Work environments are characterised by people doing purposeful activity in  a structured yet dynamic, orderly yet disorderly  environment where there are legislative, procedural, political and social factors that are widely known to influence the design of information systems (IS) and knowledge management (KM) systems for policing work(Stainer, 2013, Hughes and Jackson, 2004).

Most workplaces generate significant amounts of data, often collated/acquired from multiple human sources and information systems (IS). Managing the business is as a result, characterised by matching and  aggregating all this information and data to facilitate and make informed best practice decisions (Babuta, 2017).

Business leaders will depend on timeliness and robustness of this information to develop efficient and effective strategies. There is a however a complicatedness that arises due to the use of  varied and non-proprietary information systems for managing data and information (De Hert and Gutwirth, 2006).  

The ethnographic research methodology is known for ‘messiness’ (Lanclos, 2016) and characterised by lengthy contact through immersion in the field (workplace) and carrying out participant observation and open ended interviews (Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007). This involves gathering insights about the people and the social context of their interactions with and use of technological artefacts and tools.

This article presents insights from practice and highlights the synergies that can be fostered between two seemingly different research methodologies which in combination enable an enhanced view of organisations, supporting the identification of shared problems and co-creation of solutions using ethnographic data to inform the soft systems methodology approach.

IS Systems thinking and organisations

The information systems field, particularly the human computer interaction (HCI) and computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) disciplines are concerned with the  characterisation of technologies in action, particularly the design, use and improvement of systems from a user centric perspective (Randall and Rouncefield, 2010). This often involves consideration of activities, artefacts, policies, and procedures with people at the core.

Although the hope is for human centred design and innovation to take precedence, development of information systems is challenged with legal caveats and the need to facilitating efficient working practices. Systems therefore need to incorporate the concepts of human centred and socio-technical design while supporting unique functions and duties that are underpinned by process, procedure, and legislation. processes.

The interpretive systems thinking approach is particularly helpful for understanding, analysing, and supporting work environments promoting the continued improvement of systems representing the organisation in ‘real’ terms. Taking a systems approach to ethnographic insights supports the identification of processes in reality including the problems and issues within it (Checkland and Holwell, 1999) . It is particularly helpful for provoking a cyclic examination of work as it is done. This enables comparison of contextual ideas to real life situations.

Ethnography – versatility in messiness

Ethnography involves objective reading and fact finding using repositories, publicly available data as well as field immersion.  This helps with understanding the positioning of power, dynamics of duty and roles of the people within the organisation.

During ethnographies, researchers can find the use of pictorial diagrams or mind maps or incident maps when depicting incidents/events and activity systems useful for recording information in fast paced environments. Using quick event maps promotes rigor, enables member checking, and as illustrated in this article, can go on to serve as a basis for initiating an SSM instance.

As data collection yields insights, the unstructured ethnographic insights obtained can be repurposed using a hybrid approach for visualisation of “real-world” situations as they emerge. Having an understanding and characterisation of the activities, the people and their interactions with artefacts (tools, equipment, and technologies) through ethnography and blending that with SSM supports the creation of ‘rich pictures’ depicting multiple activity systems and processes.

In this way ethnography acts as the foundation that delivers authoritative clarity (subject to the limitations of the environment and reflexivity). The SSM then, expands the work study by highlighting elicitation of inherent problems and the adaptive methods (if any) currently used to manage them. This enables co ownership of the problem/s, supports organisations to balance these against their goals and stimulates discussions that facilitates an agreed consensus (although not absolute) on problematic areas leading to the elicitation of co-owned solutions from its workforce.

Why SSM?

When investigating or assessing organisations, presence offers an opportunity to obtain meaningful iterations of contextual diagrams, supports elicitation of situation/s problematic and presents a means for the derivation of co- owned solutions that support the improvement of existing systems (a combination of processes and tasks with respect to information systems).

Engaging SSM retains the integrity of the interpretive philosophical approach of ethnography (which is ordinarily not a problem finding or solving methodology) and uses its messy but informative insights to motivate problem solving using Checkland’s soft systems methodology (SSM).

The human centred approach of rich image modelling of real life situations merges/depicts/combines the values, interest and agenda of  the people (including accommodation of these often conflicting interests). It also considers the nature of work or activities, the organisational mission and goals and the external people who also have perceptions about and interests in the organisation (Checkland and Holwell, 1999).  

Using multiple rich pictures enables understanding and clarity of the situation problematic and serves as a brainstorming/idea consolidation tool (in this case a cohesive representation of ethnographic insights). Rich pictures are implicitly as messy as ethnographic notes in that they contain lots of detail and focus on illustration of what would be considered ‘thick descriptions. Ordinarily they are cartoon like and require little or no artistic flair focussing on enabling a clear depiction of insights into situations.

Emphasis is on the people, their roles and hierarchy and the communication and relationships between them and this enables an understanding what role each individual play and their interaction with the core information systems and work tools.

When putting ethnographic awareness to soft systems methodology, one can outline the actions/activities undertaken by different individuals in different roles in the organisation in a focussed way. It becomes easier to outline actual rationales and views that support the structuring of work in the way it is seen, demonstrating the value of information, knowledge, and information systems to the overall strategies of the organisation.

In this context, organisations can collectively reach a consensus that continuously involves seeking and managing desired relationships, eliciting co-owned problems (which are potentially ever changing), and incorporating the people, processes, structures, resources, and issues into goal-oriented decision making.

Rich pictures play a significant role in helping a workforce collaboratively reach consensus on a shared ‘problematic situation’. With ethnographic insights in hand, the problematic situation can then be further refined in a final rich picture enhanced with thicker descriptive insights from the ethnographic data to enable a social and political analysis.

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Expanding ethnography through SSM

Ethnographic immersion focuses on learning why people do what they do and how in the context of their cultures, people, practices, and environment. It creates an opportunity to determine how people feel, what they think and what they hope could be different. As an interpretive method, it considers that knowledge cannot be separated from the ‘knower’. Ethnography is however, limited in that it can present these insights, but it cannot be fashioned into a problem-solving approach or tool.

Using diagramming in tandem with field notes and field diaries enable illustrative depictions of real-life situations that inform rich pictures of worldviews for use in the cyclic SSM problem solving approach. This is particularly important as the rich pictures and subsequent steps not only motivate identification of shared problems, they also challenge the workforce to contribute meaningfully and co-create solutions by considering their various fixes in a real-world setting.


The most prominent benefit of initiating an SSM instance is an organisation is learning and empowerment (Checkland and Poulter, 2006). Whilst SSM is well known for problem solving, the derivative benefit is that it is a cyclic process that can be initiated repeatedly once an organisation ‘learns’ it. In the context of policing, it is particularly advantageous for dealing with messy/complicated real-life situations.

There are 7 steps to SSM, with this article focussing on the first/initiation step. It is vital to note here that there is a versatility with SSM that allows for tailoring by skipping or interchanging steps to meet requirements.

Vitally when armed with ethnographic insights, and the ability to initiate SSM instances, organisations can engage merging of ethnography with SSM. In learning, they acquire an advantageous means for understanding multiple perspectives and visualising and thinking about problems as jointly owned. This gives them the potential to continuously improve by motivating co owned subjective objectivity and rationalise approaches that improve and maximise their intellectual assets. Co-owned solutions are more likely to meet with less resistance and less likely to fail. 

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