Introduction to Ill-Structured Problems

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Part 2 - Introduction to Ill-Structured Problems[edit | edit source]

Collaboration and Ill-Structured Problems[edit | edit source]

When people collaborate, they are primarily engaged in designing a new approach in order to solve a genuinely unique problem. This problem that they are attempting to solve is generally ill-defined or ill-structured in nature. Collaborative workplace problems are typically ill-structured based on the fact that workers are attempting to solve a problem that is new to the organization. These problems have no clear procedural or predetermined path to solve it, and may have many different solutions. In order to understand what an ill-structured problem is and to design a collaborative environment to facilitate solving one, it is important to distinguish ill-structured from well-structured problems.

Well-Structured Problems[edit | edit source]

Well-structured problems are those in which the initial state, goal state, and constraints are clearly defined. Solving WSPs requires procedural knowledge that follows a completely defined and step-by-step, or rote procedure. A WSP always has the same goal, is always done the same way (with the same tools and information), and does not vary with context. In other words, solving a well-structured problem is accomplished by recalling procedures and performing them exactly as taught. Examples of well-structured problems that people perform at work include using a coffee machine, turning on and logging into their computer, and accessing email. While accomplishing these rote tasks are an important part of resolving more complex ill-structured problems, they require a direct step-by-step approach to problem solving. This lesson focuses primarily on designing a collaborative environment for solving more complex ill-structured problems.

Well-Structured Moderately-Structured Ill-Structured
Goals well defined usually well defined undefined
Beginning State well defined well defined well defined
Actions well defined many possible actions undefined
End State well defined well defined undefined
Constraints well defined usually well defined usually not well defined
Example starting a car fixing a car designing a car

Ill-Structured Problems[edit | edit source]

The most meaningful and useful learning occurs at the ill-structured level, and most learning for most adults has components of this type. In contrast to well-structured problems, ill-structured problems have no initial clear or spelled out goals, set of operations, end states, or constraints. In fact ISPs often times have unstated goals and constraints that must be determined by those solving the problem. ISPs present uncertainty about which concepts, rules, and principles are necessary for the solution and how these should be organized. They require learners to make judgments about the problem and to defend their judgments by expressing personal opinions or beliefs. ISPs possess multiple solutions and solution paths, or may possess no solutions at all. They offer no general rules or principles for describing or predicting the outcome of most cases and require multiple criteria for evaluating solutions. Examples of ISPs include redesigning a work process, designing a new product, or creating a new marketing strategy.

As in any continuum with opposites, most problems fall somewhere between well-structured and ill-structured problems. Moderately-structured problems share aspects of both well and ill defined. Every ill-structured problem is different and some may have more defined components than others. However this lesson focuses on the collaborative process of solving complex problems in the ill-structured realm.

Solving Ill-Structured problems[edit | edit source]

In organizations at every level, solving ISPs holds the most value compared to solving more well-defined problems that can be automated or taught more easily. Solving ISPs requires the acquisition and use of expertise of context specific knowledge. Content and context expertise includes knowledge of “how things work” and an understanding of the working model of the system in which the problem exists. This facilities the development of problem-solving strategies that are based on general rules about solving problems of a particular type. Expertise of knowing when certain strategies do and don’t work and the ability to predict or explain how a system will behave if a change is made are all important aspects of expertise.

Heuristics are an important aspect of solving ISPs through expertise. These are often referred to as "tricks of the trade" and include effective techniques and approaches for accomplishing tasks. Heuristics are acquired through the use of solving multiple problems similar in context and scope. The development of heuristics helps in figuring out what the goal really is, and the best solution path is to get there. Designing a problem space that facilitates group collaboration involves creating an environment in which participants can work together to define the problem and apply heuristics in their areas of expertise. On the next page we will cover more on designing the problem space. But first, take this short quiz on ill-structured problems.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Which of the following are examples of ill-structured problems?

Converting temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit
Increasing water supply for a growing community
Calculating speed given distance and time
Designing a new underground subway system that spans multiple countries
Maximizing the efficiency of a manufacturing process

2 Which of the following aspects are not well defined in an ill-structured problem?

Beginning state
End state

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