examine a business problem in your organisation, and recommend solutions.

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Guide to Part A of the Assignment

Introduction

The single assignment for this Unit has two elements. The first element is in two parts, A and B. Part

A is a business report. In Part A, you are asked to act as a consultant. You must examine a

business problem in your organisation, and recommend solutions. In other words, you are asked to

recommend change: this is what consultants do. This guide has been written to help you tackle this

part of your assignment. There will be further guides for Part B and the second element of your

assignment, the reflective account.

This guide is intended to help you act as a consultant. Firstly, it will examine the nature of business

and organisational problems, and then examine approaches you can use to solve them.

Work problems

You have probably noticed in your work that most of the problems you face are day to day ones.

You take little decisions all day long. After a while, they become automatic, and you take them with

almost no thought.. However, you probably notice that there are other problems, bigger ones, that

occur only occasionally, and need thought and planning to solve. These bigger, one–off decisions

involve change, and they are the subject of this guide.

Figure 1 — Achieving a more desirable state for your part of the organisation

You have also probably noticed that some of these one–off problems are easier to solve than

others. You may have thought about this and decided that the easier problems to solve are those

1 where you know what you want to do and how to do it. You can probably summarize this in Figure 1

above. In this case, it is clear what the change needs to be.

However, on some occasions, the situation may be more like Figure 2, where there are influences

and pressures for change acting on the situation, but no clear idea of exactly what the change

needs to be and therefore even less idea of how to go about implementing it.

Figure 2 — Wondering whether there might be a more desirable state

Both these situations are ‘problems’ even though they may be different in their complexity and

difficulty. We want to look at these types of problem more carefully.

We use this idea of ‘problems’ to separate change situations from the rest of your work. It can be

used to illuminate the types of change that you encounter. Some problems are relatively

straightforward, and can be tackled using well understood techniques to arrive at a solution. Other

types of problem are not straightforward, and require a different approach.

Hard and soft problems

It would be very easy to define the two problem types as quantifiable or ‘hard’ problems which have

single solutions, and the more intractable or ‘soft’ problems as those which have no single solution.

However, that would be misleading as that is not the way we use these words in the management

literature. We can better understand the difference in Figures 3 and 4: Figure 3 represents a hard

problem from the point of view that there is a straightforward method of getting from the present

state to the agreed future state, whilst Figure 4 represents a soft problem where the desirable

destination is still to be discovered. In practical situations the distinction between the two is not

always crystal clear, but in general the more difficult change problems are at the ‘soft’ end of the

spectrum.

Amongst the softest problems are those relating to the culture of an organisation as far as its

members are concerned. Think about your organisation for a moment and imagine how difficult it is

to change its culture. For example, it may be bureaucratic at the moment, but the new CEO wants it

to be entrepreneurial. How is that change going to happen?

2 3

As a simple exercise, look at the list of changes below, and decide which are ‘hard’ problems and

which are ‘soft’.

  • Renewing drilling equipment at the oilfield.
  • Reorganising a company car allocation system.
  • Launching a new product of a type you already sell.
  • Opening a new retail outlet within a chain.
  • Launching a new product of a type you have never marketed before.
  • Appointing a new Director of HR.

Of these six changes, three probably fall into the ‘hard’ category. Renewing conventional machine

tools, launching a new product of a type you already sell, and opening a new retail outlet within a

chain are all quite well defined.

The other three have ‘softer’ implications. Consider the car allocation system — who is to gain, to

lose? What are the wider consequences? Will losing a company car, or receiving only a small one

cause some people to be dissatisfied and possibly leave the company? Similarly, appointing a new

HR director may bring about major related changes, the results of which are not readily understood;

(s)he may have big ideas for the future! Trying to break into new markets is speculative, given that

most new products fail.

There are, then, important differences between hard and soft problems, which affect the ways they

can be managed.

One of the ways used to describe ‘soft’ problems is ‘messy’. It describes the central features of this

type of change and we need to look at it a little more closely.

