Socio-Technical Communities: From Informal to Formal?

Socio-Technical Communities: From Informal to Formal?

Isa Jahnke (Dortmund University of Technology, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch050
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The chapter describes an empirical study of a socio-technical community—as an extended part of an institution— with the aim of revealing its changing processes. One hypothesis is that structures of socio-technical communities evolve from being less defined and informal to being more formal structures supported by evolving social control mechanisms, regulations and rules. The focus is the new emerging forms of sociotechnical relationships. It is argued that the more established a socio-technical system is on the societal level, the more regulations will be developed which are enforced first by surveillance and social sanctions, and finally by technical determination. This chapter illustrates how socio-technical networks evolve in this direction under certain conditions.
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Things are not what they seem, and appearances are certainly not the whole of the story. This need to look behind appearances in careful, detailed and systematic ways is, of course, the common inspiration of all scientific and investigative work.

—Bob Anderson, 1997



The socio-technical paradigm, introduced by the Tavistock Institute, London, describes “the study of the relationships and interrelationships between the social and technical parts of any systems” [Coakes (2002), referring to Emery & Trist (1960)]. The approach of socio-technical systems (STS) keeps the relevant components together and attempts to improve their relationships. One object of their studies was the British Coal Mine as a new work system had to be integrated into this organisation.

Recently, new forms of socio-technical phenomena have emerged; for instance online communities, Internet-based networks and virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life). People are getting an increasing amount of information through the Internet e.g., e-mail, web-based discussion boards, instant messaging tools, Wikis and Blogs. Social networking applications like and, or Social Tagging applications (e.g., enable people to come into contact, to collaborate, share knowledge and build new relationships. These new forms of socio-technical structures differ from social systems in “how” people connect: their relationships and ways of communication are technically mediated. Technical and social elements are highly interwoven, and affect each other.

O’Reilly (2005) calls the evolving Internet-based relationships “Web 2.0”. This buzzword emphasises social software applications that are heavily reliant on human interactions and collaborations. To describe Web 2.0 and newer forms of its applications, it is appropriate to compare Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. For instance, personal websites are disappearing and Blogging is becoming a new favourite way of maintaining an online presence. Individual publishing is morphing into Social Tagging. Wikis are replacing pure content management systems. The role of the user is changing from reader to author, from consumer to producer (“prosumer”). To conclude, Web 1.0 is still ‘information download’ whereas Web 2.0 is evolving into communication about information.

Current investigations of Internet-based communication show how social structures in Web 2.0 have evolved. Forte and Bruckman (2005) as well as Wasko and Faraj (2005) investigated the motivation of people and why they contribute to Wikipedia. As a result, knowledge sharing takes places when people assume their reputation will grow through online participation. Roberts (2006) has also analysed the social presence in Web based systems. Online presence has a positive impact on a person’s reputation. The more often a person is online, the higher the estimation in which she is held by the public.

Another illustration is the study of Viegas et al. (2007) about the Wikipedia community. They show an increase of coordinating activities from 2003 to 2007. In spite of the potential of chaos in Wikipedia, “the Wikipedia community places a strong emphasis on group coordination, policy, and process”. Viegas et al. (2004) also explore the behaviour of Wikipedians in conflict situation, how Wikipedians control specific terms in Wikipedia, how they feel responsible and how they discuss new entries. According to Viegas et al., the most activity in Wikipedia is not writing new articles but controlling the quality of written articles. Such controlling activities are first, cleaning new articles from false input, and acting as mediating between two or more authors (e.g., moderating discussions about spelling, or meaning). Third, some Wikipedians provide back-office functions, and finally, some of them take the role of ‘vandal hunters’ (i.e., when visitors enter funny rather than correct data).

