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The TOP system for environmental management instruction.


The case study method can be very useful in environmental management instruction, as well as in other teaching contexts. This is because the method is holistic and provides an in-depth view of situations and events, which is the kind of understanding that environmental managers and many other disciplines require. It is also important for environmental managers to learn that there are different perspectives from which to regard the complex problems and issues with which they must deal. The technical, organizational, and personal (TOP) inquiry method provides a set of such multiple perspectives. It is also a valuable tool that environmental managers can use in applying the case study method.


Because of the increasing importance of environmental management, it is crucial for industrial operations to develop effective ways to train environmental managers. Today, however, environmental management instruction often lacks the resources and methods for understanding the complexities and dimensions of environmental decision making situations. In formal instruction, current methods for teaching environmental management by using management science approaches are often very unitary. This leads to incomplete theory and explanations, which hinders sound decision making.

To be effective, environmental management training must take into account the complexity of the real-life decision situations faced by managers. Making the right decision in a particular situation may require the manager to consider numerous variables. Therefore, it is necessary for environmental management training to make sure its instructional methods are firmly based on the real demands of environmental management. One effective way to do this is to use case studies to instruct environmental managers in the kinds of situations they may face (Stem, 2000). Case studies give managers an in-depth look at real situations and provide insight into the ways that multiple variables relate to each other. In addition, they can illustrate principles of effective decision making in environmental management contexts. Another way to make environmental management instruction more relevant is through teaching managers to view problems and situations from multiple perspectives. Effective environmental management requires expertise not only in the technical aspects of ecological management, waste management, and other environmental issues; it also requires environmental managers to be knowledgeable about important non-technical factors related to their decisions.

One way to teach environmental managers a multi-perspectival approach is through introducing the technical, organization, and personal (TOP) inquiry system, which can be applied fruitfully in many contexts (Allison, 1971; Linstone, 1984). By understanding these three important dimensions as they relate to environmental management issues, managers can better prepare for the real life decisions that will face them. In conjunction with teaching the TOP system, environmental management instruction should include theories and concepts not only from science and technology but also from the social sciences and humanities, and it should use appropriate teaching methods that can capture all of the relevant domains of environmental study.

These methodologies--case study and the TOP inquiry system--are mutually reinforcing, and both can be profitably taught in environmental management programs. Moreover, elements of TOP can be used to help insure the rigorous application of the case study method in evaluating and doing case studies. Below, the case study method and its use for environmental management training will first be discussed. Then the TOP system and its use in environmental management instruction will he outlined. Finally, a way in which the TOP inquiry system can be usefully combined with case study will be described.

The Case Study Method

The case study method consists of an in-depth examination of one or a few events or cases over time (Yin, 1994). It involves data collection, extensive description, and systematic contextual analysis of the case. The result is a fuller understanding of why an instance or situation occurred as it did, and what aspects to explore if similar situations occur in the future (Davey, 1991). The case study method can be used to examine specific aspects of a process, and can be especially useful for answering when and why questions (Gall, Borg, & Gall, 1966). It can also be used to investigate a process or situation comprehensively. A main characteristic of case studies is that they are holistic, so they can be used to develop an extensive understanding of all of the relevant features of some situation or process (Tellis, 1997). These aspects of case study method are applicable across disciplines.

Using Case Study to Instruct Environmental Managers

There are two basic ways to use case study as a tool to instruct environmental managers. The first is to use actual case histories to illustrate the kinds of situations and problems that environmental managers face. The second is to teach environmental managers the case study method so that they can apply it themselves in their jobs as necessary. Including the case study method in these two ways in a program of instruction for environmental managers has several advantages.

First, learning about case studies that have been done previously can help managers understand the many factors that must be taken into account in dealing with specific issues. The decision making situations faced by environmental managers often involve many variables that are related to current operations, stakeholder needs, government policies, and the impacts of the decision on the environment and on the organization and its stakeholders. By using specific cases to illustrate how these variables are related to each other in various contexts, instructors can help environmental managers to better understand the many factors that can affect decision making in real situations.

