Reinvigorating Soft OR 2022

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In 2021, the Heads of OR and Analytics Forum (HORAF) discussed the impact that COVID-19 was having on their workload. Several members commented that the consequential loss of reliable historic date was causing them to utilise more soft OR approaches. It was agreed that an initiative to reinvigorate soft OR approaches for practitioners would be of value. This was carried out by John Ranyard, then Secretary to HORAF, John Hopes, Immediate Past President of the ORS (and current Secretary of HORAF) and Emma Murray, IBM, who has recent experience of applying soft OR approaches.

The aims were to:

  • Understand the current soft OR landscape
  • Publicise education and training opportunities,
  • Find recent successful case studies for promotional purposes
  • Create awareness of existing soft OR community groups
  • Advise HORAF members on how they can get [more] involved.

The team reported to HORAF in May 2021 and agreed to extend the survey so as to provide a comprehensive guide for anyone in the OR, analytics and data Science communities applying soft OR approaches.

The application of a soft OR approach requires the consultant to act [initially] as a facilitator, which requires
a greater work experience and a deeper understanding of the culture of the client organisation. Mark Westcombe, an experienced ORS soft OR trainer, stresses that complex craft skills are needed to apply soft OR effectively.

This guide is now available at:

Soft OR Approaches

We agreed (more or less) that the following approaches should be included: problem structuring methods (PSM); soft systems methodology (SSM); strategic options development and analysis (SODA) plus Strategyfinder (an online group support system, based on SODA); the strategic choice approach (SCA); systems thinking (ST), viables system model (VSM) and possibly system dynamics (SD), scenario analysis and sensitivity analysis – though in the event the latter three were not followed up. Brief definitions  of these main approaches are given in annex A2 of the report (with grateful thanks to Giles Hindle, who also suggested that, for completeness, we should include: General Facilitation Skills, Dyson et al’s Strategy Framework, Group Model Building (based on System Dynamics) and Multi Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA).

The main body of the report contains:

Brief details of those individuals known to be currently researching and/or applying soft OR in the UK;

Community groups supporting and promoting various soft OR approaches. The most popular are the ORS PSM Special Interest Group and SCiO (Systems and Complexity in Organisations) which is the professional body for systems thinking practitioners.

Current training opportunities – ORS has traditionally offered training courses in soft OR (details on the website). Level 7 Apprenticeships have now been approved for OR; data science and; systems thinking and all include some soft OR. The INFORMS CAP (Certified Analytics Professional) qualification has been running for several years and also contains some soft OR.

Case studies, demonstrating the successful use of various soft OR approaches in a variety of situations. We found ten fairly recent ones.

The Annexes provide more detail, particularly definitions of just about all of the approaches coming under the umbrella of soft OR. (We are indebted to Giles Hindle for providing these). References are provided to key developments in the field, including books, papers and videos.

In conclusion, we noted that soft OR is in good health, with younger enthusiasts taking over the mantle of the original pioneers' Peter Checkland, Colin Eden and John Friend who have now retired.