COMPRAM, a Method for Handling Complex Societal Problems

Dorien J. DeTombe

Chair Operational Research Euro Working Group Complex Societal Problems


Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe


Tel: +31 20 6927526 E-Mail:

Published in:

DeTombe, Dorien J. (Guest Editor) Feature Issue: Complex Societal Problems, European Journal of Operation Research; D.J. Slowinski, R. Teghem, J. Wallenius, J. (Eds). Vol. 128-2, Januari 16, 2001, Elsevier, North-Holland, Amsterdam, ISSN 0377-2217,, pp.227-401

Abstract  The article starts with an introduction to complex societal problems, and the aspects and causes of such problems are described. The phases in the problem handling process are discussed. Then the main aspects of Compram method are discussed.                                 The Compram method is developed to support handling complex societal problems. The method is developed by DeTombe (1994). The method is based on the idea that societal problems must be handled cooperatively and must be guided by a facilitator. Knowledge, power and emotions are the basic elements in the problem handling process of these problems. Central in the problem handling process is the communication between members of the problem handling team via the seven-layer model. The Compram method is a prescriptive framework method to which all kind of sub-methods can be applied. A moment in the problem handling process is described in detail. The article ends with descriptions of some of the pitfalls of the problem handling process, and how to avoid them. The Compram method has been used as a theoretical basis for handling over sixty real life cases in the field of technical societal policy making and reorganization.

Keywords: Handling Societal Problems; Complex Problems; Social Science; Methodology; Compram


1 What are complex societal problems?

Complex societal problems are real life problems. Real life problems are almost always without exception complex. There are many sub-categories of complex societal problems, such as complex social problems, complex technical policy problems and complex organization problems. Social problems are closely related to the well-being of people, such as welfare problems, unemployment problems and healthcare problems. Complex technical policy problems involve less direct human suffering, but can cause also much trouble. Environmental problems, possible climate change, and transport and infrastructure problems can be considered as complex technical policy problems. Examples of complex technical policy problems are large infrastructure projects for building new airports, railroads, or harbors such as the extension of the Dutch airport Schiphol (TNLI, 1997), the high-speed rail through the Netherlands (Rijnveld & Koppenjan, 1997), and the extension of Rotterdam harbor.

Large organizational problems, such as global marketing, reorganization problems and starting new joint ventures, also belong to the field of complex societal problems, because of the aspects of the problem and the methods used to guide them.

2 Aspects of complex societal problems

Complex societal problems are complex because of the dynamic character of the problems, the many phenomena included, the many actors involved and the impact these problems have on society. Complex societal problems may include governmental problems, global, central and local policy problems. Complex societal problems can also concern problems in and between organizations and/or the government. Dealing with all these aspects makes handling these problems difficult.

Knowledge of different disciplines is necessary for analyzing a complex societal problem such as extension of the Dutch airport Schiphol. The above problem has legal, environmental, political, technical, safety, transportation and economic aspects. The extension of the airport depends on many phenomena such as tourism, business travel and freight transportation. Air transport has to be geared to other means of transportation. Extension of the airport involves building new railroads, new roads and changing farmland into a transport area. This has to be realized within the boundaries of a condensed and highly populated area, while taking the rights conferred by a democracy into account. Many actors are connected with this problem. Actors of the central, provincial and local government and actors of private companies, such as national and international rail and air transport companies and the companies of other competitive European airports. Each actor has its own goal, interest, emotion and its own set of steering instruments. The government has its regulation instruments described in laws and prescriptions by which it can enforce, forbid or stimulate certain developments. A private actor like a company has employment for the local community, economic welfare for the country and attracting new business as steering instruments. The company can decide to stay or to leave the country.

Different actors have different and often changing views regarding the problem. Actors act and react on a basis of their own agendas, motivation, possibilities and goals. Each actor, or group of actors, has the possibility to support, change or prevent interventions. The problem has a large impact on society, on the macro, meso and micro level, on the quality of life of human beings and on nature. On top of this the definition of the problem, the view on the problem and the possible ‘solutions’ change rapidly during the development of the problem.


