiction, as Ulrich (1983, p. 268) points out, the schematic sequence of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is alien to the open and dynamic essence of dialectical thought. It also omits those aspects of dialectics which are of more direct application to the problems of boundary drawing and modelling in systems analysis and research.

Consequently our discussion will instead draw on Karl Marx's materialist transformation of Hegel's logical system of dialectics. Marxists conceptualize dialectics as anchored in a realist, objectivist and materialist framework that links dialectics as a scientific method of thought to the material world. As Karl Marx (1990, p. 79) explains, 'With me, ... the Ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind and translated into forms of thought.' This translation occurs through an active process of grasping or appropriating the world and reproducing it in those forms of thought appropriate to its real content.

The precise nature of Marxist dialectics has been the subject of so much controversy that Castree (1996) has claimed that it is only possible to speak of 'Marxisms' and dialectics in the plural. Distinguishing these views is not essential for our purpose. Rather we focus on those concepts and methodological precepts which are 'a necessary condition of systematic thinking about social objects posited as systemic' (Williams, 2001, p. 26). Marx here drew directly on concepts from Hegel's 'systematic dialectics' (Arthur, 1998; Brown, 1999; Castree, 1996; Smith, 1998) while at the same time rejecting his idea that they could be seen as the process of 'thought unfolding itself out of itself, by itself' (Marx, 1973, p. 101).

Our discussion focuses on the research heuristic of moving from the abstract to the concrete, the notion of totality and Ollman's (1993) reading of the nature of abstraction used by Marx in Capital. Exploring these concepts in the light of Checkland and Holwell's (1998) case study will enable us to identify dialectical counterparts of systems concepts and establish the commonalities and distinctions between the two methods of conceptualization. As the meanings of some terms in Hegelian and Marxist thought diverge from common usage, we begin by explaining them.

Moving from the Abstract to the Concrete

In a dialectical world view, everything is interconnected. Yet we cannot deal with the world as a whole, but rather begin to break it down into pieces that are meaningful for us in our activity and which appear to encapsulate true distinctions in the world. 'Reality may be in one piece when lived, but to be thought about and communicated it must be parcelled out' (Ollman, 1993, p. 47). We cannot therefore immediately make the leap to an adequate understanding of the whole. Our grasp of the world must start from partial and one-sided concepts--from the 'abstract'. According to Ilyenkov (1982, pp. 36-37) Marx 'interprets the abstract as any one-sided, incomplete, lopsided reflection of the object in consciousness, as opposed to concrete knowledge which is well developed, all-round, comprehensive knowledge'.

If our starting point in abstraction is not to be an arbitrary and chaotic selection from empirical data, we must make the process of abstraction systematic. If we are to understand our object as a whole, as it really presents itself to us, the abstract concepts must lead us to reproduce a many-sided and contradictory--'concrete'--reality in thought. Thus according to Marx (1973, p. 101), 'the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind'.

To move from the abstract to the concrete is 'a movement for which every beginning is abstract and whose dialectics consists of transcending this abstractness' (Kosik, 1976, p. 15). This process consists of finding and following the logical interconnections between the partial abstractions from which we must necessarily begin if we are to make sense of our data. Kosik (1976, p. 15) traces three stages in the process: 'appropriating the material in detail', 'analysing its different forms of development' and 'tracing out their internal connections'. At the same time, 'in this process, the whole itself is outlined, determined and comprehended, too'. Defining this process thus leads us directly to the notion of totality, as 'what is concretely true is so only as totality' (Hegel, 1991, p. 14).

Totality in Dialectical Thought

In dialectical thought totality is the name for the unit of analysis that enables one to see and follow through the relationships (such as interconnectedness and contradiction) which tie the elements ('moments') of a particular field of investigation into a logical whole. A totality, in this context, is defined by Lukacs (quoted in Meszaros, 1983, p. 91) as:
   ... first of all the concrete unity of interacting
   contradictions ... secondly, the systematic
   relativity of all totality both upwards and
   downwards (which means that all totality is
   made up of totalities subordinated to it, and
   also that the totality in question is, at the same
   time, overdetermined by totalities of a higher
   complexity ...) and thirdly, the historical
   relativity of all totality ... [which] is changing,
   disintegrating, confined to a determinate,
   concrete historical period.

This notion of totality clearly has a lot in common with the notion of 'holons' and hierarchically organized dynamic systems, which Checkland (1981) sees as central in systems thinking, with the addition, however, of the idea of contradiction, of the simultaneous presence of interaction and antagonism, which forms the basis for change and 'historical relativity' in dialectical thought.

