Monday, January 16, 2012



The first step in Soft Systems Methodology ( SSM ) is to formulate the Root Definition of the System you are studying, analysing, designing, evaluating or even quality assuring, inspecting or certifying.


A Root Definition is a structured description of a system. It is a clear statement of activities which take place (or might take place) in the organisation being studied.

A properly structured root definition comprises three elements [what, how, why] and is of the form:  

A System to do X, by (means of) Y, in order to achieve Z.

X – What the System does
– How it does it
– Why it is being done

The 'what' is the immediate aim of the system,
The 'how' is the means of achieving that aim,
The 'why' is the longer term aim of the purposeful activity.

CATWOE analysis helps in proper formulation of a Root Definition.

CATWOE is a mnemonic which helps identify and categorize all stakeholders [people, processes, environment, entities] of the System being analysed for formulating the Root Definition.


To elaborate a bit:

C: The ‘customers of the system’ , clients or System Beneficiaries. In this context ‘customers’ means those who are on the receiving end of whatever it is that the system does. Is it clear from your definition of “C” as to who are the beneficiaries of the system?

A: The ‘actors’, meaning those who would actually carry out the activities envisaged in the notional system being defined. Actors transform inputs into outputs.

T: The ‘transformation process’. What does the system do to the inputs to convert them into the outputs?

W: Weltanschauung - The ‘world view’ that lies behind the Root Definition; the perspective from which the Root Definition if formulated. Putting the system into its wider context can highlight the consequences of the overall system. For example the system may be in place to assist in making the world environmentally safer, and the consequences of system failure could be significant pollution.

O: The ‘owner(s)’ – The person(s) who has commissioned the system and who has sufficient formal power over the system to stop it existing if they so wished (though they won’t usually want to do this).

E: The ‘environmental constraints’. These include things such as ethical limits, regulations, financial constraints, resource limitations, limits set by terms of reference, and so on.

CATWOE Analysis yields a more elaborate all encompassing Root Definition of the form:

A System owned by O to do W by A by means of T given the constraints of in order to achieve X for C.

A briefer version of Root Definition is:  a T system in which do W for C  

Illustrative Example of application of CATWOE Model 

Here is a CATWOE Model of a hypothetical Higher Education System [a University or College]:

C – Students
A – Teachers
T – School Pass Outs are transformed into Graduates [Degree Holders]
W – Graduation [a Degree] is a means of assurance to potential employers that the Graduate [Degree Holder] possesses a specified standard of proficiency and skills in the domain of qualification.
O – The University or College Governing Body or Top Management
E – The Prescribed Educational, Academic Quality, Assessment and Accreditation Standards and Requirements.

Now this CATWOE Analysis may yield a Root Definition that this particular Higher Education Institution is a university owned system to award degrees to students (X) who successfully qualify assessment (Y) in accordance with prescribed standards in order to certify assurance (Z) to potential employers that the students possess the requisite proficiency, capabilities and skills. 
Is this Root Definition okay or is there something amiss...?

Suppose we define Potential Employers [or Industry] as CUSTOMERS [C] and include students as ACTORS [A] along with teachers – won’t we then get a more apt Root Definition and consequently realise a better Educational System in keeping with current needs and ground reality...?

It is vital to accord apt attention to optimizing the System Root Definition for the System under consideration for best results and in this the CATWOE Model is very helpful.


At a recent alumni meet of a prestigious Engineering College I asked a few recently passed out alumni [who were working for a leading IT company for just over a year] as to how much of what was taught in his four year Engineering Degree Course in his college was useful in his work.

They said: “Less than 5% (five percent)” – which means that his employer had to invest heavily [almost 95%] in his training and the rest he had to learn on the job. 

Maybe the educational institution needs to introspect and have a relook at its CATWOE Model and reformulate its ROOT DEFINITION and restructure its curriculum and revitalize its pedagogic methodology to meet the challenges of current needs and envisage seamless integration of fresh BE and B. Tech. Engineering Graduates into the industry.

Systems Approach to higher education incorporating increased partnership and congruence between the industry and universities is the sine qua non of optimal human resource development in science and technology.
The disconnect between the industry and the educational system must be bridged. The Soft Systems Approach incorporating the CATWOE Model is ideally suited for analysing and optimising education systems since all education systems are Human Activity System (HAS) and not Hard Systems.



Copyright © Vikram Karve 2012
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

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About Vikram Karve

A creative person with a zest for life, Vikram Karve is a retired Naval Officer turned full time writer. Educated at IIT Delhi, ITBHU Varanasi, The Lawrence School Lovedale and Bishops School Pune, Vikram has published two books: COCKTAIL a collection of fiction short stories about relationships (2011) and APPETITE FOR A STROLL a book of Foodie Adventures (2008) and he is currently working on his novel. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles in magazines and journals for many years before the advent of blogging. Vikram has taught at a University as a Professor for almost 15 years and now teaches as a visiting faculty and devotes most of his time to creative writing. Vikram lives in Pune India with his family and muse - his pet dog Sherry with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts. 

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© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

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