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Thinking About Systems Design Problems Using the T.O.P2 Framework

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Thinking About Systems Design Problems Using the T.O.P2 Framework
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  Thinking About Systems Design Problems Using the T.O.P 2 Framework  Mathew Hillier  School of Accounting and Information Systems, University of South Australia47-55 North Terrace, Adelaide 5000, AustraliaTel: 61 08 83020912Fax: 61 08 83020992mathew.hillier@unisa.edu.au Abstract This paper presents research in progress on the development of a framework labelled T.O.P 2  (pronounced ‘top squared’). The purpose of this framework is to act as a thinking tool for system analysts and designers in thinking about systems design problems. The intention beingto simply encourage a holistic view on a complex problem by prompting questions in theanalyst’s head, with the hope that it will raise issues that might have been forgotten. Theauthor draws evidence from the multiple perspectives and systems design literature to explainthe basis of the T.O.P 2 framework. The T.O.P 2 framework takes particular inspiration fromLinstone’s (1984, 1999) Multiple Perspective methodology, which uses the T.O.P. (Technical,Organisational and Personal) and Brunswik’s (1952) Lens model of people’s perception of objective reality. An example of a website development problem is given to show how this‘thinking tool’ can be used in practice. Keywords: framework, thinking tool, systems analysis, soft systems, human problem solving, multiple perspectives, web design, top squared, top two, top2, top Introduction The biggest problem with thinking about problems is the person doing the thinking. This is because people approach a given problem situation with their own unique perspective(Haynes, 2000). This personal (un-assisted) perspective limits the range of possible problemstatements and therefore the number of possible solutions that that person could envisage.However, multiple perspectives theory in its many forms, as espoused by Allison (1969,1971), Steinbruner (1974), Anderson (1977), Churchman (1971) and Checkland (1981), offersfor a way forward. Multiple perspectives provides for the ability to consider alternativeviewpoints and techniques, as demonstrated in Hirschheim & Klein (1989) and Gross &Walzer (1977). This is of considerable value in developing a range of problem statements, andtherefore multiple possible solutions. This ‘lateral thinking’ is nothing new, certainly in thesystems literature a range work has been done; including Linstone’s T.O.P (Linstone 1984,1999, Mitroff & Linstone 1993), Wuli-Shili-Renli (Zhu 1997, 2000, Gu & Zhao 1996) andMMD – multi-modal Systems Design (de Raadt 2001). Taking inspiration from Linstone’sMultiple Perspective methodology the author seeks to build upon his T.O.P. (Technical,Organisational and Personal) framework. The T.O.P 2 framework introduced in this paper doesnot attempt to be a holistic solution or systems development methodology. Neither is it adirect match with Lintsone’s perspectives, but instead represents the author’s own Hillier, M. (2002) "Thinking About Systems Design Problems Using the T.O.P 2 Framework" Proceedings of thePacific Asia Conference on Information Systems 2002, 2-4 September, Tokyo, Japan    interpretation. The aim of T.O.P 2 is that it be used as a thinking device. System analysts anddesigners can add T.O.P 2 to their existing toolbox of techniques. The ability for systemsdesigners to consider a range of perspectives is particularly important in the light of global e-commerce efforts where the good fortune of a business is dependant upon the successfulinteraction with a multitude of audiences via electronic means. The Nature of Problems All types of problems involve humans. If a problem is to exist at all, someone must perceiveone. As such, a problem is a gap between what is, and what is desired to be (Argyris 1996b).If the current state of affairs were as desired, there would be no action required, and thus no problem that needed solving.Unbounded Systems Thinking (UST) argues that everything is interrelated (Checkland 1981,Checkland and Scholes 1999). As such, the more branches of enquiry that we use to examine problems, the more paradigms and perspectives we will have to inform us (Mitroff &Linstone 1993). Doing so increases the chance we have of understanding what the problem isand the possible array of solutions.As an example, we will assume that there exists a state of dissatisfaction regarding thedistance between the wall of the author’s house and the boundary of his property. Initially thisseems like a simple problem that could be solved by obtaining a tape measure and thenmeasuring the distance. However, as any trained as a land surveyor will know, the very act of measuring requires a number of preparations. These include: the unit of measurement, themeasuring