Each of the studies reveals some social effects of Web 2.0 technologies. They illustrate that at least some Internet-based communities evolve from informal, trust based forms of organisation to more formal, defined structures that are socially enforced by the members.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Socio-technical Community: A socio-technical community is a special form of a socio-technical system including human-computer interaction and communication from human operators that operates. Communities are bound by informal relationships, people with similar interests, problems or passion for something. Instead of online communities that are pure online groups, socio-technical communities are groups of people that have some online presence in combination with some physical connections.

Social Relation/ship: A social relation is a relation between people. It consists of a multitude of social interactions regulated by social norms, between two or more people, with each having a social position and performing a social role. Social relations form social structures and roles.

Social Roles: A role is the sum of all Behaviour expectations of a social group (all different members) towards a concrete position, and a set of descriptions defining the expected Behaviour of a position which is being held by a person. Roles in groups are dynamic that means that they are ‘created’ in social interaction processes (often unconsciously).

Socio-technical Paradigm: The socio-technical paradigm is the study of the relationships and interrelationships between the social and technical parts of any systems.

Informal Structures: not formal, casual; spontaneous; unplanned; unofficial, loose (e.g., an informal gathering of people; informal communication at coffee breaks).

Formal Structures: characterized by conventional forms of behaviour; established conventions (e.g., behaviour which is formally bound by a contract).

Social Structures: Social structures within a group or society are relatively enduring pattern, interrelationship of social elements, or relations to other group members (e.g., expectations, social interaction, and relationships within social systems).

Action Research: Action research is an iterative research process which enables researchers to understand a social or sociotechnical phenomenon with the aim to improve its quality. It consists of several phases of analysis (reflection) and action (interventions) which are alternate and interwoven (cycle of activities): Action research includes a problem diagnosis, action intervention, and reflective learning in real situations, gain feedback from this experience, modify the theory as a result of this feedback, and try it again.