As we shall now see, the problem with Checkland and Holwell's analysis of the Battle of Britain, and the conceptual tools used by them, is precisely that they remain at the level of an immediate abstraction centred on an information system rather than moving towards understanding the totality of which the information system was a contradictory part. Further, we shall show that these limitations are inherent in the model they have used in this analysis and which they claim is vindicated by it.


Historical Method and Conceptualization

Historical analysis has certain peculiar features as a testbed for methods of conceptualization. Firstly, as its subject matter lies more or less complete in the past, it is possible, with the benefit of hindsight, to see historical processes as a whole rather than through the more partial view of contemporary actors and observers, who cannot yet see the outcome of their own activity. 'The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk'--true understanding is only possible once events have worked themselves out. Secondly, historical analysis has both the advantage and disadvantage that the historian has to reconstruct the past in an indirect way through a variety of historical evidence, which usually excludes his or her direct experience. Thus there is a need for a specific historical method, which has recently come to be seen as something that has an application in the analysis of information systems (Mason et al., 1997).

In both these respects historical research is distinct from the interventionist practice of the systems designer or developer. It may thus be objected that SSM--in distinction to dialectics--makes no claim to be a method for historical understanding. However, Checkland and Holwell themselves use it as a retrospective framework for making sense of 'their experiences in the field'--which of necessity requires a form of historical analysis--as well as using the 'Process for Organizational Meanings' (POM) model as a framework to explain the more obviously historical account of the Battle of Britain. In addition, the demands of historical analysis are well fitted to show up other limitations of their model as a method of conceptualization.

Checkland and Holwell's Account of the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain is the name given to the air war over Britain that took place between August and October 1940, when, after the fall of France, Britain was thought to be under imminent threat of invasion by Germany. Up to 7 September, the Luftwaffe aimed at obtaining mastery of the air by destroying Britain's limited reserves of aircraft and trained pilots through aerial battle and the bombing of airfields and associated facilities. The Luftwaffe then turned to bombing cities, particularly London, but the British remained in control of the air and invasion plans were postponed indefinitely in October 1940. Checkland and Holwell summarize their reading of its history as follows (p. 128):
   ... during the summers of the late 1930s, the
   Royal Air Force's Fighter Command created
   an 'information system' ... which enabled the
   German Luftwaffe to be defeated. Faced with
   Goering's inability to destroy the RAF over
   Southern England ... Hitler eventually called
   off 'Operation Sea Lion'--the planned invasion
   of Britain and turned to the Eastern Front,
   attacking the USSR in 1941. This failure to
   defeat Britain in 1940 made it possible for the
   Western Allies to invade continental Europe
   from Britain in 1944. This would not have been
   possible without winning the Battle of Britain;
   and winning that battle would not have been
   possible without Fighter Command's information
   system, which had been created in the
   late 1930's thanks to the forward thinking of
   Hugh Dowding and Henry Tizard. So the title
   of this chapter ['The Information System
   Which Won the War'] is not too much of an

The information system in question consisted of the integration of coastal radar stations and inland observer posts with distributed but coordinated facilities for analysing the incoming information about the location, number and direction of German aircraft. Checkland and Holwell note that 'one important reason for examining the information system in some detail is that it owes nothing to computers' (p. 129). Information was gathered, filtered, assessed and passed through the system to airfields and eventually to the pilots, who acted on it. (See Checkland and Holwell, Ch. 5, for a full description.) It was intended to allow: (1) RAF fighter squadrons to intercept incoming German aircraft accurately with a minimum of time and fuel wasted looking for them; (2) overall coordination and control of the battle.

Their account has the following goals:

G1: to demonstrate that the information system enabled an Allied victory in the Battle of Britain;

G2: to demonstrate that that victory made possible the winning of World War II ...

G3: ... and that therefore 'the information system won the war';

G4: to demonstrate that this information system was unconsciously developed in line with the principles of systems thinking and, in particular, the POM model, and thereby to vindicate it as a method of conceptualization for systems development.