instrument, that is, the tape measure and its calibration, as they stretch, shrink and become distorted. The measurer themselves is probably the largest source of errors, because if anything is true about humans, it is that they make mistakes (Norman 1990). People perceivethings in different ways (Matumoto 1994), even visual perception is impacted by psychological matters (LeRoux 1994), they might misread the measure, transpose figures,have poor eye sight, have to estimate the distance between the lines on the tape, and have to position the tape at either end. All this can introduce errors and needs to be ‘known’ if wewant to correct for it. Social and political matters may also arise, for example, Who is doingthe measuring? - Your neighbour, yourself, a local government official, a paid contractor.What mood are they in? Enthusiastic, bored, worried. What motivations might they have?Why does the measurement need to be made? - to build something, to assess land value, tosettle a boundary dispute. What other groups are involved? - Local government who assess planning approvals and assess capital value of land, neighbours who might dispute boundariesor appose the construction of a carport too close to their boundary. Such things might lead people to bias in terms of over estimation or underestimation, or even falsified information, aswas witnessed by Walsham & Sahay (1999). Compromise may be required. As a result of allthis, a simple matter of measuring can involve many branches of enquiry. Thus to understandthe wholeness of the problem, we must acknowledge the interconnected nature of its parts andits place in the wider world (Checkland 1981). To understand it better we need to look at itfrom multiple perspectives (Mitroff & Linstone 1993). These could include psychological,social, political, and scientific dimensions.System design problems are very much more complex than that of measuring a distance. Acomplex problem has more than one possible solution and multiple parts, some of which are probably un-recognised. The complex nature of system design problems means that finding asuccessful solution to the problem is not a simple matter, as the high number of projectfailures attest (Ulfelder 2001).  Defining Problems A possible way to understand a complex problem is to model it. However, models areinherently flawed, as they are only one perspective (a mathematical one) of the problemsituation. “Frequently what is omitted from the problem statement or model is more importantthan what is included” (Mitroff & Linstone 1993). The person making the model is restrictedin their view of the world by their limited set of experiences (Mitroff & Linstone 1993). AsMitroff & Linstone (1993) stated in one of guidelines for people modelling problems, “themost limiting constraints in building a model or representation of a problem are usuallyimposed not by the problem itself but by the mindset of the problem solver”.To remedy this situation, it is desirable to find out as much about the problem situation as possible. As applied in Soft Systems (Checkland 1981), various models of the problem aredeveloped based in a range of perspectives. The more perspectives we can gather, the moreinformed we can be about the ‘true nature’ of the problem. True nature in this context doesnot equate to a single truth, but rather a heightened awareness of the problem in all itsdimensions. Lens Model and Thinking Taking inspiration from Brunswik’s (1952) Lens Model we can develop a concept of how people perceive objective reality, this reality may be the world at large, other people,organisations or specific objects. We also need to distinguish between the lens that someoneviews the world through – an ‘internal lens’ (coved in the following paragraphs), and the lenswe can selectively apply – an ‘external lens’ (which equates to an intellectual frame, perspective or view - covered later in this paper).In thinking about the world, people do so based on their own perceptions, experiences andunderstanding of it (relating to Brunswik’s model), this is supported by soft systems andmultiple perspectives (Churchman 1971, Checkland 1981 and Linstone 1984). The uniqueinternal lens of the individual leads this person to think about problems in certain ways(Matsumoto 1994), seek solutions in certain ways (Chan 1999) and even communicate incertain ways (Straub 1994).Your internal lens is fixed, in that your outlook on the world is permanently coloured by it.Just as you are unable to remove your internal lens, you are not able to give it to someone else,nor are other people able to look at the world through your lens. As such, it is impossible tofully appreciate the world from another person’s unique perspective. This internal lens affectsnot only the way you view the world at large (physical things, relationships and people), butalso how you view yourself (See Figure 1).  