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OR60 Stream - Problem Structuring Methods/Soft Operational Research

Stream Organiser

Alberto Paucar-Caceres
(more information)



Stream Definition

It is well known that the term ‘soft’, as introduced by Checkland, (1981, 1999) was initially associated with his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’, but quickly came to be common currency within the Systems community when other interpretative approaches emerged. Ackoff (1974) referred to ‘messes’ as complex, ill-defined, ambiguous and unstable issues that cannot be tackled until we have first worked out what the problems are. It is these situations that ‘soft’ approaches are intended to address. The term has since travelled to the OR camp and the label ‘Soft OR’ started to appear in OR literature, even though rather grudgingly accepted by some OR practitioners and researchers. In 1989, Rosenhead published ‘Rational Analysis for a Problematic world’ and coined the term ‘Problem Structuring Methods’ (PSM) to group the increasing number of ‘soft methodologies’ used in Operational Research/Management Science or/MS practice (Rosenhead, 1989).
PSM’s, according to Rosenhead (1989, 2006) are a family of processes that aim to tackle, and provide analytic assistance to, problematic situations that are characterized by: (a) multiple actors; (b) differing perspectives; (c) partially conflicting interests; (d) significant intangibles; and (e) perplexing uncertainties. PSM’s are a family of approaches that are essentially participatory and interactive in nature, and which serve to address complex problematic situations. PSM’s are often also known as ‘Soft’ Operational Research/‘Soft OR’; the terms will be used interchangeably for the purposes of this stream. These methods help to ensure that all perspectives are taken into account before selecting appropriate systemic approaches to problem-solving and intervention.

Progress in ‘messy’ situations is achieved through the use of PSM’s to engage stakeholders in articulating their views of the problem situation and how to address it, which provides the basis for understanding where and how stakeholders’ views differ. PSM’s commonly involve the development of appropriate models for promoting a shared understanding between stakeholders, moving them towards agreement on initial commitments, which can provide a basis for action. PSM’s do not seek to generate a single, optimal solution, as they are generally founded on the assumption that different solutions will look more or less attractive depending on the purposes and values of the stakeholders. What PSM’s offer instead is a useful language to support exploration and learning in the face of complexity and multiple perspectives.

This PSM/’Soft’ OR stream welcomes papers that discuss the design, application and use of PSM’s as part of case studies as well as discussions of the methodology and principles of PSM/’Soft’ OR practice.

Ackoff, R. (1974). Redesigning the Future. Wiley.
Checkland, P.B. (1981, 1999) Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, Wiley.
Rosenhead, J... (eds.) (1989) Rational Analysis for a Problematic world, Wiley
Rosenhead, J (2006) ‘Past, present and future of problem structuring methods’, Journal of Operational Research Society (2006) 57, 759-765 


Alberto Paucar-Caceres

Professor Alberto Paucar-Caceres is the Chair of Management Systems and research coordinator at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.  Alberto is an experienced lecturer at doctoral, PG and UG level. Commercial experience as an operational research analyst in oil industry and has engaged in consultancy with public and private sector clients. Associate editor of Systems Research and Behavioural Research, Alberto is also in the advisory/scientific board of Systems and Management Sciences Journals. Before coming to England, Alberto worked in industry as a Methods Analyst for the Peruvian Air Force (1976-1977); and a senior operational research analyst for PETROPERU, the Peruvian state oil enterprise (1978-1987). After finishing an MA in Systems at Lancaster University, Alberto lectured at Liverpool Polytechnic and the Open University in Systems related units. Alberto has published extensively on Operational Research, Systems, Information Systems and Management Education Journals including Journal of Operational Research; OMEGA; Systems Research and Behavioural Research; and Systemic Practice and action Research.

Alberto is interested in the application of Soft Systems Methodology, Critical systems thinking and ‘Soft’ Operational Research to problematic situations in organisations and application of systemic management science methodologies to environmental management and sustainability.


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