A second advantage of instructing environmental managers in case study is that by learning this methodology, they acquire an important research tool. In some cases, the best way for the manager to understand the factors involved in a situation may be to carry out a case study. But managers who are unaware of the methodology may not even be able to recognize that a case study could be useful in the situation. Learning the case study method empowers environmental managers to use it. To understand the methodology well, environmental managers should learn not only its basic principles, but also the different kinds of case study that can be done. In this way, they will be aware of the wide range of uses of the methodology and the different ways they can apply it to situations they may face. With a solid understanding of what kinds of case study (for example, exploratory, explanatory, or illustrative) are available, the environmental manager will be better able to choose an appropriate case study for a particular situation.

A third advantage of using case studies in environmental management instruction is that environmental managers will thereby likely become better observers. This is because accurate observation plays a pivotal role in the case study method. In doing a case study, a manager may observe directly, or may actually participate in a process as a participant-observer (Tellis, 1997). In either case, the manager learns to closely observe the situation or process being investigated, which is a crucial skill for environmental managers. By becoming a better observer, the manager is more able to recognize important factors relevant to environmental management that arise on the job, as well as potential problems.

The TOP Framework

Technical, organizational, and personal factors are three perspectives from which socio-technical systems may be viewed (Linstone, 1999). They are ways in which a critical analysis can be done on a system, a corporation, or some other entity. Together, the three perspectives comprise a multiple perspective inquiry system. The TOP system, as set forth by Arteaga & Ing (1999), Grupp & Linstone (2000), Kidd & Li (1999), Margerum (1996), and Rasmussen & Borch (2002), provides a basis for an in-depth understanding and knowledge of an organization considered holistically. These three perspectives can be seen as three ways in which knowledge of a system can be filtered. This is known as "triangulation." Triangulation in behavioral science research is the process of using more than one methodology to investigate a given subject. The assumption is that if several separate research methods provide the same or very similar answers, there is a greater certainty that you have discovered the "real" construct (Tway, 1993, p. 40).

The Technical Filter (T) The T of TOP stands for the technical perspective. This perspective views organizations as involving a hierarchical structure that can be modeled using the principles of system dynamics. From this viewpoint, decision analysis and other tools that are used by management science can be applied. The main goal of this perspective is to numerically justify means and results. In regard to environmental management, this is the important perspective from which goals are monitored and meaningful results are quantitatively analyzed, interpreted, and reported. The perspective abstracts, idealizes, isolates, and simplifies problems to find solutions (Linstone, 1984).

The Organizational Filter (O) The O or Organizational perspective takes into account factors that are important for the organization as a whole, such as goals and purposes, leadership, structure, organizational culture, and the organization's strength relative to its competitors. The O perspective also concerns policies and ethics. For example, it concerns whether management operates within acceptable environmental practices and constraints. It also considers the fact that complexities affecting organizational decisions may involve culture. For example, individuals may support group decisions they would rather not make personally (Linstone, 1984). In addition, the O perspective may recognize that believable myths play an important role in every organization. Myths are narrative sources to anchor the present in the past (Bolman & Deal, 1984).

The Personal Filter (P) The third perspective, P, is the personal perspective and concerns aspects that relate directly to individuals, including issues such as advancement opportunities and interpersonal trust. It brings to bear the psychology, ethics, and sociology of those whose decisions affect a system (Hall, 1989; Linstone, 1984; Tway, 1993). The P perspective brings the human personality into management science and recognizes that interests and needs of employees are important keys for understanding organizations (Linstone, 1984).

Using the TOP Framework for Training Environmental Managers

Current environmental management training often focuses exclusively on scientific and technological instruction that does not question the objectivity of the researcher and results in incomplete explanations of phenomena. Such an over-emphasis on a scientific and technological viewpoint may lead to managerial approaches that exclude vital perspectives needed for sound environmental management decisions. In particular, relevant individual factors and organizational realities may be ignored. This problem can be alleviated by integrating the TOP technical, organizational, personal inquiry system into environmental management training. Doing so can help managers understand that to deal effectively with environmental management issues, it is important to take all three perspectives into account (Allison, 1971; Linstone, 1984). Each of these three perspectives yields unique insights about a system, while their integration shows the system to be more than equal to the sum of its various parts (Linstone, 1999). Teaching the TOP system also minimizes statistical biases common in quantitative management science practice; helps uncover underlying technology, organizational, and personal perspective meanings that affect environmental science; and helps insure that management assumptions are within the scope of those Yin (1994) suggested for a case study.

