SocioTechnical Approach - STS

From Russell Butson
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Introduction to the Socio-Technical Systems (STS) The term ‘socio-technical’ refers to the interrelatedness of the ‘social’ and ‘technical’ aspects of an organisation or social structure. The term ‘socio-technical system’ (STS) was coined in the context of labour studies of the 1950s, as a paradigmatic shift occurred in the organisation of people around their work. Prior to the 1950s, labour studies focused on workers’ adaptation to the structural and technical frameworks of production. That is, the intellectual and social conditions of peoples’ work had to follow given technical structures (independent variables) and, therefore, could only be improved slightly.


Labour studies did start to consider the improvement of working conditions in the 1930s. Such consideration, however, was mainly in relation to the worker as an individual (unit of analysis). It was not until the 1950s that studies started to consider working conditions in terms of groups of workers (as units of analysis). These reconsiderations occurred in the context of rapid, unprecedented technological and socio-cultural change and signalled a “clear break with the traditional factory system” (Emery, 1982, p. 1120). They were prompted by observations (refer, for example, Trist & Bamforth, 1951) that despite improved technology, pay and amenities, productivity was decreasing and absenteeism was increasing.


The emerging field of socio-technical theory posited that declines in efficiency were due to the boredom and alienation engendered by the nature of the work employees were engaged in. The repetitive performance of monotonous tasks by individual workers who had limited responsibility and autonomy was understood to provide little incentive to increase productivity or even to attend the workplace.


Job enrichment (the process of giving employees greater levels of responsibility and decision making authority) was seen as a means to improve efficiency, output and quality and to reduce employee problems. Consequently, socio-technical theory focused on the humanisation of work or the ‘Quality of Work Life (QWL)’ (Emery, 1982). In contrast to the traditional paradigm’s view of work involving a one-way relationship where humans were dependent on technology (machines), socio-technical theory stressed the reciprocal relationship(s) between people and machines. These reciprocal relationships included linear, ‘cause and effect’ (normally ‘designed’) and ‘non-linear’, complex (often unexpected) ones.


Based on its recognition of the interaction between people and technology in workplaces, socio-technical theory developed into an approach to complex organizational design that endeavoured to shape both the technical and social conditions of work. To this end, principles of socio-technical theory were adopted by a number of related fields, including technical ones (for example, engineering) and ones within the social sciences (for example, anthropology). However, distinctions were evident between different disciplines’ application of the principles of socio-technical theory. In particular, “engineers tend[ed] to ignore the social concerns of their work” (Ropohl, 1999, p. 66) and to focus on the ways in which technology affected processes whereas social scientists concentrated on the ways in which technology embodied identifiable sets of values and worldviews and were “reluctant to consider the artificial reality of technical objects” (Ropohl, 1999, p. 66).


A focus on either social or technical factors is problematic in that such foci tend to overlook that it is the interactions between these factors which create the conditions for (un)successful organisational performance. Overlooking these interactions and focusing on the optimisation of either the social or technical aspects of a system can “increase not only the quantity of unpredictable, ‘un-designed’ relationships, but those relationships that are injurious to the system’s performance” (Wikipedia, 2008). For these reasons, socio-technical system (STS) theory sees a systemic approach, a type of ‘thinking’ in terms of systems in which changes to one part affect the whole, as more appropriate. In this way, socio-technical system theory extends socio-technical theory. STS theory recognises that organizations, whilst bounded, are located in wider environments or contexts. Interactions and transactions occur both within an organisation (system) and across the boundaries between the organisation and its wider context. In this sense, society itself, and most of its sub-structures, are intricate socio-technical systems, comprised of interactions between society’s complex infrastructures and human behaviour. Furthermore, interactions within STS are not only between people and technology but also include those occurring between people or groups of people.


Application of STS to Collaborative Research Environments (CRE) Socio-technical systems, as we understand them then, can be any interlinked, systems based mixture of people, technology and their environment engaged in goal directed behaviour which, ideally, leads to the emergence of productivity and well-being. An information system is a case in point. Information systems are communication systems which use artefacts or tools in support of human activity systems. The essence of information systems does not reside solely in technology or in human activity. Rather, it lies in the way in which technology is used in support of purposeful action. Given that information systems link human activity systems and ICT systems, they could be considered classic examples of socio-technical systems.


Further, virtual communities of practice or online collaborative research environments, as sophisticated, digital information systems, could be considered online socio-technical infrastructures to which principles of STS can be applied. Specifically, under an STS perspective, the goal of members of the CRE online community (students/faculty/designers) as they interact with the online collaborative research environment, and with each other, is the preparation of a collaborative research project/presentation. (Indeed, supporting students in their research endeavours was a primary rationale for the design of the online environment.)


Achievement of the ultimate goal of producing a collaborative research project/presentation is scaffolded by the attainment of sub-goals (for example, milestone reports) which are integrated into the online CRE. The goal directed activities which members of the community engage in are facilitated by digital artefacts such as collaborative writing, brainstorming and publishing tools.


When viewed through an STS lens, the ideal outcome of CRE is productivity (in terms of the final research report/presentation), the associated development of researcher identity and attendant sense of well-being.


References

Barab, S., Dodge, T., Jackson, C., & Tuzun, H. (2007). Our designs and the social agendas they carry. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 16(2), 263-305.

Emery, F. E. (1982). Sociotechnical foundations for a new social order? Human Relations, 35(12), 1095-1123.

Ropohl, G. (1999). Philosophy of socio-technical systems. Phil & Tech, 4(3), 59-71.

Trist, E., & Bamforth, K. (1951). Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal getting. Human Relations, 4, 3-38.

Wikipedia (2008, August 19). Sociotechnical systems theory. Retrieved September 11, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sociotechnical_systems_theory&oldid=232808862



[Material developed Carla Thomson & Russell Butson 2008]