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Holistic Approach to Problem Solving

What is holistic approach?

Organisations engage consultants to assist them in coming up with objective solutions,

to their sporadic problems, of a non repetitive nature. Consultants have the advantage of
being an outsider and hence disinterested in the outcome of their involvement, in arriving
at the problem solution. Consultants follow certain formal methodologies which have the
power of rigour and tested methods, can foresee problems before they occur and hence
have the power to preempt undesirable / unintended outcomes. One such method
Holistic approach to problem solving is discussed, to follow.

In the holistic approach, the intervention starts with in a participatory mode. It is

recognised that in an external intervention scenario, with long term strategic implications,
close participation of the client and all stake holders, during the vision and objective
setting for the solution, strategy formulation phase, solution design and their feedback, is
essential. This will substantially contribute to the quality of the output, acceptance of
recommendations and speedier implementation. This approach will ensure ownership of
the output, which will enhance level of participation, and active involvement of
stakeholders, during the implementation. This will considerably reduce rework and
revisit to the course of action formulated, and address queries raised (if any), by the
participants, during the implementation. Active stakeholder participation during the initial
phases of the intervention, contributes to success and speed of implementation, high
level of utilisation and reduced need for post implementation support.

The systems (holistic) approach is a unique methodology, to meet the challenges of

understanding and analysing a complex system. It is a practical and proven approach to
analyse a decision – oriented inter disciplinary problem situation, and aiding the
investigator in complex problem solving, under uncertainty. This methodology enables
interaction with all stakeholders, who may be unstructured in their thinking and the way
in which they communicate, and also enables understanding and integration of technical
and behavioural aspects, which makes this approach holistic and unique.

Why holistic approach?
The systems approach is most suited to analyse and understand a complex
multidisciplinary problem, which does not have the advantages of a sound theoretical
base of its own, tested body of knowledge and proven methodologies, to apply. These
mostly fall under the category societal problems, which by their very nature are complex,
as their boundary of influence is open. Societal and organizational problems are
problems of handling open systems, where the system boundary is amorphous,
influencing variables are many, their nature of influence are contextual, making the
problem scenario highly complex to handle. The same is the reason why, we are not
able to apply any conventional methodologies, that work in controlled environments
(closed systems which could be controlled), to this problem scenario. The influence of
human factor adds to the complexity. Complex / open systems also have a character, of
being heterogeneous in terms of their stakeholders, problem context, their relationships,
how they influence each other, the nature and impact of their influence and how they
respond to external stimuli. This character of the problem situation, itself makes it
amenable, only to define the approach to handle, and not the specifics of arriving at a
solution, as these unfold as we move forward. This generic approach is ideally suited to
handle unstructured problems which are not benefited by a proven body of knowledge to

The systems approach attempts to recognize the real world realities of an open system,
subject to the influence of the happenings in the environment, and therefore poorly
controlled. This framework provides a structured approach to study and comprehend an
unstructured problem.

The approach recognizes the existence of an underlying structure even in an apparently

unstructured situation. This approach to a problem situation ensures the conceptual and
structural validity of solution to the problem. It enables a detailed solution arrived at by
any means, to be tested against this template of the structure, and therefore its structural
validity. Typical examples of applicable problem situations in the Indian context would be
to analyse unemployment, poverty, urban growth, and even in a mundane software
development / e governance project. The value derived from this approach is its holism,
identifying and capturing all relevant factors / variables, triggers the process of
identifying their interrelationships, and thereby a focused debate, and an examination of

apparent / conventional wisdom. The methodology provides an excellent platform for
comprehension of the problem, discussion and debate on relevant variables and their
interrelationships, and an effective communication tool, to interact with a heterogeneous
audience, typical of any open system.

A Typical illustration

An apparently straight case of a software development project for process automation in

an organization (business / government) is illustrated below, to bring to surface, the
unique value derived, through application of this approach, to unravel latent relationships
and influencing factors, which could become critical at the time of its implementation,
and usage during its life time.