3 What causes complex societal problems?

Although the real cause of complex societal problems is not always clear, many complex societal problems are caused by humans. Human intervention is obvious in complex societal problems such as wars, pollution and the building of new infrastructure, however, what about disasters such as hurricanes, volcano’s, floods and avalanches. What is the role of humans here? Even these disasters are caused by humans by building in areas where it is not safe to build, by humans rearranging ‘natural’ area’s such as rivers and woods on mountain slopes and on forelands, so that the natural equilibrium is disturbed. The frequent floods on large rivers in China, the Yanshe river, in Canada, the St. Lawrence river, and in the Netherlands, the rivers Rhine and Maas, cause many disasters.


4 Knowledge phases in the problem handling process of complex societal problems

The process of handling complex societal problems can be divided into two sub-cycles. In the first sub-cycle the problem is defined; in the second sub-cycle the problem is changed. Each sub-cycle consists of several knowledge phases.

The first sub-cycle of the problem handling process: defining the problem

phase 1.1 becoming aware of the problem and

            forming a (vague) mental idea of the problem

phase 1.2 extending the mental idea by hearing, thinking,

                reading, talking and asking questions about the problem

phase 1.3 putting the problem on the agenda and deciding to handle the problem

phase 1.4 forming a problem handling team and starting to analyze the problem

phase 1.5 gathering data, exchange knowledge and forming hypotheses about the problem

phase 1.6 formulating the conceptual model of the problem


The second sub-cycle: changing the problem

phase 2.1 constructing the empirical model and the desired goal

phase 2.2 defining the handling space

phase 2.3 constructing and evaluating scenarios

phase 2.4 suggesting interventions

phase 2.5 implementing interventions

phase 2.6 evaluating interventions

Figure 1: The knowledge phases in the problem handling process

The problem will be defined in the first sub-cycle of the problem handling process. The cycle starts with awareness of a problem and ends with a ‘complete’ description of the problem. Becoming aware of the problem and forming a mental idea of it is the first phase (phase1.1). The mental idea can be extended by hearing, thinking, reading, talking and asking question about the problem (phase 1.2). Realizing that it is necessary to take action on the problem, the problem is put on the political agenda (phase 1.3). The actor or group of actors that has the legal right or the societal power to handle the problem can form a problem handling team to start handling the problem. This actor or group of actors is then indicated as the problem owner (phase 1.4). The problem handling team gathers data, exchanges knowledge and information and forms hypotheses about the problem (phase 1.5). Based on this discussion a conceptual model of the problem is made (phase 1.6). The problem is defined by forming the conceptual model of the problem.

Basically defining a problem is a process of acquiring and communicating knowledge on what the problem looks like, how the situation came about how it is now, why it is a problem, which organizations and actors are involved, what power they have, which phenomena are involved and how all these aspects relate. The definition contains a description of the past and the present situation. Sometimes the contemporary situation is not considered to be a problem as yet, but it may become a problem when no interventions are carried out. In this case a sketch of the predicted future development of the problem is part of the definition of the problem. In other cases descriptions of future developments of the problem belong to the second sub-cycle of the problem handling process.


The second sub-cycle is the cycle of changing the problem. An empirical model of the problem can be made based on the definition of the problem described in the conceptual model. The difference between the conceptual model and the empirical model is that the data in the empirical model are more detailed and directly related to reality. In this phase (phase 2.1) the desired goal is also defined. The desired goal is the direction in which the experts or the actors would like to change the problem. The handling space is analyzed and described in phase 2.2. Each actor can define it’s own handling space. The handling space is the space in which a problem can be ‘solved’. Scenarios, future developments of the situation of the problem, are constructed and evaluated in phase 2.3. Hypotheses for interventions are formulated (phase 2.4). In the next phase these interventions are integrated in different scenarios and then selected. Then the interventions are implemented in real life (phase 2.5). In the last phase the implemented interventions are evaluated on the effect they have on the desired goals of the actors and the problem owner as well as the impact they have on society (phase 2.6).

The phases from awareness via putting the problem on the agenda to ‘solving’ of a problem can be very long and complicated. Depending on the problem, on who benefits from it, who suffers because of it, who’s guiding the problem and what method is used, the phases can be shorter or longer.