An Alternative Account

Our alternative account of the outcome of the Battle of Britain rests on two premises: that the Germans lost it as well as the British winning it, and that the role of the radar-based information system cannot be assessed without taking into account other factors that enabled it to function and played as least as great a role in the result. Notable among these factors was the decisive part intelligence resulting from the early use of computer-based systems to decipher German codes (code-named Ultra) played in preventing defeat. The radar-based information system as described by Checkland and Holwell, it is argued, played a crucial but not decisive role. The failure to invade was not merely a result of the successful air defence of Britain, but also of German strategic failures to provide a sustained direction to their campaign (Ponting, 1990) and unawareness that Ultra was providing the British with 'virtually an exact order of battle of (German) air fleets, including the aerodromes where their various units were being stationed' (Winterbotham, 1974, p. 41).

The Role of Information in the Battle of Britain

The importance of the Ultra information source which resulted from the work carried out by intelligence grouping code-named 'Station X' at Bletchley Park is described by Winterbotham (1974). He notes 'the dramatic part that this special intelligence played in the war' together with 'the unique experience of knowing not only the precise composition, strength and location of the enemy's forces, but also, with few exceptions, of knowing beforehand exactly what he intended to do in many of the operations and battles of World War II' (pp. 2-3). He identifies the Luftwaffe's strategy for destroying the RAF as twofold: first the bombing of all aerodromes in the south so as to make them unoperational, then the desire to draw as many RAF fighters as possible into battle where the Germans hoped to destroy them quickly (p. 49). However, through the use of Ultra signals Dowding was able to recognize Goering's strategy and continued to use the minimum of fighters to disrupt and confuse the bomber squadrons. The success of combining the technical developments in radar together with the Ultra intelligence 'provided an invaluable overall picture of the enemy offensive and the strategy behind it. It also gave some indication of the enemy's true losses from the calls for replacement aircraft and crews by the various formations' (p. 51). Thus it is argued by Winterbotham (1974) that while 'radar was to be the first key to our (British) survival, Ultra was to be the second' (p. 46). Dowding's understanding and interpretation of Ultra was obviously an important contribution to success during this part of the war. However in identifying the importance of these technical variables it is important not to exclude consideration of the contribution to the outcome made by the strategic decisions of the German High Command.

The Other Side

Which German decisions contributed to the result? Firstly, they failed to recognize the importance of the radar system and, after an initial attack, abandoned bombing radar stations on the grounds that it would be fruitless to do so (Calder, 1971). Secondly, on 7 September, when Fighter Command's airfields in the south-east were close to destruction and seven of the sector stations that were crucial to the operation of the information system were out of action, German air activity switched from bombing airfields to raids on major cities, particularly London. This enabled the RAF to recuperate and to inflict major casualties on a German bombing raid on London on 15 September. Thompson (1966) suggests that 'a force of German bombers bound on the night of August 24 for Rochester and Thameshaven oil tanks lost their way and bombed London instead. On the following night the RAF began to bomb Berlin in retaliation and thus, it is said, caused Hitler and Goering to divert the Luftwaffe from the final destruction of Fighter Command into an all-out reprisal assault on London (p. 208). In analysing the German rationale for this change of target Thompson (1966) also notes that at the Luftwaffe conference which decided the change the lead was taken by Kesselring, who seems to have asserted without much evidence that the British fighter force was on the point of collapse. He concludes 'that the change of target was due ... to an overestimation of British fighter casualties and the damage done to airfields and sector stations, and an underestimation of the replacement rate' (p. 208). Following this change of target, the Luftwaffe would never subsequently come close to control of the air and the projected invasion of Britain was postponed indefinitely on 2 October (Maier, 1991). However, to examine why the invasion failed to take place and why Hitler turned to attack the USSR, it is necessary to take a view that goes beyond examining the Battle of Britain itself.

Hitler had not expected to be faced with Britain as his sole opponent and had no prepared plans for an invasion. The first studies were commissioned on 2 July, in which month he also commissioned plans to invade Russia that autumn (Bullock, 1962). Winterbotham (1974) notes that 'during the height of the battle operations for Sea Lion were going ahead, but the German Ultra signals showed the continued lack of cooperation and coordination between the [German] Army and Navy' (p. 51). While failure of military preparedness was apparent in this intelligence, commentary identifies a lack of political will to pursue the objective of British military defeat. As Liddell-Hart (1970, p. 85) observes, Hitler had 'no wishes to push the conflict with Britain to a decisive conclusion', expecting, rather, peace negotiations on his own terms as offered in his speech of 19 July, in which he offered to respect the integrity of the British Empire. It has therefore been suggested by some high German officers that the invasion plans were a bluff to force Britain to the negotiating table (Bullock, 1962, p. 593). More likely is that Hitler took seriously the nervousness of the naval and army leaders faced with an ill-planned invasion and therefore accepted that air superiority was necessary prior to it (Maier, 1991). He remained hopeful that the bombing of cities and industries would have the same effect of bringing Britain to negotiate. Macksey (1998, p. 51) thus comments that 'The basic reason for Germany's failure to invade Britain in 1940 is very likely to be found in the lack of any preconceived will or necessity to do so, with the result that not until after the outbreak of war was the problem contemplated.'

