Structuring problems

What is problem structuring?

Problem structuring, as the name implies, refers to the process of mapping out the issues and challenges facing an organisation in order to decide what to do next. Typically problem structuring is carried out using a special class of soft methodologies within the more broader group of operational research methods.

Whilst on our structuring problems course, attendees will learn about two of the most prominent problem structuring methods, namely – soft systems methodology (SSM) and cognitive mapping.

Not only can problem structuring methods help an organisation identify the issues it’s facing, it can also help with decisions relating to how best to allocate resources between competing projects, how different strategies can help the organisation meet its high level goals and how the decisions it takes impact on the wider economic or social environment.

Problem structuring in health and social care

Whilst problem structuring methods have been successfully used in many organisational contexts,  they are especially suited to organisations within the health or social care sector.

Such organisations tend to be large in size, have a large number and wide range of different stakeholders, provide multiple functions, carry out a wide range of different types of activity and exhibit a significant amount of organisational complexity.

Together these aspects can contribute towards making it increasingly difficult for those involved to comprehend all the processes that take place in the organisation and decide how best to improve them.

A Soft Methodology

Unlike other analytical approaches that are referred to as “hard”, problem structuring is much “softer” in nature in the sense that we focus mainly on gathering opinions and statements so as to be able to decide how to approach a situation. When using “soft” techniques our goal is not to derive a numeric result.

For this reason, its more useful to think of problem structuring methods in terms of helping us to decide what ought to be done rather than how to quantitatively solve a specific organisational problem.


The decisions that need to be taken are often difficult to assess, especially as there are many stakeholders with different views.

We are proposing in this module a set of techniques to enable those engaged in, or supporting, commissioning or provision of health and social care to better understand the real-life problems.

These techniques and approaches often easy to understand and use will help the students in analysing and exploring the operation and interactions in complex situations/systems, as well people aspects.

Aims/Learning objectives

This module deals with the first step in any modelling exercise.
At the end of the module the students should be able to:

  • Appreciate the role of problem structuring methods in defining and identifying issues in complex healthcare problems;
  • Understand how to apply problem structuring techniques in the planning process;
  • Use Cognitive Mapping to clearly illustrate the aims, objectives, strategies and options for large problems;
  • Utilise Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) to increase understanding of healthcare systems and the environment in which they operate;
  • Conduct SWOT analysis to identify both internal and external risks, opportunities and threats to successful project implementation.


  • Identifying the causes of bad decision making
  • Fundamentals of problem structuring
  • Using SWOT analysis to identify risks and opportunities
  • Using Congitive Mapping to understand Complex Problems
  • Soft Systems Methodology: Deciphering the bigger picture
  • Group work and discussion

Case material

Case material would be drawn from experts in the field, e.g.

  • Demand and Future Cost of Long-term Conditions in an English PCT / GP Consortium
  • Options for long-term continuing care

Course delivery

In general each module of the course is associated with one day’s face-to-face training in our Central London premises supported by additional material and resources. Distance learning might be considered in the future depending on need. We can also deliver customised in-house courses.

Module Format

For face-to-face delivery, a mixed structure is generally adopted. There is a blend of sessions introducing the topics and techniques of interest and use examples to illustrate key themes, and of sessions engaging participants in interactive and hands-on experience of tools and techniques drawing on case material of direct relevance to commissioning or provision of services.


No particular pre-requisites for this module.

Software Support

No software will be used for this module.


Prof. Thierry Chaussalet or Philip
Tel: 020 7911 5000 (ext. 65099 – ECS School Office)