After the interventions are evaluated the original situation can be changed so much that new problems appear and the problem handling process must begin again.

Each phase and each moment in the problem handling process can call for a stop, an intermission, a return to a previous knowledge phase, a take-over by another problem owner or skipping a phase, for all kind of reasons. All activities should be carried out in the given sequential order of the knowledge phases to handle a problem adequately (see figure 1).


5 Awareness of the problem

Not all complex societal problems will be handled. Handling a complex problem depends on many issues. Awareness of a problem is needed. The awareness may start with a few people, a certain actor, an institution, or may be provoked by an event from outside such as a natural disaster or an accident.

The flood problem is an example of becoming aware of a complex societal problem, meaning a problem for which interventions can be taken. For a long time (until the seventeenth century) the frequent floods (each decade) of the rivers Rhine and Maas, provoked by high levels of melt water from the Alps in early spring and heavy rainfalls in the basin of the rivers, were considered a curse from God. The people suffering from the floods had to accept this as a punishment for their sins. Floods were not considered to be a societal problem that could be handled. Only after decades of much effort could civil servants make people see that floods were not a punishment from God, but a problem that could and should be handled (Lintsen, 1980; Ten Horn-van Nispen & Lintsen, 1994).


6 Putting a problem on the (political) agenda

Awareness alone is not enough to handle a complex societal problem. The problem must also be put on the political or organizational agenda. A complex societal problem can not be handled by one actor alone. A complex societal problem can only be handled when a critical mass is aware of the problem and an actor has the power and authority to take action regarding the problem. There should be at least a vague idea about some kind of solution for the problem, or the idea that a solution can be found, or the urge for a solution (Dinkelman, 1996). Other conditions are that there must be time and money to handle the problem. When all these conditions are met the problem can be put on a political agenda. The phase from awareness to putting it on the agenda can be very long. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s small and alternative legal rights groups made people aware of the pollution of the environment. It took another fifteen years to put this problem on the (international) political agenda, and for the problem to be recognized as a global problem.


7 What kind of complex societal problems are handled?

People in general are capable of handling many problems, however, only a few problems will get the attention they deserve.

Complex problems that are a part of the core business, that have a high political value or that are forced into prominence by outsiders are put on the political agenda of the government. These problems with high political interest will often get the attention they need. Such problems are mainly directly related to the protection of money and/or the power of the actors in charge. Organizations join the handling process of societal problems when there is money involved, either to lose or to win, or when the continuation of the organization is threatened.

Many problem that are not politically important are only handled to prevent social protest. Sometimes there is an awareness of the problem by the government, however, for political reasons the government refuses to put it on the political agenda and thus refuses to act on it. An example of such a problem is the manure problem in the Netherlands. The (pig) manure pollutes the groundwater and the air in the Netherlands. The government, dominated for decades by the religious Conservative Party, was aware of the problem. Moreover, the government itself had caused the problem by subsidizing the pigs farmers (Heijungs, 1992a, 1992b; Termeer, 1993; Glasbergen, 1995). The government, depending on the votes of the conservative (religious) farmers was not willing to handle the problem adequately out of fear of loosing the next elections. The problem could only be handled after the religious Conservative Party left the government (DeTombe, 1993).


8 Handling does not automatically means solving

Solving is a word we like to avoid when talking about handling complex societal problems. We use the word changing instead. Solving a complex societal problem is possible seen from a certain viewpoint of a particular actor; however, looking at the problem from a general viewpoint the word changing is more adequate, because a solution for one actor is often the start of a problem for another actor. A changed problem can be a solution from the viewpoint of one party, while it may be the start of a problem for another party. By changing we mean deliberately interfere in the problem.


9 The relation between awareness and solving

It may be clear that the phases from awareness to solving are a difficult and time consuming process, vulnerable to interruptions.

