Developing information systems is a creative effort which requires insight and judgement skills (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). There are two common approaches which are Engineering and Socio-technical used in systems development. Each of these approaches is explained below and a summary of the comparison is given afterwards.
Engineering has been significant in creating a fundamental approach for development of information systems and with a driving concern of developing a complex technical system. Too often, inefficiencies in development process result into problematic technical systems, attempts to improve on the situation have drawn majorly on general engineering principles and systems theory. Systems engineering, which emphasizes studying total systems without their isolated components and systems analysis are rooted in the systems theory, they proceed to achieve a task systematically and produce the best system. The engineering approach has grown stronger over time taking the form of different specialized disciplines, the best known to be software engineering. The aim of software engineering is to change semi-structured development practices to a systematic process which is effective, controllable and able to improve software quality (Avgerou & Cornford 1993).
Despite its significance, applicability to IS development has been limited because a fully formal process of development as it depicts has been seen by most to be impractical or undesirable for IS development. It has been said to be impractical because of lack of formal theories to describe organisational behaviour and models to capture the richness of the application domains. Though, several efforts such as use of DFDs and prototyping have been made to include methods which support human creativity and user participation in response to the requirements of human aspect of systems development, ‘its perspective is still that of the efficient development of a technical product' ( Avgerou & Cornford 1993:147). Some other forms of the engineering approach which are aimed at improving certain aspects of system development are Knowledge engineering and Human-computer interaction but still subjected to engineering a technical system (ibid.).
Socio-technical, as another approach to system development, has been defined by Coakes (2002:5) as ‘… [exploring] the relationships and interrelationships between the social and technical parts of any system' and is controlled by social change and human communication theories (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). It sees IS development process as an intervention to improve communication between people and how tasks are carried out in an organisation. As opposed to Engineering, IS is seen as involving people and not isolated technical constructs ( Tatnall 2003; Avgerou & Cornford 1993). Its goal is to develop a system with which people can carry out their tasks effectively and achieve satisfaction and personal development ( Avgerou & Cornford 1993). Laudon and Laudon (2006:28) mention that:
In a socio-technical perspective, the performance of a system is optimized when both the technology and the organisation mutually adjust to one another until a satisfactory fit is obtained.
The socio-technical approach in IS development expresses a combination of practical, ethical and theoretical concerns. The main practical concern being that IT-based systems often fail to bring the required benefits even though they are well designed due to the fact that ‘the social dynamics of [an] organisation … may override the intended performance of the technical system' ( Avgerou & Cornford 1993: 151). This approach seeks to address issues such as resistance to change towards a new IS in organisations by focusing on the human requirements and social dynamics all through the process of development. The ethical concern is of the notion that workers should also gain from the benefits the new technology provides in their workplace in order to promote work environment that is satisfactory (Avgerou & Cornford 1993; Coakes 2003).
Some of the most widely known demonstrations of this approach are Participation and Job design. It is suggested that not only should users be the source of requirements specification but also deeply involved in the process of development and ‘achieving effective participation has proved a non- trivial matter in practice…' ( Avgerou & Cornford 1993:154). Land and Hirschheim (1983:155) identify different categories of users who might be affected by a new system directly or indirectly and also differentiate between two participation types which are ‘participation in decision making about the project' and ‘participation in the actual analysis and design'. The first could be consultative only while the second might be consultative, representative or consensus (ibid.). As mentioned earlier, there are difficulties to having user participation (Cavaye 1995) but should only serve as obstacles to overcome and not arguments in opposition to wider involvement in IS development (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). Job design, another form of this approach, ‘leads the development process towards restructuring the work environment where a new information system would be used and aimed at providing satisfactory work conditions for the employees' (Avgerou & Cornford 1993). Mumford and Weir (1979) contribute to this approach by introducing ETHICS methodology. Having discussed each of these, a summary of the comparison is drawn (figure 1.0).
It is necessary to point out the implications of these approaches on the whole process of IS development as they are used as a basis for systems development. Engineering as a hard systems approach, has dominated in computer systems development and results into a system that is technically perfect but faced with resistance from the users and could be ignored eventually (Platt & Warwick 1995). This is due to certain assumptions this approach makes ( Curtis & Cobham 2008) such as:
On the otherhand, the socio-technical approach helps to consider both the social and technical aspects of a system (Laudon & Laudon 2006), arguing that ‘the social and technical systems…cannot be designed independently of each other' (Curtis & Cobham 2005:581) so with its emphasis on user participation, user acceptance can be achieved thereby resulting into a success (Avison & Fitzgerald 2003; Coakes 2003), for example, as proved by the case of Bill payment system (Fisher 2003), the failure and later success of London Ambulance service (Clarke & Lehaney 2000; Grant et al 2010 ). Avison and Fitzgerald (1995) also claim that participation might result in resentment from either analysts or users.