The Information System in the War of Attrition

Checkland and Holwell tend to see the role of the information system separately from two interrelated problems that had to be overcome: the shortage and attrition of both trained pilots and their aircraft, both of which threatened to become crucial during the battle. While the IS enabled better use to be made of these resources by enabling both to spend more time in effective combat, if either of these shortages had not been met, it would not have been sufficient to win. Winterbotham (1974) notes that 'according to Ultra their [German] replacement aircraft were no longer coming through. Their supply and repair organisation had not been planned for this sort of war. In Goering's view, the Battle of Britain should have been all over in a fortnight with few losses to the Luftwaffe. Now scarcely fifty per cent of their aircraft were serviceable. This was vital information. It showed that despite the appalling position of the RAF, the Luftwaffe were crippled; their morale too was suffering' (pp. 53-54). Thus although the position of the RAF was critical, knowledge provided by Ultra may have given enough impetus to continue fighting and prevent British defeat. The difficulty, however, in attributing events to causes remains; it must be acknowledged that, as von Clausewitz (1982) observes, 'war is the province of uncertainty: three-fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated, are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty'. At the level of examination of the actions leading to, and causes for, the successful outcome of the Battle of Britain, Calder (1971, p. 168) remarks:
   To assign credit for the successful outcome of
   the battle is a complex and eventually impossible
   task. It is sometimes most helpful to see
   it, not as a struggle between men, but between
   rival technologies of which the British proved
   superior ... Even so, had [the Luftwaffe] been
   better equipped for the job in hand, the
   outcome would probably have been very

In terms of the events of 1940, the more holistic analyses of the role of the RAF air defence system within its environment, presented by a majority of historians, acknowledge the importance of the information

management within the system but identify that victory in the air war was due to the far more complex and interrelated actions and events identified in previous sections of this paper (Thompson, 1966; Calder, 1971; Winterbotham, 1974; Ponting, 1990). Thus what Calder calls an 'excellent (though far from infallible)' information system played a necessary but not sufficient role in the Battle of Britain (as did other factors such as German operational decisions, Ultra intelligence, rapid aircraft construction and repair, fighter pilot bravery, the weather and luck), achieving Checkland and Holwell's G1, but not being an adequate explanation for either G2 or G3.

We can thus see the failure of their analysis as lying in their failure to create a 'well developed, all-round, comprehensive'--that is, concrete--historical account of the role of the information system in the Battle of Britain and its aftermath. They fail to transcend their abstract starting point [the information system] and therefore to reproduce the totality, of which we argue it was a contradictory part. We now examine why.


Is this merely 'nit-picking' or only of interest to historians? The differences between these accounts highlight problems within the framework within which Checkland and Holwell construct their analysis. Additionally issues which are fundamental to IS theory are revealed. We will now use tools from dialectics to point to these weaknesses and alternative methods of conceptualization.

A One-Sided Account of the Battle?

Checkland and Holwell's account of the Battle of Britain is one-sided and not just in the literal sense that their explanation of its outcome ignores the importance of the decisions taken on the German side. In dialectical thought, one-sidedness is one possible consequence of a conceptualization that remains abstract and results from a failure to define a totality so as to encompass all of its contradictory aspects. It is 'the seizing on one side of a dichotomous pair or contradiction as if it were the whole thing' (Levins, 1998a, p. 382).

In view of the similarities between the dialectical concept of totality and 'holons' in SSM, why do Checkland and Holwell fail to define the totality of the Battle of Britain adequately enough to meet their explanatory goals? The underlying concepts that they use to define the context of information systems implementation and impact are neither broad nor flexible enough to provide a conceptualization of the relevant aspects of the history. These tools are:

* the idea that the organizational level is 'the main context of work on IS' (the title of Chapter 3 of Checkland and Holwell, 1998);

* taking networks of activities sharing a distinct purpose, the 'human activity system' (HAS), as the basic unit of analysis;

* an emphasis on the construction of meaning as the basis for purposeful action.