Awareness of a problem is a condition for putting a problem on the agenda, but putting a problem on the agenda does not automatically lead to the next phases in the problem handling process. So does defining a problem not always lead to changing a problem and changing a problem does not automatically (actually seldom leads) lead to solving a problem (see figure 2).

awareness ==\\==> agenda ==\\==> handling ==\\==> changing ==\\==> solving

Figure 2: The relation between the different moments in the problem handling process


10 Handling complex societal problems

Complex societal problems are difficult to analyze. The problems are unstructured and undefined. It is seldom clear when the problem starts, by whom or what it is caused and where the problem ends. Data needed for handling are often missing, incomplete or contradictory. Knowledge needed to explain a problem is often not available, or not clear.

Analyzing complex societal problems is not easy, however, guiding the handling process and finding fruitful interventions, is even more difficult. In handling knowledge, power and emotions play an important role. Knowledge is the most controllable factor of the three basic elements of handling complex problems. Knowledge can, to a certain point, be guided (DeTombe, 1994). Power and emotions are more difficult to analyze and handle.

Predicting the outcome of the handling process is possible only to a certain extent. The phenomena and the actors do not stand-alone but interact in many ways. This may cause reactions that can not be predicted. This complex set of interactions makes it very difficult to determine what is going on, to predict what will happen in the near future, and to see what the outcome of the process will be (see DeTombe, 1996).

Many problems are not handled efficiently or optimally. The handling process takes too much time, costs too much and sometimes results in changes no one wants. Reasons for this are that there is no real political need to handle the problem, there is not enough money available or some people prefer not to act towards the problem because it suits them better. It can also be that the persons who handle the problem are not capable or do not have the knowledge to handle these kind of complex societal problems. Often it is a combination of elements. Reflecting the way societal problems are handled we can wonder why these, often very important and money devouring projects, are handled so inefficiently and inadequately. Are people unable to handle societal problems because they are too complex or are adequate methods missing?

There are many reasons why societal problems are handled so inefficiently, the main reason is the type of problem. The complexity of the problem makes it difficult to handle. The theory of complex societal problems (DeTombe, 1996a) and chaos theory (Lorenz, 1989; DeTombe, 1996b) show clearly that the complexity, the dynamics of the problem, the many phenomena involved and the many people involved, make these kind of problems difficult to handle. All the components of the problem interact, it is therefore difficult to predict how the problem will develop. There is much uncertainty in the handling process and much uncertainty in the outcome of the process. Because of the complexity there are white spots in the knowledge, contradictions in the data and blind spots in the problem handling process. Power (Mintzberg, 1983) and emotions (Frijda, 1986; Kets de Vries, 1995) in the problem handling process also contribute to complexity. These elements are very hard to guide.


11 The Compram method

Adequate methods must be used to guide the handling process, because of the difficulty of handling these complex societal problems. These methods should be firmly based on scientific concepts and tested in reality.

Relatively little effort is put into the theoretical foundations of handling complex societal problems. Looking at the problems humanity must cope with, we realize that in this very important area very little scientific work has been done.

Realizing how little scientific effort had been put into fundamental research on supporting the handling process of complex societal problems, DeTombe developed the Compram method for handling complex societal problems, starting in 1988. Compram stands for the Complex Problem Handling Method (DeTombe, 1994). Real life problems were the starting point for developing the Compram method. The basic ideas of the Compram method were developed during the years 1988 to 1994 (DeTombe, 1991a, 1991b, 1992, 1993, 1994). The method was elaborated from 1994 to 1999 and is still being developed (DeTombe, 1995, 1996a, 1996b, 1997a, 1997b, 1997c, 1998, 1999, in press a, in press b).

The Compram method is based on scientific theories from different disciplines. Disciplines such as cognitive psychology (Wortman,1966; Newell & Simon, 1972; Simon, 1973, 1978, 1979; Frijda & Elshout, 1976; Elshout-Mohr 1976; Frijda & De Groot, 1982; Elshout, 1984; Rumelhart, 1984), general psychology, sociology (Coleman, 1990), socio-cybernetics (Wiener, 1961; Geyer & Van der Zouwen, 1986), computer science (Winograd & Flores,1986), political science (Machavelli, 1514, 1519; Lindblom, 1959; Rosenthal, 1984; Glasbergen, 1995), economics (Tinbergen,1964), law (Crombag, De Wijkerslooth & Cohen, 1977), medicine (Doerbecker, 1979; Duyne, van, 1983; Elstein, Schulman & Sprafka, 1978; Snoek, 1989). Compram is also based on an analysis of aspects of real life problems (Rosenthal, 1984; Strien, van, 1986; Dunn, 1994; Teisman & ‘t Hart, 1995), of the actors involved, and of aspects of the handling process. The method includes many methods and tools coming from social sciences (Swanborn, 1987; Hart, ‘t, Van Dijk, De Goede, Jansen & Teunissen, 1996).

