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The Dorset House Quarterly Interviews

James Robertson and Suzanne Robertson
Author of Complete Systems Analysis: The Workbook, the Textbook, the Answers

ISBN: 978-0-932633-50-7  
©1998, 1994  624 pages   softcover  
$57.95 (plus shipping)

DHQ: What were the circumstances that led you to write Complete Systems Analysis?

J. & S. ROBERTSON: We had clocked many years of systems analysis experience, most of it as freelance consultants. One thing that we noticed was that each time we left a project, our experience walked out the door with us. We tried several experiments at training in-house staff to replace us, but managers who were paying a lot for our services (it wasn't really that much) wanted us to do "real work" rather than induct their people. This book is our attempt to pass on real project experience. It's also a teaching book. We love to teach, and this is one way that we can do it.

DHQ: How did Piccadilly Television become the subject of the book's main project?

J. & S. ROBERTSON: We worked for a television company in London. It was a fascinating project, and we didn't want that experience just to pass into memory. So we wrote a book about it. The company gave us permission to do it, although we changed some aspects to protect any confidential information. The name Piccadilly is a little joke. The real company is called Central Television. Central is also the name of one of the London tube lines, so we named our case study after another line: Piccadilly. Various aspects of the tube crop up in the book, and some mysteries in the book can be solved with a map of the London Underground.

DHQ: What does CSA offer people who have already learned analysis techniques on the job?

J. & S. ROBERTSON: Complete Systems Analysis reflects ideas that have developed over at least fifteen years. New ideas like event-response data and process models, integrated analysis, and viewpoints are presented, along with earlier practices like top-down functional decomposition and data flow analysis techniques. The book is written so that analysts with previous experience can add to it rather than having to relate to a completely new set of terminology.

DHQ: How did you structure the book to adapt to the diversity of readers' systems analysis backgrounds?

J. & S. ROBERTSON: The first section of the book presents one project, the Piccadilly Television case study. The reader has to work through it. We kept the project separate from the textbook section so that someone with a little experience could work straight through the project, without being diverted by the textbook. After the project is finished, the textbook, because it is separate, serves as a reference. We wanted to mimic the way people work on projects: They sit at their desks or, better still, the users' desks and build models of systems. If they get stuck, they refer to manuals, textbooks, other people, and so on, for help. The book follows this structure.

DHQ: How did you come up with the idea of using ski trails as an organizing motif?

J. & S. ROBERTSON: We were searching for a way to give people paths through complicated subject matter. Tim Lister, one of our partners in the Atlantic Systems Guild, pointed out that such a device already existed: ski trails. In the years that we have been skiing, we have spent many hours staring at signposts giving the names of the trails, and about the same amount of time trying to reconcile ski trail maps with the terrain. It somehow seemed natural, when we needed a device to guide people around this book, to use ski trails.

The motif appealed to us for another reason. Not every reader comes with the same level of experience, or has the same requirements from this book. Ski trails are graded to beginner, intermediate, and expert levels, so once again that seemed the perfect analogy. We have the three types of trails running through the book, and the reader may follow any one he or she wishes. We've also added a fourth path—a promenade for managers that covers the fundamentals without assigning any modeling work.

The skiing analogy led to one other thing: the ski patrol. In the book, the ski patrol arrives at the end of a workshop, discusses what may have gone wrong, and offers advice on how to proceed. We loved writing the ski patrol pieces. It was really tough (and embarrassing) to go back over all the mistakes we made in our careers, and offer advice to anyone about to make the same mistakes. It was teaching at its best to write a piece on how to recover from a mistake and get back on the trail again. This underpins our unshakeable belief that learning anything, particularly systems analysis, requires one to experiment, make mistakes, and then—most importantly—understand why the mistake happened and how to avoid it in the future. We try to get our readers to make mistakes (there are a few deliberately set traps in the book) so that they understand the process better.

DHQ: In what ways does Complete Systems Analysis add to the theory of systems analysis?

J. & S. ROBERTSON: The word "complete" says it. We have avoided an exclusive treatment of small (but nevertheless interesting) parts of the subject in favor of demonstrating how systems analysis is really done. In other words, the book is not about a theoretical aspect of one facet of the subject; it involves the whole process of systems analysis.

DHQ: Thank you, James and Suzanne!

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