A Brief Introduction to Sociotechnical Systems

A Brief Introduction to Sociotechnical Systems

Brian Whitworth (Massey University Auckland, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch066
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The term sociotechnical was introduced by the Tavistock Institute in the 1950’s for manufacturing cases where the needs of technology confronted those of local communities, for example, longwall mining in English coalmines (see http://www.strategosinc.com/socio-technical.htm). Social needs were opposed to the reductionism of Taylorism, which broke down jobs on say a car assembly line into most ef- ficient elements. Social and technical were seen as separate side-by-side systems which needed to interact positively, for example, a village near a nuclear plant is a social system (with social needs) besides a technical system (with technical needs). The sociotechnical view later developed into a call for ethical computer use by supporters like Mumford (Porra & Hirscheim, 2007). In the modern holistic view the sociotechnical system (STS) is the whole system, not one of two side-by-side systems. To illustrate the contrast, consider a simple case: A pilot plus a plane are two side-by-side systems with different needs, one mechanical (plane) and one human (pilot). Human Computer Interaction (HCI) suggests these systems should interact positively to succeed. However plane plus pilot can also be seen as a single system, with human and mechanical levels. On the mechanical level, the pilot’s body is as physical as the plane, for example, the body of the plane and the body of the pilot both have weight, volume, and so forth. However the pilot adds a human thought level that sits above the plane’s mechanical level, allowing the “pilot + plane” system to strategize and analyze. The sociotechnical concept that will be developed changes the priorities, for example, if a social system sits next to a technical one it is usually secondary, and ethics an afterthought to mechanics, but when a social system sits above a technical one it guides the entire system, that is, the primary factor in system performance.
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General Systems Theory

Sociotechnical theory is based upon general systems theory (Bertalanffy, 1968), which sees systems as composed of autonomous yet interdependent parts that mutually interact as part of a purposeful whole. Rather than reduce a system to its parts, systems theory explores emergent properties that arise through component interactions via the dynamics of regulation, including feedback and feed-forward loops. While self-reference and circular causality can give the snowball effects of chaos theory, such systems can self-organize and self-maintain (Maturana & Varela, 1998).

Key Terms in this Chapter

System: A system must exist within a “world”, as the nature of a system is the nature of the world that contains it, for example, a physical world, a world of ideas, and a social world, may contain physical systems, idea systems and social systems, respectively. A system needs identity to define “system” from “not system”, for example, a crystal of sugar that dissolves in water still has existence as sugar, but is no longer a separate system. Existence and identity seem two basic requirements of any system.

Information System: A system that may include hardware, software, people and business or community structures and processes ( Alter, 1999 ), c.f. a social-technical system, which must include all four levels.

System Elements: Advanced systems have a boundary, an internal structure, environment effectors and receptors ( Whitworth et al., 2006 AU23: The citation "Whitworth et al., 2006" matches multiple references. Please add letters (e.g. "Smith 2000a"), or additional authors to the citation, to uniquely match references and citations. ). Simple biological systems (cells) formed a cell wall boundary and organelles for internal cell functions. Cells like Giardia developed flagella to effect movement, and protozoa developed light sensitive receptors. People are more complex, but still have a boundary (skin), an internal structure of organs, muscle effectors and sense receptors. Computer systems likewise have a physical case boundary, an internal architecture, printer/screen effectors and keyboard/mouse receptors. Likewise software systems have memory boundaries, a program structure, input analyzers, and output “driver” code.

System Levels: Are physical systems the only possible systems? The term information system suggests otherwise. Philosophers propose idea systems in logical worlds. Sociologists propose social systems. Psychologists propose cognitive mental models. Software designers propose data entity relationship models apart from hardware. Software cannot exist without a hardware system of chips and circuits, but software concepts like data records and files are not hardware. A system can have four levels: mechanical, informational, personal and group, each emerging from the previous as a different framing of the same system, for example, information derives from mechanics, human cognitions from information, and society from a sum of human cognitions ( Whitworth et al., 2006 AU24: The citation "Whitworth et al., 2006" matches multiple references. Please add letters (e.g. "Smith 2000a"), or additional authors to the citation, to uniquely match references and citations. ).

Social System: Physical society is not just buildings or information, as without people information has no meaning. Yet it is also more than people. Countries with people of similar nature and abilities, like East and West Germany, perform differently as societies. While people come and go, the “society” continues, for example, we say “the Jews” survived while “the Romans” did not because the people lived on but because their social manner of interaction survived. A social system then is a general form of human interaction that persists despite changes in individuals, communications or architecture ( Whitworth & deMoor, 2003 ).

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