Compram is a prescriptive frame-work method to analyze, guide and predict complex societal problems. The Compram method can be used in the phases 1.4 to 2.6 of the handling process of complex societal problems. Compram can be applied to all kind of complex societal problems. Compram only indicates the meta steps that should be taken for handling complex societal problems. Depending on the problem, the moment in the problem handing process, the teams of problem handlers and the time and money available complimentary methods should be used. Methods for data retrieval, data manipulation, for selecting team members, observation, literature search, for stimulating the information exchange, such as group decisions support tools (DeSanctis, 1989, 1993), simulation (Forrester,1969, 1987, 1990; Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens III, 1972; Meadows,1980; Meadows, Meadows, & Randers, 1991) and gaming (Duke, 1974 1980) can be used.

Complex societal problems must be handled by groups of persons, because of the complexity, the different fields involved, the different actors involved and the impact that complex societal problems has on society. Compram prescribes that the problem handling process is performed by teams of different composition guided by a facilitator. The teams consist of experts of different fields and of actors involved in the problem. The methods’ emphasis is on communication. The objective is to find mutually acceptable interventions.

The method emphasizes the need to define the problem before changing it. In real life not enough time and effort is taken to define the problem. Most people tend to skip the first sub-cycle of the problem handling process or only want to handle the phases in a shallow manner in order to move as fast as possible to the phases of changing the problem. It often happens that a solution is discussed without even knowing what the problem is (see DeTombe, 1997). Defining the problem is an important part of the whole problem handling process. When this is not done properly it may happen that the wrong problem is solved, and all steps taken for intervention are useless because the wrong problem is handled (Ackoff, 1962, 1978; Rooze, 1999). This is the reason why the sub-cyle of defining the problem is emphasized in the Compram method (see title book DeTombe, 1994).


12 Three basic elements: knowledge, power and emotion

The Compram method is based on the idea that complex societal problems contain three basic elements: knowledge, power and emotion.

Knowledge includes lack of knowledge, data with an uncertain status, missing data, contradictory data, white spots and blind spots. Knowledge includes knowledge of the disciplines involved, field knowledge and knowledge about the actors and the phenomena.

The way Compram deals explicitly with knowledge is to start analyzing the problem with an expert team. Complex societal problems involve many disciplines, many fields, many phenomena and many actors. The knowledge needed to analyze and handle this is too much for one person to possess. Therefore a team of people must analyze the problem and find interventions. The team of experts have knowledge of the disciplines involved, knowledge about the fields, knowledge about the actors, and knowledge about the phenomena. The experts have the ability to interpret the knowledge from other area’s and determine the knowledge for consequences in their own field of expertise. The knowledge experts are, in contrast to the actors, neutral towards the outcome of the problem handing process.

Complex societal problems involve actors and the actors have direct interest in a certain kind of outcome of the problem. Power plays an important role in coming to an agreement between actors. Power is the second basic element in handling complex societal problems. Each actor has particular interests’, goals and ideas toward which direction the problem should change. Each actor or group of actors have their own steering instruments to support, change or prevent changes.

The problem owner is a special actor who initiates the problem handling process. The problem owner must have legal or social rights to handle the problem, otherwise the other actors will not cooperate or will ignore the outcome of the problem handling process

The problem owner alone can not handle complex societal problems. Other actors involved in the problem are needed for handling the problem. These actors need to be included in the problem handling process, because without them the problem can not be changed.

Each actor has a specific relation to the other actors. Some relations between the actors are based on common interests, others on law. Law institutionalizes some rules between actors. Law specifies the rights, duties, and procedures to be followed. Here law specifies the power, however, there is a large area in which rights are not specified. Here the actors should come to an agreement with each other.