It is defined as ‘a collection of procedures, tools, and documentation aids which will help the systems developers in their efforts to implement a new information system' (Avison & Fitzgerald 2003:20). There are many methodologies, some of which are ETHICS, SSM, DSDM and they differ from one another mostly in terms of objectives. The Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) will be considered in this essay.
SSM was introduced by Peter CheckLand with the contributions of other researchers in Lancaster University. They started an action research programme by using hard systems engineering as a framework in unsuitable circumstances whereby problems were not clearly defined but this attempt failed so SSM was introduced as an alternative (Checkland & Scholes 1990). The failure led to the rethink of the rudiments of systems thinking (ibid.) and a deep analysis of the basic assumptions behind this and systems development (Fitzgerald et al 2002). It was put forward that ‘systems thinking takes seriously the idea of a whole entity which may exhibit properties as a single whole (‘emergent properties')' and there are two complementary traditions within it namely the ‘hard' tradition which takes the world as systemic and the ‘soft' tradition that ‘creates the process of enquiry as a system' ( Checkland & Scholes 1990:25). Based on this, Checkland and Scholes (1990:25) refer to SSM as:
a systemic process of enquiry which also happens to make use of systems model. It thus subsumes the hard approach, which is a special case of it, one arising when there is local agreement on some system to be engineered.
They also claim that to have a better understanding of this, the word ‘holon' should be used surrendering the word ‘system' to everyday language and avoiding its use as a technical term. SSM uses a specific type of holon which they referred to as Human activity system(HAS), a set of activities that are connected in order to make a purposeful whole, created to meet the core system image requirement(ibid.). The HAS recognizes the importance of people in organisations due to the fact that it is necessary to include people in order to understand the real world (Avison & Fitzgerald 2003). Therefore, this methodology is regarded as a soft systems approach which Avison and Fitzgerald (2003) claim to be the most appropriate for understanding difficult problem situations such as those in organisations. SSM really focuses on looking into the organisational issues and ill-structured problems and then suggestion of solutions which may or may not be computer-based (Skidmore & Eva 2004).
As mentioned earlier, SSM is capable of examining and understanding the complex problem situations of an organisation, for example, its use in Shell and an Acute hospital (Checkland & poulter 2006) using a range of techniques as shown in the seven-stage model( Fig 1.1.0 and fig 1.1.1), this makes it suitable to examine the existing issues in AIC limited, a property management company in Nigeria. Though, the methodology does not explain methods for implementing suggested solutions especially those involving a computerised system but it is suggested that it could be used as a front end in SD process then proceed to use a more technical approach which emphasizes design, development and implementation (Avison & Fitzgerald 2003; Platt & Warwick 1995). Based on this limitation, some others raised the idea of linking SSM to existing structured methodologies and came up with suggestions (Stowel 1985; Prior 1990; Sawyer 1991; Gregory & Merali 1992; Miles 1992; Savage & Mingers 1993), further concerns raised are that should it take the form of grafting SSM to SSD methods or embedding SSD methods in SSM (Miles 1988)? Miles (1988) argues that the grafting method could cause the benefits of SSM to be lost for instance, SSM obviously supports user involvement from the onset (Mingers 1995).
Obviously, SSM has its notable advantages which make it suitable for the case of AIC but definitely not without its weaknesses. Researches on the use of SSM in practice has been conducted (Mingers & Taylor 1992; Brocklesby 1995), some findings in these and the literature generally are as follows:
AIC is a well recognized company specializing in management of properties. It has 3 branches located in Nigeria, one of them serves as the head office and each of the branches has an operations manager and the owner is the Managing Director of the company. Each branch has 8 to 10 Property agents and 1 or 2 accountants working under the supervision of the operations manager. The property agents act as an intermediary between property owners and seekers so they are responsible for allocating owner's properties to seekers and management generally. Data about properties, owners and seekers are presently kept on paper files and each branch has one or two PCs.
This business area is growing rapidly and the company wants to boost their efficiency in customer service delivery. The Managing Director of the company also felt the need for expansion. Some employees think there is need to improve on information handling especially due to the dissatisfaction of some customers (owners) with the mode of operation while some are less concerned and just wish for an increase in salaries. The MD has given his full support for a relevant and quick solution to be implemented in less than a year. Therefore, as an IS analyst, the problem situation will be further explained and analysed using different modelling techniques suggested by Heeks and Morgan (2010a) and Heeks and Morgan (2010b).