The project being illustrated is Computerisation of an examination Processing system,

which is under the umbrella of the state government in a typical state. The problem
statement goes something like this.

The state X conducts its 10th standard and other diploma / trade related courses’
examination, by the Secondary Education Examination Board (SEEB). The no. of
courses for which SEEB is responsible would be 25, spread over the whole 12 months in
a year. 60 % of these examinations take place during the months of April June, and
about 90% of the candidates also appear during this period. The process of conducting
the examination involves receiving the list and other details of candidates appearing for
the examination, from the various participating schools, in a prescribed format, by a
particular date for each exam, which has to be verified, corrected, entered in the system
in a predefined format and securely stored for retrieval. Currently the data from schools
entered manually in predefined forms, reach the SEEB through the postal system. The
data are entered by data entry operators engaged through an agent. They are not
permanently employed by the SEEB. The proposed computerized examination system
involves electronically collecting the data on students, getting all marks scored by each
student on each subject in the data base, deciding cut off/grace marks, depending on
the pass percentage and other factors, which could change for each course and exam.

The Para above would be the brief given by the client to the SW developer. The several
relevant but unstated factors / questions to be asked would be:

1. Why do you want to change he system? What benefit are you expecting? Is there
a monetary value attached to it? How do you justify this investment on the
project? From which academic session do you expect this to be fully operational?
2. Would you need to be keeping the hard copies of marks data and answer scripts,
and if so for how long? How much space it is likely to occupy? Do you have that
space? How do you inventorise these for easy access, retrieval, tracking access
and retrieval?
3. Would you be keeping the same data entry operators or new? Have you
considered their concerns – loss of incentives due to initial lower productivity,
learning curve, and sabotage by disgruntled elements. How do you propose to
handle this? Have you attached a monetary value to this and included in project
cost? Have you explored all options to realize your objective? If not, are you
facing any difficulties / constraints in deciding on that?
4. Are you planning to connect to other institutions, who, may use the marks
awarded, for any purpose such as higher studies, employment of the students….
If so, have you studied the technical feasibility of the same, the willingness of
these institutions to get connected, to pull the data from your system,
standardization of SW/HW specifications for interoperation, legal acceptance of
electronic transactions for transfer of marks for admission / employment?

5. How are the results of the exams. going to be announced and after how many
days of getting the marks, from the examiners? Is the result going to be
announced at all or can the students pull their results, from the system

6. Are you considering examining a radical change in the examination process,

pattern, system itself? What options are under consideration? Plan to shift from
descriptive to logical, multiple choice etc?. The results could be announced
instantaneously, if the examination patter is an objective or multiple choice. If
there is a paradigm shift in the exam pattern itself, you may be able to complete
do away with the infrastructure for conducting the board examination, itself.

7. Do you have the freedom to change the exam. pattern? Any special approval
process to be gone through, expected time elapsed to get this, how does it sync
with your proposed project schedule, and whose responsibility is it to go through
the process for bringing about change in the exam. system itself, do they have he
authority, Are you giving out this job on a complete turnkey basis comprising
getting all approvals for change, deciding on course of change, deciding on
detailed items of task, quality assurance of the work done by the SW developer,
testing of work done. Is the vendor expected to carry out an IT systems study,
advice you on HW, SW, Networking, Cost Benefit analysis, ……

8. What would be the remuneration structure for service provider? Payment for
service rendered (Sw development), Training, Maintenance, Upgradation,
revenue / benefit sharing, how do you compute benefits,
9. Who enters data on marks obtained for each student for each subject?
10. How do you ensure security of and preempt fraud in data entry, and thereby
result announcement?
11. How do you keep a trail of the entire process and provide access to answer
scripts, if a student contests marks assigned, and the court asks for the answer
script and the valuation made?
12. What is the level of competency of those who are going to be engaged on the job
of data entry?
13. Will they take less or more time under this new system? Are there any incentives
for data entry operators? What is the basis? How it may be affected after
14. What is the adequacy and quality of the supporting infrastructure to change over
to he digital system for conduct of examinations, processing results, result
announcements, data archiving and retrieval, physical and logical security,
disaster recovery, reemployment those who are redundant,…..