Change as a messy problem

We think of change problems as something outside our day–to–day routine. ‘Messy’ is a good word

to use, because we are never sure about the type of change, what it entails, who it is likely to affect,

and even what you are hoping to achieve. Dealing with such change is particularly difficult — the

techniques required are not obvious, and the process requires concentrated effort. Most people

would understand you if you called this a mess. It is also a technical expression, coined by R A

Ackoff, to describe this complex type of problem solution.

Messy situations are not at all like problems such as Sudoku or tic–tac–toe. It is difficult to get a

quick idea of what messy problems are concerned with, what is the appropriate way to tackle them,

and what the boundaries of the problem are. Figure 3 illustrates the characteristics of a bounded,

well–defined problem, and Figure 4 reviews the characteristics of a mess. bounded

limited

timescale priorities

clear

limited

applications

can be treated

as a separate

matter

limited number

of people

involved

know what

needs to be

known

know what

the problem

is

know what

would be a

solution

Figure 3 — Characteristics of a bounded problem

unbounded

longer, uncertain

timescale

priorities called

into question

uncertain, but

greater implications:

worrying

can’t be

disentangled

from its context

more people

involved

don’t know

what needs

to be known

not sure

what the

problem is

no ‘solutions’

Figure 4 — Characteristics of an unbounded problem or ‘mess’

In the previous paragraph we suggested that one of the features of messy changes is that they have

no clear boundary and their effects affect your normal working life. Thus, instead of being able to

isolate the change ‘problem’ from the rest of your work, which lets you continue to manage your day

job in your usual way, the problem boundary becomes less clear and you find yourself in a situation

like that illustrated in Figure 4.

Identifying messes

Asking a series of questions about a proposed change may help to identify a potential mess.

Questions such as these may be helpful:

  • Can the current situation be described in an unambiguous way?
  • How many people are involved in the change?

4 5

  • Are any of them threatened by the change?
  • Do they know one another?
  • Is there any history of animosity if they do?
  • Am I clear in my mind about how I propose to carry out the change?
  • Do I have a clear view of what the situation is going to be after the change has been

implemented?

  • Have adequate resources been allocated to allow the change to be introduced?

Approaches to problem solving

We have described problems as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. This is too easy: problems include ‘hard’ and ‘soft’

elements. In this section, we describe two approaches to solving these change problems, and they

make use of these ideas, as we shall see. Both of these approaches share some features in

common. The two approaches are frameworks within which change processes can be designed and

managed. Here we will be looking at the Hard Systems Approach and the Soft Systems Approach.

Hard systems are so–called because they focus on ‘things’, whereas soft approaches focus on

people. In each case we will be asking you to learn enough of these frameworks to tackle your

assignments. We have shown one way of representing the scope of these two approaches in Figure

5 below.

In the diagram, change management is shown as an activity which spans a considerable part of the

space between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ extremes; that is, a dimension on which the problems and issues

range from those dominated by physical and technical concerns to those dominated by individuals

and their psychological needs.

An example of the first might be the design and construction of an office block, whereas for the

second we might take the reorganisation of a work group as our example. Figure 5 — the scope of change management approaches

We now look at the two approaches in a little more detail.

6 The Hard Systems Approach

The stages of the hard systems approach are illustrated in figure 6 and simplified in figure 7. The

stages ‘problem/opportunity’ and ‘implementation’ are shown in the top boxes because they occur in

the real world. The other stages are in numbered boxes to indicate that they are thought processes.

Figure 6 — The stages of the hard systems approach

For the sake of diagrammatic simplicity two features of the hard systems approach are missing from

figure 6. The stages of the approach are numbered and shown occurring in a sequence and this

orderliness is the essence of the methodology. Jumping from one stage to another in a haphazard

sequence is to be avoided. But there is always the possibility, and in some cases the necessity, of

referring back to an earlier stage and then repeating subsequent steps. This iteration can occur for

two reasons:

  • subsequent work has uncovered a mistake in earlier reasoning or an area of uncertainty

7 • something happens in the environment of the investigation that makes previous

assumptions invalid.