These three concepts are all central to their book and in the POM model, which is retro-fitted to the development of the information system used in the Battle of Britain. The organization examined is that (or rather those) charged with the air defence of Britain, the human activity system, that of all those charged with defeating the German air offensive during the battle, and the sense-making, the way in which they came to understand both the necessity and functioning of the information system and the way the Luftwaffe operated.

To explain why these three positions proved inadequate tools of analysis, we examine their foundations using concepts from dialectics, which demonstrate that this case is of wider significance for the way in which information systems are analysed.

Modes of Abstraction

SSM and dialectics share a recognition that the boundaries of 'wholes' are the product of the human activity of abstraction, that is, selection from the myriad interrelationships of reality. Accordingly, the POM model posits a 'cognitive filter' that comes between humans and the world as perceived and which transforms data into 'capta'. Rejecting the idea that the SSM analyst can be a privileged observer outside this framework (Wilson, 1999), we apply Ollman's analysis of 'modes of abstraction' (based on a reading of Marx's dialectical method as employed in Capital) to pinpoint the sources of the weakness of Checkland and Holwell's analysis of the Battle of Britain. Ollman distinguishes three aspects of abstraction--'boundary setting and bringing into focus ... occurs simultaneously in three different, though closely related senses' (Ollman, 1993, p. 39)--through the extension, level of generality and vantage-point of our abstractions. Associated with each of these modes of abstraction is a particular form of contradiction or tension between elements that are interdependent, yet antagonistic, pulling in different directions.

Abstraction by Extension

The extension of an abstraction is broadly the scope of what is included, the boundaries of its coverage in space (i.e. the range of its interconnections) and time. As we have seen, Checkland and Holwell draw narrow boundaries of analysis around the Battle of Britain, corresponding to the time period and process of the information system's development and use, seen from the British side. In, for example, excluding the German decision to switch to bombing cities and the role of Ultra intelligence, this extension favours certain types of explanation which emphasize the role of the radar-based information system in the outcome. In terms of the POM model, this narrow extension should be sufficient to explain organizational sense-making, all else being relegated to 'external changes' that only have influence insofar as they affect the way organizational participants see the world. Narrow extension is therefore built into the 'Process for Organizational Meanings' model, as its name suggests. Yet in G2 and G3, they draw conclusions and posit causal relationships across a longer period and a broader canvas.

While a systems developer may be forced to accept the organization and human activity system as the boundaries of what he/she can affect, analytically they are too narrow to explain either the course of development of an IS or its impact. In the case of the Battle of Britain, they are too weak a foundation to take the weight put upon them even in terms of G1, the most specific of Checkland and Holwell's assertions. For example, to explain the creation of the radar system, it would be necessary to examine the inter-war politics of rearmament, which was directly implicated in its origins and financing (Watt, 1975). In attempting to prove G3 (that the IS won the war)--an assertion that calls for the broadest possible analysis of the causes of the final result of World War II--Checkland and Holwell have to implicitly play down as contingent, irrelevant or less important such global factors as Hitler's decision to attack Russia, US entry into the war or the economic problems Germany experienced with fighting a protracted war.

Accordingly, there is a mismatch between their analysis and conclusions, which points to the inadequacies of the initial boundary drawing and to the typical contradiction associated with inadequately broad abstractions--that between what is included and what is left out but remains real. If the Germans' actions and the use of Ultra were part of the model, it would become untenable to hypothesize that the information system was the thing that won the battle. If one took a longer time-scale than the Battle of Britain, more factors would become apparent which would explain Germany's defeat, e.g. Hitler's military decisions or, at another level, the German difficulties in managing its war economy. Dialectical method therefore points towards always beginning from abstractions with a broad enough extension to incorporate the main elements of the totality under consideration and to show their interconnections, their essences and the unfolding of their development through time from past to potential future.

Abstraction by Level of Generalization

The same phenomenon can be viewed at a number of levels of generalization, each of which throws a different light on its internal and external relationships and on how one defines its essence. Here the contradiction lies in the different abstractions that result from focusing on individual levels, even though they may merely be different but equally true ways of describing one thing (Robinson, 1998). Checkland and Holwell talk about the different levels of intentional action in the battle, e.g. strategic, tactical and operational, placing their own analysis at the operational level--the 'how' of finding and shooting down enemy aircraft. In passing, they also describe the battle in tactical and strategic terms. In this case, this distinction is not a major issue as, on the British side, the operational, tactical and strategic were closely intertwined by the simplicity of the defensive imperative of survival.