Compram deals, at several moments in the problem handling process, explicitly with power. Compram deals with power differences by starting the problem handling process with a neutral knowledge expert team. This is step one of the problem handling process. Use of such a team prevents certain solutions being stimulated while others are neglected at an early stage of the problem handling process. Working this way important issues are not overlooked. The expert team analyzes the power and steering instruments of the actors.

Compram includes the power of the actors by inviting them to join the problem handling process (step two of the problem handling process). The actors define the problem and their handling space, each with their own team.

Compram deals with societal power by reflecting on the selected interventions before implementing the interventions carefully (step four of the problem handling process).

Compram neutralizes, where needed, the personal or domain dominance of a person in the problem handling team by giving the team members the opportunity to brainstorm anonymously (see DeTombe, 1994, 1997b).

Complex societal problems are handled by teams of people, therefore emotion is the third basic component in handling complex societal problems. Where people are involved emotions are involved. Emotions can stimulate or block certain changes (Kets de Vries, 1995). Emotions play a role or become visible when one’s personal interests are attacked or one feels that one’s personal interests are being attacked (Frijda, 1986). Emotions play a role in reaching a certain goal or being included or excluded in a problem handling process, or in like and dislike of certain persons in the team or of certain actors. Emotions are also involved in different views on society and prioritizing certain changes.

Compram deals with emotion by prescribing that the process is led by a well skilled facilitator trained in handling group processes in order to avoid group conflicts. Negative emotions can be provoked by excluding persons or actors from the problem handling process. Including the involved organized and non organized actors at an early stage in the problem handling process can prevent avoidable obstruction.

13 The seven-layer communication model

The problem is expressed in different ways in a seven-layer model to maximize mutual understanding and communication about the problem (figure 3). The seven-layer model is the central communication tool of the Compram method. Using the seven-layer model the problem can be expressed in different ways, using different models, and different languages. In this way experts and actors from different backgrounds can understand each other and recognize their own favorite way of expressing the problem. Expressing the problem in different ways and in different languages also makes it easier to see what is missing. It helps to adjust the models and to make clear how the phenomena are related.

Natural language is the start of defining the phenomena and concepts and making a semantic model. The semantic model makes it easier to adjust the description of the problem. The seven-layer model is also created to avoid some of the often occurring pitfalls, such as verbalism and collective blind spots.

Each team, the expert team as well as each actor team express their definition of the problem using this seven-layer model. All teams are guided by the facilitator.



Figure 3: The seven-layer model


In layer I the problem is described in a natural language, in words, that each team member understands.

In layer II the concepts and the phenomena used in the description of the problem in layer I are defined. In this way the team members are stimulated to operationalize and define the concepts and phenomena they use. This gives other team members the opportunity to learn the concepts of other professions, and prevents verbalism.

In layer III the relations between the concepts and the phenomena of the problem are described in natural language. These relations can be based on theories, hypotheses, assumptions, experiences or intuition. This indicates the status of the knowledge. This layer is related to the description of the problem in layer I, to the definition of the concepts and the phenomena in layer I and to layers IV, V, VI, and VII.

Layer IV shows the knowledge islands. This is a graphic representation of the knowledge of the problem that is needed for handling the problem. The way the knowledge islands are filled indicates the completeness of the knowledge.

In layer V a semantic model of the problem is made. A semantic model is a graphic representation of the relations between the concepts and the phenomena of the problem described in layer I.

In layer VI a graphic representation of the causal relations between the concepts and the phenomena of the problem is shown.

Layer VII contains a system dynamic model of the problem based on the causal model in layer VI. The system dynamic model contains non-linear connections because of the repetitive interactions between the phenomena and the actors of the model.

Parts of the problem and of the different domain knowledge can be worked out in more detail in sub-sheets of the layers I to VII. The sub-sheets of one domain are connected and are connected to the overall problem. It is often necessary to focus on a part of the problem in detail to get a better view. Otherwise the models are too large to comprehend. The seven-layer model can be used to support the first sub-cycle of the problem handling process as well as the second sub-cycle.