Figure 7 — The hard systems approach simplified

The second feature missing from the diagram is agreement. After each state it is essential that all

people agree:

  • that the work has been carried out correctly
  • with the aims, content, time–scale and people involved in the next stage.

We will now describe each stage briefly.

Stage 1: Problem definition (What is the problem?)

The aim of the first stage is to identify and describe the problem or opportunity. While each stage

depends on the success of the previous stage it is the initial stages of a project that set the direction

for the work as a whole. For this reason a clear definition and firm agreement on the problem or

opportunity are essential.

8 9

Problems and opportunities are like two sides of a coin: one of them can always be formulated in

terms of the other. The best way to distinguish between them is to think of:

  • A problem as an unwelcome deviation from a standard or expected state of affairs — its

solution involves the restoration of the existing, satisfactory state of affairs.

  • An opportunity as a chance to improve on the existing state of affairs.

Stage 2: Analysis of the existing situation (Where are we now?)

Having defined and agreed on the problem it is necessary to decide on the system in which you

consider it plays a part. In practice the two stages are closely linked and the analysis of the existing

system nearly always means a redefinition of the problem or opportunity. Identifying and defining the

problem and the system or systems that relate to it are critical for the access of subsequent

analysis.

Stage 3: Identification of objectives and constraints (Where would we like to be?)

This stage forces the project team to make explicit the objectives and constraints associated with

the problem or opportunity. This is valuable for several reasons:

  • It forces everyone concerned to clarify what they hope to achieve.
  • The need to agree objectives and constraints can bring into the open disagreements that

otherwise might emerge only at a later stage of the approach.

The process of defining. Elaborating and agreeing objectives and constraints helps to maintain

commitment to the project.

  • It lays the foundation for subsequent activities, since once the objectives and constraints

have been defined it is possible to decide what is needed to achieve or avoid them.

  • Objectives and constraints can be quantitative (quantifiable) or qualitative (non–

quantifiable).

Stage 4: Generation of routes to objectives (How could we get there?)

This stage explores the different ways of achieving the defined objectives. It is the most imaginative

and freethinking stage of the approach. The idea is initially to generate as many ideas as possible,

then to whittle the list down to two or three ‘definite possibilities’ that can b carried further in the

development stage.

Stage 5: Formulating measures of performance (How will we know when we have

arrived?)

The hard systems approach emphasises the need to have measurable means of assessing the

efficacy of any potential solution or design, but recognises that this may not always be possible.

Stage 6: Developing the options (What would the options be like?) 10

The objective here is to develop the routes to objectives generated in Stage 4 to the position where

they could be implemented, if the decision to go ahead were given. This involves doing sufficient

work on each option to define technical and other details, and for costs and benefits to be assessed

and a sound decision taken, while at the same time minimising the time and resources devoted to

the task.

Stage 7: Option testing (How well will they work?)

While the identified objectives and constraints have been referred to constantly during the

development stage, the testing stage of the approach is a more formal analysis of each option. Its

objective is to determine whether:

  • The option will meet to operational objectives
  • It is technically feasible
  • It is organisationally feasible
  • It will meet the financial objectives.

For example, the original objective may have required that work be finished by 31 December 1998.

Option 1, for all its virtue, will not be completed until August 1999, whereas all other options will be

completed on time.

An effective way to compare options and objectives is to use a matrix, as shown below.

Stage 8: Choice (OK, Let’s Go!)

You might imagine that after all that has gone before, the decision about whether to go ahead or not

would be automatic — but this is rarely the case. There will still be a lot of discussion and ‘fine

tuning’ necessary to ensure that the proposal is acceptable. It is at this stage that any qualitative

measures of performance are brought into play.

Implementation

Implementation involves all the detailed design and development tasks required to get the agreed

proposal operating. The easiest way to think of implementation is as another problem to be solved.

The team can then use the problem–solving model again. 11

The Soft Systems Approach

Various ‘softer’ approaches to problem–solving have been proposed. The one that I shall

concentrate on is based on (although not exactly the same as) the methodology developed by

Professor Checkland and his collaborators at the University of Lancaster. This has been applied to

problems in a number of projects.