Concurrent with teaching the TOP system, training programs for environmental managers should include relevant courses in the social sciences and humanities. This might include coursework in such areas as organizational systems, organizational behavior, and business ethics--courses that can provide the knowledge and understandings necessary for environmental managers to effectively employ the TOP system. An important added bonus of teaching the TOP multi-perspective view in environmental management instruction is that it complements the case study method. In fact, it can serve as a guide in understanding the results of particular case studies. Teaching managers how it can be employed in this way can thus be a valuable part of environmental management training. The next section outlines how this can be done.

Using the TOP System in Case Study

The great value of reviewing and doing case studies is that it allows environmental managers to gain an in-depth understanding of a case (a particular situation, set of events, problem, decision, or whatever it may be). Cases are often complex, however, so it is important that researchers use systematic ways of inquiry so that relevant aspects of the case do not go unnoticed. One advantage of learning the TOP system is that it provides a systematic way for a manager to view a case from multiple perspectives. It thereby makes it less likely that important factors are ignored in evaluating the results of a case. Furthermore, using TOP can help the researcher understand interrelations among various important elements in a case. A systematic way to use the TOP system to help understand relevant factors involved in a case study is to ask a series of questions about the case, beginning with the following.

* Question 1: What technical factors are relevant to this case?

* Question 2: What organizational factors are relevant?

* Question 3: What personal factors are relevant?

These three questions focus the researcher's attention on each of the three TOP perspectives: technical, organizational, and personal. The output of the process of answering the questions is a list of factors arranged according to the three categories. Depending on the case, the technical category might include such measurable elements as physical process constraints, emissions standards, and production schedules; the organizational category might include factors such as competitive requirements, governmental or ethical constraints, and information dissemination; the personal category might include factors such as employee motivation, satisfaction, and dedication. Once the important factors affecting the case have been identified and categorized, then three additional questions can be asked.

* Question 4: How does each factor in each category affect the case?

* Question 5: How do the factors in the three categories affect one another?

* Question 6: How do the various factors combine to result in the situation, problem, decision, etc. that constitutes the case?

The answers to Question 4 will often be preliminary since seldom does any factor work alone. But trying to answer that question is an important step toward a fuller understanding. Answering Questions 5 and 6 can be aided by constructing a grid, either on paper or in a computer file, with each identified factor in the three categories listed as headings along both the top and the side of the grid. The square of the grid that is determined by the intersection of a line drawn downward from a top-listed factor, with a line drawn horizontally from a side-listed factor can then be used to record (a) any interactions between the two factors and (b) how the factors combine to affect the case. It may be necessary to make further notations outside the grid to indicate interactions between three or more factors. Of course, applying the TOP system in this way does not guarantee that all relevant factors of a case will be identified. However, addressing the questions above and using the device of the grid provides a systematic method to make it less likely that in a particular case, relevant factors or important interactions among factors will go unnoticed.


Case study can be helpful for preparing environmental managers for actual problem solving situations in two ways: (a) by learning the results of case histories that have been done they can gain important job-relevant knowledge; (b) by learning to apply the case study method, they are able to use this research method themselves. In addition, by learning the technical, organizational, personal inquiry system, environmental managers are better able to appreciate issues and situations from several perspectives, Furthermore, environmental managers can use the TOP system to help them analyze the results of case studies from several perspectives.


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Tway, D. C. (1993). A construct of trust. Dissertation Abstracts International, 55(6), 1629A (UMI No. 9428686).

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Chong-Tek Aik, Walden University, MN

I. Charles Ulinwa, Walden University, MN

Duane C. Tway, Walden University, MN

Aik is a doctoral student in the School of Management at Walden University. Dr. Tway is a Professor at Walden, and Aik's Faculty Mentor. Ulinwa is a Ph.D. computational intelligence student in the School of Education at Walden University.
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Author:Tway, Duane C.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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