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Professor Mike Yearworth

Systemic problem structuring in engineering organisations

The wider and more pervasive use of appropriate systems modelling techniques would have a beneficial impact on the way in which engineers deal with messy socio-technical problems. This class of problems is commonly defined by the following characteristics; i) difficulty on agreeing the problem, project objectives, or what constitutes success, ii) situations involving many interested parties with different worldviews, iii) many uncertainties and lack of reliable (or any) data, and iv) working across the boundary between human activity systems and engineered artefacts. All systems models attempt to conceptualise, via appropriate abstraction and specialised semantics, the behaviour of complex systems through the notion of interdependent system elements combining and interacting to account for the emergent behavioural phenomena we observe in the world.

Engineers have developed a multitude of approaches to systems modelling such as Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) and System Dynamics (SD), Discrete Event Modelling (DEM), Agent Based Modelling and simulation (ABM), and Interpretive Structural Modelling (ISM) and these are all included in my programme of research. However, despite their extensive use, there still exists a number of research challenges that must be addressed for these systems modelling approaches to be more widely adopted in engineering practice as essential tools for dealing with messy problems. These systems modelling approaches as used in current engineering practice provide little or no account of how the process of modelling relates to the process of intervention (if any). This is in part due to the wider challenge to address the poor awareness and uptake of Problem Structuring Methods (PSMs) in engineering, the current inadequate way of integrating these more engineering-focussed systems modelling approaches into PSMs, and lack of understanding in how to deploy them appropriately in addressing messy problems in specific contexts. There is also the need to interpret the current state of the social-theoretic underpinning to systems modelling into a form that is appropriate for use in engineering. This need arises from the endemic atheoretical pragmatism that exists in engineering practice. The lack of methodology supported by suitable theory to counter this i) hinders the development of understanding why methods work or not, and also what it means for them to work, ii) acts as a barrier to communication between practitioners and disciplines, and iii) has ethical consequences, as pragmatic use of methods raises the problem of instrumental rationality.

Addressing this methodological challenge is currently the central core of my work. I believe this research is transformational in that it integrates academically disparate areas of expertise in engineering, management, and social science, into a coherent articulation of systems modelling for engineers. 

Research keywords

  • complex socio-technical problems
  • problem structuring methods (PSMs)
  • systems modelling
  • methodology
  • systems practice in engineering
  • system dynamics
  • causal loop diagramming (CLD)
  • hierarchical process modelling (HPM)
  • research methods
  • group model building
  • grounded systems modelling
  • strategy