14 Steps in the problem handling process

The Compram method distinguishes six steps in the problem handling process. The first step is to consider the problem as a knowledge problem. The problem is analyzed by a team of neutral knowledge experts, who try to get a clear and unbiased picture of the problem.

The second step is to consider the problem as an interest and power problem. The problem is discussed by the main actors involved in the problem. Each actor discusses the problem with her or his team. The third step is to combine the knowledge, power and various viewpoints. A representative selection of the actors and experts work together to arrive at a set of possible interventions that are mutually acceptable. The fourth step is to anticipate the reactions of society that the selected interventions may provoke. This is to prevent large amounts of money being wasted on a ‘solution’ that is not acceptable. The fifth step is to implement the interventions. The sixth step is to evaluate the implementation. Each step consists of several sessions in which the teams prepare themselves and discuss the new insights and possible interventions. A facilitator guides the problem handling process.

The method does not support all the phases of the problem handling process. The Compram method sets of with phase 1.4 of the problem handling process, that is after awareness of a problem and after the problem is put on the political agenda. Within step one and two of Compram the experts and the actors proceed through phases 1.4 to phase 2.2 separately. Phases 2.3 and 2.4 are done in step three and four. Steps five and six cover the phases 2.5 and 2.6. Depending on the complexity of the problem the entire problem handling process can take three to twelve months.


15 A detailed description of a moment in the problem handling process

A moment in the problem handling process of step one of the Compram method is described in more detail below in order to give an idea how the problem handling process is handled.

In step one the neutral knowledge experts are invited to join the problem handling process and analyze the problem in order to define the problem. This process is divided into six to ten sessions in which the problem is more and more structured by the team of experts. The experts are guided by the facilitator. Each session consist of individual investigations by the team members and a cooperative team discussion. Team discussions are alternated with individual preparations to combine the benefits of the different ways of working.

Each team session is preceded by individual preparation. The objective of the individual preparation is mainly data gathering, and thinking things over. Individual data gathering is supported by all kind of tools i.e. databases, word-processors, spreadsheets and communication facilities such as internet, fax, telephone.

The objective of the team session is information exchange and discussion. The information gathered is exchanged in the team sessions. The team sessions are supported by specific tools for group support such as groupware for brainstorming and voting and system dynamic simulation tools. Communication is structured using the seven-layer model.

The first session of step one for the experts is described in more detail as an example. In this step the knowledge experts try to get a clear picture of the problem. The first session of this step takes care of a part of the problem handling phase 1.4, which is forming a problem handling team and starting to analyze the problem and phase 1.5 gathering data, exchanging knowledge and forming hypotheses about the problem.

The session starts with selecting a representative team of experts. The selection of the experts is very important. Together they must be competent enough to cover the whole area of the problem. The experts are introduced to the problem, including what domains, which concepts and which phenomena are involved based on the knowledge that is available on that moment, by the facilitator. Each expert will study the material and describe his or her view on the problem with an emphasis regarding their expertise.

In the first team session the experts get acquainted with each other, with each other’s background and expertise. The facilitator explains the method and the tools and explains the scope and the focus of the problem. Each expert explains their area of knowledge and view on the problem to the others. This is followed by a discussion. The team makes a first attempt at formulating the problem in natural language. This process results in many questions. To prepare for the next team session, each expert tries to answer the questions regarding their expertise. The team discusses the results and some more aspects of the problem can be described. This results again in many questions which the experts will answer by individual preparations etc. This process of individual preparations and team sessions continues till the seven-layer model of the problem is iteratively filled by which time the problem is described in detail and thus defined.


16 The role of the facilitator

The problem handling process is guided by a facilitator who will not interfere in the content of the discussion. The facilitator is neutral towards the outcome of the process, however, he or she is responsible for the cooperation within the teams and for the problem handling process. The facilitator does not have to be a content expert. On the contrary, the content can be made more clear for all the team members when there is a neutral outsider who guards the concepts that are used. The facilitator should, however, be well trained in social science methodology. Since Compram is a framework method, she or he should be able to decide on her or his own authority what (sub-)method and which tools can support the problem handling process, in addition to the prescribed method and tools. Next to methodological expertise, knowledge on guiding group processes and using computer tools are required. The facilitator should be able to guide group processes, be aware of knowledge confusion, white and blind spots, power and emotions. The facilitator should also be aware of hidden agenda’s, envy and groupthink.