However, more generally, Checkland and Holwell state that the organizational level is the correct level for understanding IS, though they argue that their model can be applied at a number of levels. This will tend to emphasize internal organizational matters as the defining factors in the success of IS and to ignore broader political and power structures. Thus in assessing the disputes between the RAF commanders during the battle, they refer to 'the intrigues and pursuit of personal agendas which are the stuff of politics' (p. 151) and to the exclusion of those involved in developing the system 'for being too clever in a national culture which suspects cleverness or for being "unclubbable" when judged by establishment norms'. This replaces analysis of the real political decisions and the social conditions which were operative during the development of the radar system. Thus they contrast the Battle of Britain system with 'most modern computer-based information systems' which, they state, have 'a simpler task' (p. 153) and which, in their example of hospital information systems, take place in a 'much simpler situation'. However, the radar system was developed in effect under conditions of martial law where many of the operational 'users' had very little say in either the aims of the system or in control of its output and where the immediate objectives of the system were dictated by a centralized command. In comparison, it may be argued that the development of an information system under more democratic conditions where conflicting social and political conditions play a major role in the information environment is a situation which is very far from simple.

By exclusively examining the problem at the organizational level, Checkland and Holwell fail to distinguish what is specific and what can be generalized from the situation faced by the systems developers of 1940.

Abstraction by Vantage-Point

Ollman (1993) uses the notion of vantage-point in two interrelated senses: firstly, in the literal sense as the point at which one stands to survey the subject matter from which one is abstracting. In order to select the significant aspects from the overall view, one must be in possession of principles on the basis of which to make these judgements. Taking a vantage-point implies that certain features will loom larger than others and that these are more likely to become part of the abstraction.

The second sense follows from this in that Ollman sees typical vantage-points as rooted in social structures and roles, which lead the observer to see the world in a particular way and thus to form abstractions from those vantage-points. In this way, social structures, practices and conflicts come to play a role in the process of conceptualization and their contradictions are carried over into it (Robinson, 1998).

Checkland and Holwell see the Battle of Britain from the vantage-point of information systems experts, which appears to mean that centralized command, control and communication systems (see the definitions on p. 134) loom larger as an explanatory factor of the outcome and that other contradictory ones are abstracted out of the picture. This interest in military-style command, control and communication systems by systems designers is evidenced in the history of such developments as Beer's (1975) 'Project Cybersyn' and a British government-funded university study where the hope is to develop 'a modern day business equivalent of the Second World War operations rooms which proved so effective, especially with their visual display of information' (Newing, 1994, p. 58). This command model is hardly likely to be shared by many of the human participants within the organization. Thus adopting such a vantage-point creates contradictions between abstractions insofar as a vantage-point gives a particular perspective that will not be shared when viewing the same reality from others.

In identifying Checkland and Holwell's vantage-point in the second sense of a socially given common sense, it is worth noting that the Battle of Britain, together with the debacle at Dunkirk that preceded it and the Blitz that followed, have played a major ideological and mythical role in a post-war Britain faced with economic and imperial decline, as the moment when Britain stood alone and united and successfully defied overwhelming odds. This comes together with Checkland and Holwell's other concerns to make it also a moment of triumph for their model of information systems development.

That the relationship between alternative vantage-points and extensions can lead to radically different aspects of the same reality coming to the forefront can be seen from the Marxist historian Challinor's (1995, pp. 6-7) description of the morale of British troops leading up to Dunkirk, in which he makes these different aspects of abstraction explicit:
   To understand why the Dunkirk disaster
   happened, it is necessary to investigate all
   the underlying influences--the ineptitude of
   the British army high command, the British
   government's half-hearted prosecution of the
   war, the numerous surreptitious peace negotiations
   with Nazi Germany etc. All these
   must have had an effect on the British
   Tommy's morale, making him question
   whether he should be prepared to recklessly
   lay down his life. Nothing appeared worth
   fighting for in 1930s Britain. If lucky he would
   return to the slum house, the dole queue, the
   poverty ...

Challinor thus takes the vantage-point of the ordinary British soldier, trying to explain the influences on his morale in 1940 and why a relatively small incident led to a breakdown of the will to fight on a large scale. In order to do so, he adopts a wide extension which will encompass all the underlying influences--both the more immediate causes and the chronologically and geographically more distant conditions of life in 1930s Britain. In doing so, he defines a totality adequate to his goal.

