By John W. Aldridge

The current framework for socio-technical systems (STS) may be traced to the groundbreaking action-science studies carried out by Fred Emery and Eric Trist. Their revolutionary experiments first took place in Great Britain in 1949 in a South Yorkshire coal mine. Coal being then the primary source of energy, organizational researchers continually monitored and evaluated such factors as operational efficiency, work group productivity, morale and job satisfaction. At the South Yorkshire seam Trist observed the emergence of a novel work group phenomenon consisting of highly collaborative and self-regulating work teams. Although the current Ortgeist (spirit of the place) had become progressively more mechanized, conversely these autonomous work groups demonstrated cooperation and commitment, outperforming traditionally managed bureaucratic operations set forth as one-man-one-task roles. Thanks to the studies of Emery and Trist, organizational managers began to consider the relations between both social and technical systems.

It was Trist who coined the phrase socio-technical system–the interaction of people (a social system) with tools and techniques (a technical system). Socio-technical studies approached the organization as a social system focusing wholly on group relations in depth on three levels including, primary work systems, whole organization systems and macrosocial systems. Primary work systems consist of one or more face-to-face work units each collaborating jointly on set tasks usually with support from specialist personnel and representatives of management plus the relevant equipment and other resources while whole organization systems involve an enterprise-wide effort. “At one limit to these would be plants or equivalent self-standing workplaces. At the other they would be entire corporations or public agencies.” Finally, macrosocial systems include systems in communities and entire business sectors as well as societal institutions, Trist (1981, p. 11).

The socio-technical process emphasized group-relations, empowering autonomous internal-regulation. Trist recognized the emergence of this concept as a new organizational paradigm. This novel “organismic” model enabled autonomous work groups to assume responsibility for the entire work cycle. The socio-technical approach challenged the current mechanistic management paradigm where coordination and control had been externally located at the top of the organizational ladder in a hierarchical management archetype where the flow of information was situated one-way, top-down. Operational decisions were firmly dictated by the organization’s supervisors. Socio-technical systems, on the other hand, focused on the relationship between perception and action, thereby creating enabling constructs for shared values and collaborative decision-making. Socio-technical tools and techniques commonly combined comparative and longitudinal evaluation with action learning. An action research process also known as praxis, directed system members toward action opportunities providing feedback at all levels regarding the changes being implemented within dynamic and living organizations, institutions, and entire communities.

Today, organizational managers who advocate socio-technical systems seek to create enabling constructs using information systems (IS), for instance, to accelerate communication, learning and knowledge sharing. STS represent an interpretive process made possible by optimizing the “goodness of fit” between technology and human systems. Indeed, multi-factor analysis suggests that by maximizing the degree of self-regulation, work group productivity and job satisfaction will be consistently higher. Thus, socio-technical systems create the organizational context for knowledge sharing, learning and innovation enabling work groups to think and learn collaboratively thereby, develop original work patterns, maintain flexibility and competitive advantage.

Key influences

The socio-technical approach was developed as a radical alternative to Fredrick Taylor’s concept of scientific management, which attempted to improve productivity through psycho-social means. Taylor’s ideas appeared to work and so his stick-and-carrot psychology had enormous influence among management at that time, and still does. So, it is believed that Taylor’s scientific management influenced Emery and Trist in the conceptual reframing of work organizations as socio-technical systems. In addition, socio-technical systems evolved along with the open systems notion of self-regulation and what biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy referred to as equifinality, meaning different paths leading to the same place, that is, systems somehow linkup and influence one another. This postmodern principle shaped both research methodology and project design, drawing attention to the self-regulating properties of an organization continuously evolving, adapting to changes in its environment from the inside out and outside-in.

Perhaps the most significant influences came from London’s Tavistock Institute of Human Relations of which Eric Trist was a founding member as well as from the United States and Kurt Lewin’s action research. Both Lewin in the United States and the Tavistock Institute in the UK approach initiating significant changes in organizations by applying theory to practice utilizing participatory action research. Trist also collaborated closely with Wilfred Bion a psychiatrist who devised the leaderless group method. Bion conducted studies in parallel with Lewin’s action research. In 1957 the Tavistock Institute pioneered a new form of participatory action learning based on Bion’s “T-groups”—a learning system where the control is shifted to the organization’s members.