The above are only a highly truncated version of possible externalities for consideration,
to the core task of Computerisation of the SEEB. Capturing all the possible questions
and incorporating them in the project definition, planning, pricing, scheduling etc. would
be possible through an NGT and out-scoping process, through literature study of similar
projects elsewhere, discussion with experts, limited research in examination system

computerization, discussion with the stakeholders (the SEEB, students, evaluators, other
institutions, the state government, schools systems, staff of the SEEB, ….). Most
projects fail (fall short of achieving their originally stated goals / benefits) due to a partial
understanding, recognition and planning for all interrelated factors. Holistic approach
would help realistic planning, achieving realistic goals, and maintaining physical and
financial control and facilitate realistic expectations.

The systems approach takes a holistic rather than a mechanistic view of the problem at
hand, with emphasis on the synthesis of various elements and factors of the system, and
its sub – systems. This approach identifies interactions and inter – relationships between
various elements of a system. The approach enables clear and comprehensive
understanding and definition of the requirements, taking into account

• the unique features of the line of business,

• The various issues/entities/constituents and their level of independence / inter


Such a holistic approach will ensure completeness and scalability in volume, as well as
variety, to meet future evolving requirements, addresses the level of preparedness of the
existing system (Infrastructure; social and physical, technology, acceptability, awareness,
affordability, and adaptability), to seamlessly transform to the new system.

Components of a systems approach and its operationalisation

The systems approach starts with articulating a problem statement. A problem statement
is a note on the problem to be analysed, capturing all aspects of the problem. This is
done through a process of wide-scoping the problem situation, by gathering all possible
dimensions of the problem from a variety of sources, such as secondary literature,
documented material, historical data, open ended and close ended discussions, with a
variety of stakeholders, conducting an NGT of a group who have some exposure /
familiarity with the subject, to understand the multiple dimensions of the problem from
their own perspective. The objective here is to capture as much variety on the problem
situation as possible, to understand its various dimensions. It is not a quantitative /
statistical process, but a qualitative one to capture its various dimensions, the various
stakeholders, their interrelationships, the needs of the stakeholders, the constraints

under which they are operating. The problem statement enables to expand the scope, so
that we are able to capture its various nuances, and internalize them as part of the
problem itself. This is done to have a holistic view. The preparation of the problem
statement is not a structured activity, but an unstructured one, through certain process
guidelines. This is done considering that societal / organisational problems do not
necessarily fall under straight jacketed structures. They need not be discrete but a

A series of site visits wherever warranted and interactions with the stakeholders, through
workshops will be organised. Nominal Group Techniques (NGTs) is one of the
consensus methodologies, where in a group comprising diverse stakeholders, are
assembled, and through a trigger question, their responses are captured, which when
analysed, is expected to capture the several shades of the problem, as articulated by
each member. This session is repeated for two or three rounds till all possible
dimensions are identified.

Techniques such as brainstorming and NGTs will be used in this forum to get the views
of each participant on issues, objectives and vision for the change. Interviews are
proposed to be held with various stakeholders. Interviews allow the flexibility of pursuing
unanticipated lines of inquiry and to probe into issues in depth. These interviews will be
a combination of both structured and unstructured.

Identification of the objectives will be carried out on the above problem statement, using
a Unified Program Planning (UPP) analysis on the data collected from the NGTs,
Brainstorming, interviews and questionnaire surveys. The UPP analysis is a structured
approach towards identification of four sets of elements; Stakeholders (Individuals,
groups or agencies who have a stake in the system-in-focus), Needs (Refers to the
requirements of stakeholders which are to be fulfilled by the system-in-focus), Alterables
(Parameters, events or processes that can be controlled or altered to fulfill the needs of
stakeholders) and Constraints (Limitations imposed by factors that are not controllable
by the system-in-focus), that represent a problem situation and help in formulation of a
set of objectives. For a given situation, SNAC analysis helps in

• Screening key elements that have significant relevance to the situation

• Understanding various stakeholders and their respective needs

• Bringing out major constraints

• Identifying objectives that are ‘truly’ shared

Each defined objective and its associated action plan will help in its realisation.