In contrast, Checkland and Holwell's scope is too narrow to support G2 and G3. They do not go beyond an abstraction (the POM model) which is held, a priori, to be adequate to give an account of the influence of the information system on the outcome of the war. They fail to follow the logical interconnections implied by what they are trying to investigate so as to arrive at the boundaries of a totality adequate for a reconstruction of the role of the information system. We see here the relationship between the nature of the abstractions, their content and the nature and force of the explanation given.


We now come to consider the more general issue of the relationship between dialectics and SSM as reflected in Checkland and Holwell's historical analysis, focusing on the following issues: the ambiguity of SSM as an interpretivist systems theory; the adequacy of the 'Process of Organizational Meanings' model's focus on meanings; the question of boundary drawing and the relationship between a system and its environment.

The Ambiguous Epistemological Status of Checkland and Holwell's Account

SSM has been categorized as an interpretivist systems theory, being both subjectivist and regulative (Jackson, 1982) and centred on the meanings attributed to human actors. In this paradigm, models are used to interrogate perceptions of the real world (Jackson, 2001). This necessarily leads to problems as soon as any claims are made for the objectivity of analyses based on the use of SSM as a method, even the weak claim that it provides a better understanding than other approaches (Romm, 1994). The distinction between historical research and systems intervention helps clarify this fundamental weakness--one which SSM shares with other interpretivist theories. Historical research is fundamentally evidential rather than practical. The historian must justify his or her claims, while the SSM analyst may be seen just to play a role as a catalyst or facilitator in achieving a particular aim.

Thus the Checkland and Holwell chapter on the Battle of Britain points to more general problems with their position. It consists firstly of a historical narrative, followed by the fitting of the POM model to that narrative. The POM model itself 'does not purport to be a descriptive account of the organizational process', instead being a sense-making device, which nevertheless 'embodies the principles upon which information systems are created and so its language may be used to give an account of any real-world information system' (p. 148). The narrative is objective, aiming to reflect the real history of the methods of information management within the RAF's air defences, while the model, which embodies the principles described in the narrative, remains an 'intellectual tool which helps furnish a process of inquiry for making sense of a field' (p. 238). Yet the narrative is supposed to provide an objective corroboration of the correctness of the model. This is a reflection of the problems that result from the relativist epistemology that stops short of radical scepticism, which is characteristic of Checkland and Holwell's book (Wilson, 1999). They presumably claim that their account of the Battle of Britain is a true, if an incomplete one, but can have no basis for doing so if their historical narrative is an intellectual construction of the same type as the POM model. Checkland and Holwell have instead to make indirect truth claims for their account as these are indispensable if the writing of history is to be distinguished from that of fiction.

This ambiguity contrasts with an approach based in materialist dialectics in which human conceptualization has to have its starting point in the real world, in that to be useful the model must reflect aspects of what it is describing, even if there is no unique way to do so and the many possible alternative views of reality mean that it is a process involving human action and choice. The relationship between model and that which is being modelled must be a non-arbitrary one based on real interconnections and shared properties, yet it is not a one-to-one relationship in which reality is directly reflected 'as it is' in the model, in which case abstraction and the model itself would not be necessary (Robinson, 1997, 1998).

Boundary Drawing

The notion of totality in dialectical thought embodies the idea of drawing a boundary within which the relationships that define the essence of the subject under investigation are structured. In moving from the abstract to the concrete, we discover such a boundary in the course of analysis and reordering of the empirical matter that provides the basis for the investigation. This is an iterative process in which the adequacy of an abstraction is tested against this material and for its own ability to lead us towards a concrete reproduction of it. Thus, unlike Ulrich (1983, p. 282), we do not see boundary drawing as a question of judgement that 'cannot be validated either logically or empirically' but only polemically. Rather boundaries must be real--insofar as they reflect properties that can be identified in the world outside thought--but cannot be absolute. They can never be complete or eternal and will differ according to the level of generalization and vantage-point appropriate to the problem under consideration.

Ulrich (1987) notes that systems science has traditionally either totally ignored the question of boundary drawing or determined it by the availability of data and modelling techniques, which does not tell us whether the boundaries have been adequately chosen. SSM gives several definitions of how the boundaries between system and environment should be determined and they are not all consistent (yon Billow, 1989). The Human Activity System (HAS) is, according to von Bulow (1989), 'the operationalisation of the systems idea' in SSM and its scope underlies that of the POM model.