The general aim of Tavistock was then and still is, to promote social innovation in both private and public institutions, building on the capacity to envision options other than repetition and reproduction of past behavior. While socio-technical thinking dominated action research worldwide it was the Tavistock exposition of the relationship between participatory research and its implications for action opportunities that provided credence to the socio-technical process for organizational development and change.

Principle work design

The STS work design is based on the premise that outcomes such as work group productivity and job satisfaction can be manipulated by jointly optimizing both the social and technical factors of the workplace. Further, STS embraces the strategic choice model. From this perspective organizational members within work groups have some agency of choice–adjusting, interpreting, and monitoring the technology and not the other way around. While the research idiom is action science, the reporting protocol is the case study.

The socio-technical experience may be carried out at any one of three broad levels, from micro to macro. It is an integral and multidimensional process in that each level eclipses and transcends the prior level. That is, each level is interrelated and interconnected. Again the three levels include, primary work systems, the small work units or subsystems ensconced throughout the whole organization—such as a line department or service unit. Whole organization systems are larger enterprise-wide systems consisting of several work units, and macrosocial systems, embody community-wide systems and institutions operating within an industry sector.

The above three stages of development involve within group and between group experiences but it is the conscious and unconscious encounters between individuals that most influence the group’s patterns of interaction. It is an emotional as well as cognitive experience in that STS empowers organizational members to ask questions and challenge assumptions. This shifts the locus of responsibility from outside the group to inside and it is this shift in consciousness that creates opportunities for original learning and knowledge discourse. It also creates a space of uncertainty because the STS learning process requires that its participants’ acknowledge something does not work. Trist observed that changes in technology bring about changes in values, cognitive structures, lifestyles, habitats, and communications. Socio-technical phenomena are both contextual and organizational. Being both enabled and constrained by technological structures often results in regressive patterns of interaction. This paradox also accounts for the STS phenomena of “interpretive flexibility” and breakthrough learning.

Developments in socio-technical systems

More recently, the Internet and information systems (IS) hold the potential to link information technology (IT), such as search engines, message boards, e-zines, and knowledge management (KM), for instance, together with “tacit” experiences that connect people with technology. In every aspect this has the appearance of a socio-technical experience. Today, many organizations are developing KM systems that are intended to increase the flow of knowledge at multiple levels: in the workplace, at home, and in the broader community. With the advent of the Internet, our work experiences continue to transform from production-oriented to knowledge-centered, from competitive to collaborative, and from mechanistic to organismic. IT and KM provide the technical framework for knowledge sharing while allowing supervisors to manage the boundary conditions of the workplace environment. As such, autonomous work groups have once again emerged everywhere freeing its members to flexibly manage their own activities.

It is this continued redirection away from one person/one task micro-management focusing instead on information exchange and the advancement of knowledge technology that is fueling the re-emergence of socio-technical systems at the primary group and organizational level. The innovations of many entrepreneurs and the combined knowledge derived from “think tanks,” “skunk-works,” and rogue sub-groups within organizations are contributing to the advancements that continue to connect us socially and technically. Indeed, producing and sharing knowledge is a key characteristic of socio-technical systems. Current IT and KM systems attempt to shrink the epistemic gap by creating a virtual space for collaborative learning. In this view, autonomous work groups enact common values, social cooperation, and self-control. After all, the Internet is fundamentally based on the cybernetic concept of self-regulation. Trist always believed that a catalyst for change was new technology–more complex primary work systems would emerge as computer-aided technology advanced. This appears to be so.

On the surface such IT, KM, and e-learning have the appearance of a true socio-technical system. But not all efforts to connect people with technology are socio-technical systems. Emery distinguished between operative and regulative institutions. Socio-technical systems are exclusively operative. The vast majority of Internet-based learning processes described above are regulative in that management is primarily concerned with instilling the “interest group’s” (those in power positions), values, norms, and goals upon their subordinates. A technocratic approach has the appearance of the appropriate technology, one that fits people with technology. However, such regulative models fail to spark innovation and change.