17 Pitfalls to avoid

There are many pitfalls in the process of handling a problem. It is often very difficult to avoid them. Some of them are, as far as possible, taken care of by Compram. Some pitfalls that are prevented by using the Compram method are:

- Regarding the wrong problem. Many times when there is a complex problem people tend to suggest interventions, even before it is clear what the problem is. This way there is a danger of handling the wrong problem. Therefore Compram emphasizes strongly the need to define the problem before changing the problem.

- Inviting the wrong actors. Many problem handlers start analyzing a problem directly by inviting actors to talk about the problem before it is even known which actors are involved. This can push the solution into the direction that the dominant actors want before considering other solutions; to avoid this Compram starts with a team of neutral knowledge experts who analyze the problem including analyzing the organized and non-organized actors. This way at least each actor is known before the actors are invited to join the team process.

- Only searching for supporting data. There is an interaction between the mental idea of the problem and the search for data. In doing this people tend to look for data supporting their theoretical ideas instead of looking for data that is in contradiction with their ideas. This pitfall is taken care of by stimulating the team members to look for non-supporting data as well as for supporting data.

- Groupthink. When a team analyzes a problem, there is the danger of groupthink (Janis, 1972, 1982; ’t Hart, 1990; Hart, De Jong & Korsten, 1991; DeTombe, 1994, pp. 209-211). Compram tries to prevent this by using groupware in which brainstorming, idea generating and selecting ideas can be done anonymously. This approach is supplemented by inviting team members to play the role of 'devil’s advocate', and by inviting experts from outside to comment on the results of the problem handling process.

- Negative reactions of society. Compram tries to avoid negative societal reactions to the selected interventions. Before implementing the interventions the Compram method forces the team members to take the time to discuss the possible societal reactions and think them over (see DeTombe, in press b).

- Poor communication. Communication within a multi-disciplinary team is difficult, and differences in professional habits, language and methodology frustrate communication between the members of the team. Therefore good information exchange should be stimulated as much as possible. The method prescribes that, besides a verbal description of the problem, a definition of concepts and phenomena must be made in the seven-layer model to cope with the different professional backgrounds of the team members (see figure 2, layer I and II).

- Saying is not always believing. In communication one often has the tendency to ignore the distinction between facts and guesses. This tendency can lead to many misunderstandings during the problem handling process. Therefore the method emphasizes the need to define the status of the knowledge of each statement. This is done in layer III of the seven-layer model (see figure 2, layer III).

- Overlooking and forgetting. In a complex situation there is a tendency to overlook and forget things. This can be prevented by drawing knowledge islands in the seven-layer model, which are used to visualize the knowledge needed to handle the problem properly by indicating what is known about the problem and what knowledge is still lacking (white spots, and blind spots, see figure 2, layer IV).


18 To conclude

There is no complete and simple prescription for handling complex societal problems. Even with the support of a method that structures the problem and the guidance of a qualified facilitator, handling complex societal problems remains a difficult process. Due to the complexity and the dynamic character of the problem the process always includes many unexpected elements; however it is because of the complexity that a well structuring method is needed.

Compram is a method that can be used to structure the handling of complex societal problems. The method can be considered to be an optimal way to guide complex problems, because it is a framework method many kinds of sub-methods can be used depending on the problem, the phase in the problem handling process, the actors, and the time and money available.

The practical and theoretical ideas of Compram have been used to guide (parts) of the problem handling process of over sixty real life problems of central government and of large organizations. Problems such as ‘Which department of the government is authorized to make decisions about the North Sea’, ‘How to handle the extension of the Dutch airport Schiphol’, ‘What kind of solutions can be found for the congestion problem of the Dutch roads’, ‘How to find new markets for a large telecommunication firm’, ‘How to update a large organization’ and ‘How to support students requesting political asylum’.



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