From the problem statement, Multi modeling techniques (systems methodologies) such
as SNAC analysis (analysis of the Stakeholders, Needs, Alterables and Constraints),
CID (Cybernetic Influence Diagram, which will depict inter relationships among
departments / sections in providing services), VSM (Viable Systems Model) are used to
define the organisation structure, roles and responsibilities and staffing pattern. The
rationale behind this approach is that, in a complex scenario, no single model will be
able to address all the dimensions of the problem. Each model reveals only a part of the
reality / solution. Therefore, it is essential to use multi-models to gain a better
understanding of the problem situation.

Normally, the study is visualized as comprising two modules:

Module 1 – Formulating the vision and objectives
Module 2 – Understanding the existing scenario, central issues confronting the
organisation, practices adopted, cost drivers, market expectations and
key shortcomings, user satisfaction levels, value added, …

A. Objective setting:

Action plan, strategy formulation for the system will be based on the identification of the
vision and set of objectives to be realised. These objectives will be a reflection of the
needs / expectations from the stake holders, and issues to be addressed in design of the
new system. The first step towards strategy formulation is identification of objectives to
be realised. This is proposed to be achieved through a process of consensus building,
using group techniques such as brainstorming and Nominal Group Techniques (NGTs),
interviews, questionnaires.

From the list of objectives an objective tree or Interpretive Structural Model (ISM) is built.
The ISM is a hierarchical arrangement of all objectives, identified above, through a
mathematical process, following certain business rules such as transitivity etc.

B. Identification of interdependence between elements of the system:

A Cybernetic Influence Diagram (CID) will be developed in order to get a better

understanding of the scenario. In a CID, the various key elements / factors that
constitute the system are identified and their inter-linkages mapped and studied. This
serves to highlight any missing / weak links, the effect of change in one factor on the
other and the points where any intervention is needed, to derive desirable outcomes. To
draw the CID, the various units/stakeholders/departments / sections are studied and the
interactions among them captured.

C. Design of organisation structure and staffing:

Viable Systems Model (VSM) is used to design the organisation and staffing structure.
This model is built on five elements of any viable system;

• Policy (to draw management policies for the continued viable functioning of the
system drawing upon inputs from the intelligence, control and monitoring

• Intelligence (to scan the external environment for any changes, such as technology,
threats, security breaches which will have an effect on the operation of the system),

• Control and Monitoring ( to check if the day to day functioning is in line with what is
expected of the system),

• Co-ordination (effectively controlling the operations of the system) and

• Operations (the various operations under the system).

Suggestions on making the entire system viable will be based on the above analysis.
Critical Success Factors (CSFs) in terms of technological, marketing skills, financial
aspects required for development and smooth functioning of the new system, will be
identified based on the above analysis. The improvements suggested will be reviewed
in terms of feasibility and impact on the current system and a final set of modifications /
improvements in the framework, will be drawn.

D. Staffing

Identification of the sub systems in the VSM will lead to enumeration of all the functions
to be performed. The functions will be classified as related and unrelated. Whenever
interactions between functions are high, they will be grouped as related and treated as
points of convergence in the structure, taking into account control aspects. While
designing the organisation structure, a balance will be drawn between homogeneity and
affinity of actions to be performed and controls to be imposed. Once the structure of the
organisation is decided upon, the staffing requirements will be examined. A training plan
will be drawn to impart training so as to enable them to carry out their activities

In this ever increasing complexity of problem situations being encountered, it is expected

that the holistic approach will gain considerable attention in the future. The holistic
approach is yet to be recognised as part of a curriculum in Management training.