Figure 1 A person views and experiences the world through an internal lens that cannot be removed. There are two caveats to the ‘fixed’ nature of this internal lens. The first being that at anytimein the future a person may add to this internal lens or alter it via new experiences or information, for example, gaining religion, learning about psychology or being in a    L  e  n  s   Persondoing theviewingThe worldat large  automobile accident. Secondly, it is possible to ‘imagine’ what the world might be likethrough someone else’s lens. Although it would be expected that this ‘imagining’ is onlyapproximate, never certain and also coloured by your own internal lens.Each person is unique, but often members of a group have shared sets of perceptions,experiences and understandings of the world. As people may belong to many different groups,they too can share a part of each group’s common perceptions. Groups can include: culturalgroup, professional group, age group and education background (See Figure 2).  Figure 2 People from various groups may share some parts of their internal lens People can tackle this ‘fixed internal lens’ problem by trying to think laterally about the world.They make attempts to understand the world from other points of view. They might use atechnique whereby they imagine being in someone else’s shoes. For example, a systemdesigner might try to imagine what it would be like for a novice user to have to use the system.They can do this by observing novice users, trying to remember what it was like to be anovice user themselves, or asking novice users their opinions. However, such lateral thinkingis limited by the experience of the person doing the thinking (see Figure 3).  Figure 3 People can imagine what it might be like to look through another person’s lens External Lenses The information systems literature has given rise to a number of more formal techniques andmethodologies for applying the concept of lateral thinking to large and complex problems, asone would expect to find in information systems design ISD (Liu & Gupta 1997). One suchexample is multiple perspectives, which allows people to add one or more ‘external’ lenses(Mitroff & Linstone 1993). These external lenses equate to the intellectual frame (the word‘perspective’ is also used) that you are applying to the examination of an object or situation.Firstly, the ‘object’, which roughly equates to ‘objective reality’ in Brunswik’s model, is thesubject under examination, that is, the thing you are looking at; and secondly, the externallens is your intellectual frame, perspective or view, in other words, the way in which you arelooking at it. See Figure 4.   Figure 4 People can apply an external lens to examine an object (Adapted from Metcalfe 2002) To use a simple example, we may look an object such as a chair through the lens of chemistry,and therefore describe it in terms of molecules, chemical bonding etc; or art, considering theaesthetic appearance, style and colours of the chair. In practice many types of lenses could beapplied to the chair.We must still acknowledge that one’s internal lens is all the while ‘colouring’ the use of anyexternal lenses we might choose to apply (see Figure 5). Thus each person will use theexternal lens in a slightly different way. This provides a proliferation of perspectives on perspectives (this point becomes significant later in the paper).  Figure 5 People can apply an external lens to examine an object but do so though their own internal lens. Introducing The T.O.P 2 framework  T.O.P 2 as a Thinking Tool The T.O.P 2 framework is intended to be a thinking tool. The aim of the framework is to provide a pre-set selection of ‘external lenses’ or perspectives that a systems analyst or designer can apply to problem situation. It can be applied in many of the same situations asLinstone’s T.O.P framework (Mitroff & Linstone 1993), for example, stakeholder analysis(Metcalfe 2002) and project definition (Metcalfe & Lynch 2001), but in a more ready to useformat. The framework provides sufficient guidance as to its use, while remaining generalenough to be flexible. Thus the framework provides actionable knowledge (Argyris 1993,1996a) for looking at a problem situation. Origins of T.O.P 2   To understand the differences between T.O.P and T.O.P 2 , an explanation of the parts of Linstone’s T.O.P. is in order. •   The T equates to the ‘technical’ perspective. This includes anything scientific as well astechnical things of a technical nature (Mitroff & Linstone 1993). For example: the metalof an airplane wing and the stress factors of that metal. •   The O perspective equates to ‘Organisational’ or societal perspective. This looks at therelationships between organisations or parts of a system (Mitroff & Linstone 1993).Organisations may be formal or informal (Jenkins 2002). When using this perspective weare using an interpretive or subjective methodology.    L  e  n  s Object    L  e  n  s   L  e  n  s Object
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