The Internet exemplifies many of the socio-technical features first set forth by Emery and Trist. Many organizations are enabling the goodness of fit between technology and human systems applying STS at the primary group and organizational level. On the Web, virtual learning community members participate in structured and nonstructured learning experiences made possible by open systems or e-learning technology. Another area where STS has once again emerged is online learning or e-learning. Both traditional and nontraditional universities now offer online classes. Computer-mediated learning or e-learning as it is currently practiced and applied connects people with technology. In addition, the open systems nature of e-learning enables collaborative decision-making, self-regulation, and work group autonomy. This interface again has the appearance of a socio-technical system.

A few distant learning programs have emerged with an intentional socio-technical design. Individuals participating in virtual work groups undergo a transformation through which they establish the validity for new ways of learning and knowing. This type of learning is often an emotional as well as an intellectual experience undertaken in terms of the concept of a learning society. In this example learning and knowing takes place at three levels, the individual level, the group level, and at the macrosocial level where participants are encouraged to apply theory to practice. This is the basis for the researcher/practitioner model. However, the vast majority of distance-learning institutions are much more regulative as they are not a genuine STS effort.

Trist often referred to these type of efforts as technocratic bureaucracies overemphasizing the technologies that drive the system from a strictly (IT) or scientific view, the view that science and technology are the only legitimate and useful modes of knowledge. Trist believed that an over-emphasis on an (IT) solution—a system for change belonging to engineering disciplines far removed from socio-technical considerations—minimizes the role of the individual and the significance of social interaction. In other words, IT-developed e-learning frameworks often remove responsibility from the individual by placing it instead on the technology. In this view engineers following the “technological macrosocial imperative” simply designing whatever organization the technology seems to require. Proceeding in this way creates barriers that are presumed to be offset by improving socioeconomic conditions. For instance, regulative e-learning resembles that of an online classroom where learning is hierarchical and highly transactional. Information has a price.

Concluding remarks

It is people and not technology that is changing the way organizations share, transfer, and leverage knowledge presenting socio-technical concepts to a wider field of possibilities. A new generation of socio-technical systems is igniting the e-learning revolution. To a great extent, it is the distance learner who is driving these innovations. Over the past few years, an individual’s ability to use technology effectively is beginning to catch up with technological developments. Traditional and non-traditional education institutions, for instance, have searched for new ways to prepare students to become knowledge workers. The result is that technology is now struggling to keep up with user demands. The e-learning revolution is revitalizing STS technologies.

In the 21st century, the technical and societal climate appear positive for socio-technical systems. The Internet brings together the computer, media, and the distributed intelligence of the family and the community. This constitutes a new basis for the effectiveness of socio-technical organizations. However, management opposition persists because STS by nature enables collaborative decision-making and shared leadership. Management has been reluctant to give up the power and authority they have worked so hard to establish. Indeed, STS challenges the traditional management taboos that of sharing information and knowledge with subordinates on a need to know basis only. The central tenet of a technocratic bureaucracy is that decision-making is top-down and implementation is bottom up. Amazingly, many postmodern organizational leaders still believe information is best kept in the minds of senior management who have been trained how to use it, make decisions, and implement policy. In this mechanistic model, managers pretend to know and employees pretend to cooperate.

STS continues to struggle within organizations. Under the best of conditions, STS and all change interventions tend to suffer from “fade-out” when the inside champion departs and there is no one to pick up the leadership staff. When this occurs, the organization simply regresses to conventional patterns of interaction. Socio-technical systems take the shape of organismic self-regulating formations, which enable the emergence of a new leadership paradigm, the integral leader. Effective socio-technical systems are increasingly more evident and unmistakably the same integrating both social and technical systems providing an operative model for integral leadership. Examples are everywhere and include hospital emergency rooms, trauma units, air traffic control centers, and research labs, to name a few. STS is anywhere self-regulating and autonomous work groups collaborate, share knowledge and remain agile under turbulent conditions. STS provides the framework for organizational members to lead with confidence in times of uncertainty.

References and suggested reading

Trist, E. L. (1981). The evolution of socio-technical systems: A conceptual framework and an action research program. Ontario Quality of Working Life Center, Occasional Paper no. 2.

Weisbord, M. R. (2012). Productive workplaces: Organizing and managing for dignity, meaning, and community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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