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Unit information: Socio-Technical Systems in 2016/17

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Unit name Socio-Technical Systems
Unit code CENGM0014
Credit points 10
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Mike Yearworth
Open unit status Not open

Either: CENGM???? – Problem Structuring and Research Methods Or 1. Successful completion of an M-Level unit in qualitative research methods (which will have to be checked for suitability by the Unit Director for CENGM0006) and 2. Completed a directed reading exercise which will cover research material presented and discussed in CENGM???? Problem Structuring and Research Methods (which will be provided by the Unit Director)



School/department Department of Civil Engineering
Faculty Faculty of Engineering


This unit is at the heart of the Systems EngD and is integrated with Problem Structuring and Research Methods (CENG???). It develops understanding and awareness and deals with specific tools in the softer aspects of systems, building on the use of methods such as such as grounded theory, ethnography, and action research together with qualitative data gathering and analysis approaches that have been introduced in Problem Structuring and Research Methods. It builds further on, and deepens and widens, the philosophical underpinnings of systems and systems thinking research introduced in Problem Structuring and Research Methods. The unit takes as its primary assumption that social and technical systems are interacting and interdependent and cannot be analysed or understood reductively in isolation, hence leading to a working definition of socio-technical systems.

The unit introduces the use of specific systems modelling approaches that can be used as Problem Structuring Methods (PSMs) including i) Hierarchical Process Modelling (HPM) (e.g. using the PeriMeta software tool), ii) Causal Loop Diagramming (CLD) and System Dynamics (SD) Modelling, and iii) Agent Based Modelling (ABM). These systems modelling approaches each have strengths and weaknesses and these are addressed by taking a philosophical approach to understanding the value of each method with respect to how they provide better understanding of risk, uncertainty, dynamic and emergent behaviour in complex socio-technical systems. The unit also enables Research Engineers (REs) to appreciate the value of multimethodology, argumentation and Issue Based Information Systems (IBIS), and group model building.

Socio-Technical Systems presents new and in-depth material to soft systems that allows REs to reconsider/update/enhance and bring additional rigour to soft systems aspects of the initial research plan developed in Problem Structuring and Research Methods by: 1. Developing a “softer” systems perspective of complex engineering problems and in particular a better appreciation that problems are constructs of an individual’s mind and therefore do not exist independently of human thought. Also that these constructs are defined by an individual’s “world view” and that different but equally valid interpretations of the real world can exist among individuals 2. Appreciating that the problem field is invariably messy – many potentially related problems and sub-problems can interact in any given system and that solutions to problems are also intellectual constructs and that no problem exists in isolation 3. Understanding that improvements and beneficial interventions in any system problem are most likely to come through sharing of perceptions, persuasion and debate, and the importance of taking an ethical approach at all times 4. Appreciating the range of systems interventions/problem structuring methods in the systems literature and where they can be applied in engineering systems, and understand their philosophical underpinnings in functionalist and interpretive stances and the implications of plural and coercive contexts

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit the Research Engineer will be able to: • Describe and apply a systems approach in a socio-technical systems context • Recognise that dealing with messy problems requires working with a plurality of world views • Describe and map out organisational processes and use systemic problem structuring methods • Build relevant causal loop diagrams, system dynamics models, hierarchical process models, and agent based models • Begin to intervene in a given systems context • Identify the ethical dilemmas encountered in business and use problem structuring methods in an appropriate and ethical manner

Teaching details

Interactive lectures (engineers relate their own experience in dealing with issues that arise), seminars from outside experts, and workshops and team exercises.

Assessment Details

An assignment based on, and with reference to, the problem structuring and systems modelling approaches presented and debated in Socio-Technical Systems that discusses how they can be selected and applied to the Research Engineer’s EngD project. The assessment is expected to contribute to the development of research planning and reconsider soft systems aspects in the light of material discussed in the unit. The RE will be expected to take a critical and well-referenced approach at a level expected in a doctoral level dissertation. (100%, indicative word count ~3000 words).

Reading and References

1. Checkland, P. (1999) Systems thinking, systems practice; and, Soft systems methodology: a 30-year retrospective. Chichester: Wiley 2. Pidd, M. (2004). Systems modelling: theory and practice. Chichester: Wiley. 3. Sterman, J. (2000). Business dynamics: systems thinking and modeling for a complex world. Boston: Irwin McGraw-Hill 4. Vennix, J. (1996). Group Model Building: Facilitating Team Learning Using System Dynamics. Chichester: Wiley 5. Blockley, D., & Godfrey, P. (2000). Doing it differently: systems for rethinking construction. London: Thomas Telford