The soft systems approach is based on a number of key tenets:

  • Problems do not have an existence that is independent of the people who perceive them.
  • Solutions are what people perceive to be solutions.
  • People perceive problems or situations differently because they have different beliefs about

what the situation is and what it should be.

  • Problems are often linked into what Ackoff has called ‘systems of problems’ or messes.
  • The analyst, researcher, consultant or manager trying to solve the problem is an integral

part of it!

The stages of the soft systems approach are illustrated in figure 8. Part A of the assignment is a

business report, not an academic report, so you have a great deal of freedom to use material from a

wide range of sources. If you Google “soft system approach”, you will find an extraordinary amount

of material, most of it diagrams and pictures. You are encouraged to look at these visual elements

and learn from them. Use them to describe your problem, define your system and root definitions,

and your CATWOE. Yes, there is such a thing as a CATWOE. It’s interesting.

Stage 1: The problem situation unstructured

The approach begins with a situation in which someone, or a number of people, perceives there to

be a problem. It will not be possible to define the problem, or its setting, with any precision, and in

any event the different people involved will have different ideas.

Stage 2: The situation analysed

The first step is to develop a picture (called in soft systems terminology a rich picture) that

encapsulates all the elements that people think are involved in the problem. Once the rich picture

has been drawn, the analyst will attempt to extract ‘issues’ and key tasks.

Issues are areas of contention within the problem situation. Key tasks are the essential jobs that

must be undertaken within the problem situation. Figure 8 — The stages of the soft systems approach

Stage 3: Relevant systems and root definitions

The issues and key tasks extracted from the rich picture become the basis for defining what are

called the ‘relevant systems’. For example, suppose the problem situation is a deteriorating

performance in the Fluorescent Fittings Assembly Department. One of the issues might be the

(high) turnover of production operators/ This might lead (dependent on the point of view taken) to an

idea of the assembly department as ‘an employment–providing system’ or an ‘entertainment

system’. There is no reason to restrict relevant systems to one an issue, or key task. Further

analysis of more than one relevant system might provide valuable insights into different

perspectives on the situation.

The initial idea of the relevant system is then expanded into a root definition. The root definition of

the ‘entertainment system’ might be: ‘A system to ensure that production operators find their jobs as

interesting as possible and that the social and physical production environments are stimulating.’

Stage 4: Conceptual model

The conceptual (or activity) model contains all the activities that the relevant system would have to

perform. The model is usually drawn as a block diagram.

12 13

Stage 5: Comparison of stages 2 and 4

The objective of the comparison stage is to relate the conceptual model to the problem situation as

depicted in the rich picture. The idea is to decide how far the implementation of the system would

resolve the issues identified.

Stage 6: Debate on feasible and desirable changes

The comparison undertaken in the previous stage can have two results:

1 It can cause opinions to change on the problem situation and the issues arising from it.

2 It can provide an agenda for change.

In either case (though both may result) the objective of this stage is to debate, with all concerned,

the changes proposed to ensure that they are both desirable and feasible.

Stage 7: Implement changes

Finally, the agreed changes are implemented.

Like the hard systems approach, soft systems methodology is not seen as a ‘one pass’ procedure

but as a learning process. Iteration is a feature of the methodology’s application.

System Techniques

The two systems methodologies provide a framework for the application of problem–solving,

analysis and design techniques. These fall into three groups:

1 Diagramming: ranging from single systems maps to complex flow charts, diagrams of one

sort or another provide a method of analysis, design and communication.

2 Modelling: simulation is used extensively to analyse the dynamics of an existing system and

to predict the behaviour of a proposed one. Financial models are created to justify

expenditure.

3 Creativity: solving problems, large or small, requires creative thought and various creativity

techniques are commonly used in systems work.

Is the systems approach just for the ‘experts’?

There is a great temptation to ‘leave it to the experts’. Does the manager really need to know about

the systems approach? The answer is emphatically ‘yes’. The manager, as ‘owner’ of the problem,

is also responsible for the solution. He or she should be in a position actively to manage the process

of change. Unless the manager understands the methodology for managing change this will not be

possible.

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