As we have seen in our analysis of the Battle of Britain, to evaluate the impact of an information system and the consequences of its implementation, it is necessary to draw boundaries more widely than those provided for by the framework of the HAS or organizational boundaries. These units are presumably chosen on the basis of Checkland's distinction between system and environment: 'an environment may hopefully be influenced, but cannot be "engineered", whereas a wider system can ... be engineered' (Checkland, 1981, p. 174). This is an example of how, as Levins (1998b, p. 558) argues, 'The choice of boundary between what is the system and what is outside is usually a consequence of the history of each field and especially of the division of labour between disciplines ... Traditional boundaries between disciplines act to restrict models of problems to include the acceptable pathways of intervention.' Churchman (1979, Ch. 5) has also pointed to this distinction in his dialectic between the viewpoints of the real and ideal systems planner, the former believing that 'all systems have real boundaries; it is not necessary to investigate beyond these boundaries in designing the system', while the latter believes 'that there are no real boundaries of social systems'.

Checkland and Holwell's narrow vantage-point is that of the action researcher as organizational engineer and thus limited to the scope of what might be susceptible to change, which contrasts with that of the historian--who cannot change the past, only perceptions of it. What is considered to be 'environment' is not considered part of the necessary causal relationships of a systemic explanation. Accordingly, the POM model relegates causal elements outside its narrow focus to the status of 'external changes', only represented insofar as they cause changes to the perceptions of those involved in organizational change. This builds one-sidedness into the model from the start, both in its organizational focus (narrow extension) and its emphasis on meanings and sense-making (partial view of the relationship between subject and object). From the perspective of the historians quoted in this research, the events of 1940 and the reasons for the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany are numerous. To identify an 'information system' operating in such a complex environment as being the cause of victory seems to be questionable from both a historical and systemic perspective.

This contrasts with a dialectical approach in which no a priori boundaries are set to totalities, as the boundaries we draw never exhaust or match exactly the real-world interconnections we are investigating. Both the nature of the subject matter and the stance of the observer will define the boundaries best suited to a particular goal. Levins (1998a) suggests that the tendency towards narrowness, towards only seeing parts even when one aims at holistic explanations, comes from the impossibility of seeing the whole (i.e. everything in all its interconnections) and a resulting overeagerness to deal with what appears tractable. As a counter-heuristic, he suggests that 'at some stage of an investigation we should examine a larger system than is thought relevant', both because it may provide more adequate explanations not previously considered and because interconnections will be seen in a broader context. This corresponds to Ulrich's (1987, pp. 106-107) principle that 'aspects that are not well understood ought to be considered as belonging to the system ... at least until their significance has been studied'. Setting our boundaries widely allows us to see the necessary internal dynamics of the system under consideration, rather than requiring the deus ex machina of 'external changes'.


We have examined the inadequacies of Checkland and Holwell's historical account as rooted in its inability to see the Battle of Britain and the subsequent war as a totality, rather focusing on elements which are made to support too heavy an explanatory weight. Their initial abstraction of the information system certainly represents a real factor in the outcome of the war--it is not chosen without reason. However, their failure to move further to integrate it into a more complete and multifaceted analysis meant that ultimately they arrived at conclusions that could not be borne by the empirical material. This was analysed in terms of the three aspects of abstraction in dialectics and found to be the result of a too narrow extension and to be based on an implicit and limited vantage-point. These problems were then suggested to have roots in the broader conceptualizations of SSM, particularly the Human Activity System, the boundary drawing between system and environment and its interpretivist epistemology.

Both this case and the concepts of 'totality' and 'concreteness' in the dialectical framework suggest the paradoxical conclusion that to assess the development process of an IS, let alone its impact and outcome, it is necessary to look beyond the immediate context of that process.

Our analysis has also shown both similarities and divergences between materialist dialectics and SSM. The concepts of abstraction/cognitive filter, vantage-point/Weltanschauung and totality/holon are clearly related, though not identical. This follows from Levins' (1998a) view that dialectics and systems theories both try to tackle similar problems posed by finding an alternative to mainstream, reductionist science. However, there are also clear differences, particularly in the absence of the idea of contradiction in SSM, its ambiguous notion of the status of models and its method for boundary drawing. While the historical account of the Battle of Britain puts these differences and similarities into sharp contrast, further systematic comparison of the two frameworks is required.


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Bruce Robinson and Francis Wilson *

Information Systems Institute, University of Salford, Salford, UK

* Correspondence to: Francis Wilson, Information Systems Institute, University of Salford, Salford M5 4WT, UK.
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Author:Robinson, Bruce; Wilson, Francis
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:May 1, 2003
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