Complete Chapter List

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Editorial Advisory Board
Table of Contents
Ben Shneiderman
Brian Whitworth, Aldo de Moor
Brian Whitworth, Aldo de Moor
List of Reviewers
Prologue: General Socio-Technical Theory
Chapter 1
Brian Whitworth
A socio-technical system (STS) is a social system built upon a technical base. An STS adds social requirements to human-computer interaction (HCI)... Sample PDF
The Social Requirements of Technical Systems
Chapter 2
Matti Tedre
This chapter introduces the reader to some social research characteristics that are central to the social study of computer science. It introduces... Sample PDF
The Social Study of Computer Science
Chapter 3
Ann Borda, Jonathan P. Bowen
This chapter introduces the concept of a Virtual Organization (VO), using the Internet to link geographically separated participants in an efficient... Sample PDF
Virtual Collaboration and Community
Chapter 4
David Davenport
This chapter analyses the effect that social values have on the design of technical systems. Beginning with an examination of the role technology... Sample PDF
The Social Derivation of Technical Systems
Chapter 5
Ken Eason, José Abdelnour-Nocera
This chapter sets the traditional focus of socio-technical systems theory on primary work systems in a modern context where information and... Sample PDF
Socio-Technical Theory and Work Systems in the Information Age
Chapter 6
Peter Day
This chapter introduces the community engagement strategy of the Community Network Analysis (CNA) project and considers its significance to research... Sample PDF
An Engagement Strategy for Community Network Research and Design
Chapter 7
Cleidson R.B. de Souza, David F. Redmiles
This chapter reviews the socio-technical relationship between organizational and software structure. It describes the early theoretical work about... Sample PDF
On the Alignment of Organizational and Software Structure
Ronald K. Stamper
Prologue: Socio-Technical Perspectives
Chapter 8
Catherine Heeney
The chapter discusses the traditional expectations about privacy protection and argues that current models for the governance of data do not... Sample PDF
Privacy and the Identity Gap in Socio-Technical Systems
Chapter 9
Ronald Leenes
Second Life can be seen as a social microcosmos in which fairly normal people lead a social life and where social needs develop. Privacy is one of... Sample PDF
Privacy Regulation in the Metaverse
Chapter 10
David Tuffley
This chapter introduces a process reference model of leadership for integrated teams operating in virtual environments. Geographically dispersed... Sample PDF
Leadership of Integrated Teams in Virtual Environments
Chapter 11
Monique Janneck
For a technology use to be successful, the circumstance of its introduction into a use context—or recontextualization— is crucial. The users of a... Sample PDF
Recontextualising Technology in Appropriation Processes
Chapter 12
Petter Bae Brandtzæg, Jan Heim
The last few years have seen a substantial growth in online communities such as MySpace and Facebook. In order to survive and increase in size... Sample PDF
Explaining Participation in Online Communities
Chapter 13
Malcolm Shore
This chapter is about the way in which computer hackers invoke social networking paradigms to support and encourage their activities. It reviews the... Sample PDF
Cyber Security and Anti-Social Networking
Chapter 14
Wilson Huang, Shun-Yung Kevin Wang
This chapter examines the gaps that arise between reactive social control systems and proactive technology systems. The authors further link these... Sample PDF
Emerging Cybercrime Variants in the Socio-Technical Space
Chapter 15
Elayne W. Coakes, Peter Smith, Dee Alwis
This chapter presents the argument that service innovation is promoted by supporting divergent interpretations, enlarging the scope of employee and... Sample PDF
Developing Innovative Practice in Service Industries
Mark Aakhus
Prologue: Socio-Technical Analysis
Chapter 16
Hans Weigand
Often socio-technical systems are designed simply on the basis of what the user asks, and without considering explicitly whether the required... Sample PDF
Using Communication Norms in Socio-Technical Systems
Chapter 17
Jonas Sjöström, Göran Goldkuhl
This chapter introduces the theoretical framework of Socio-Instrumental Pragmatism (SIP) and illustrates how it has been used as an analytic... Sample PDF
Socio-Instrumental Pragmatism in Action
Chapter 18
Paul J. Bracewell
Analytics provides evidence for objective corporate decision-making. Lack of understanding of analytical techniques can create confusion amongst... Sample PDF
A Framework for Using Analytics to Make Decisions
Chapter 19
Mikael Lind, Peter Rittgen
Setting up co-design processes involving several stakeholders is a complex task. In this chapter the authors have looked upon experiences from... Sample PDF
The Challenges of Co-Design and the Case of e-Me
Chapter 20
Harry S. Delugach
Automated tools are often used to support software development workflows. Many of these tools are aimed toward a development workflow that relies... Sample PDF
Formal Analysis of Workflows in Software Development
Chapter 21
Dorit Nevo, Brent Furneaux
This chapter reviews the significance of expectations to information systems development with particular emphasis on the process of requirements... Sample PDF
The Role of Expectations in Information Systems Development
Chapter 22
Jeff Axup
With mobile technologies increasingly weaving themselves into the fabric of our communities, it would be beneficial to increase our understanding of... Sample PDF
Building a Path for Future Communities
Thomas Erickson
Prologue: Socio-Technical Design
Chapter 23
Thomas Herrmann
Socio-technical systems integrate technical and organizational structures and are related to various stakeholders and their perspectives. The design... Sample PDF
Systems Design with the Socio-Technical Walkthrough
Chapter 24
Anders I. Mørch
This chapter presents a translational approach to socio-technical design, as a new approach to the theorybased design of user interfaces, supported... Sample PDF
Applied Pragmatism and Interaction Design
Chapter 25
Manuel Kolp, Yves Wautelet
Information systems are deeply linked to human activities. Unfortunately, development methodologies have been traditionally inspired by programming... Sample PDF
A Social Framework for Software Architectural Design
Chapter 26
Designing for Trust  (pages 388-401)
Piotr Cofta
Designing for trust is a methodology that attempts to design our perception of trust in information systems, in the long-term expectation that such... Sample PDF
Designing for Trust
Chapter 27
Dan Dixon
Three decades ago the concept of pattern languages were introduced in the field of architecture and they have since become widely used in... Sample PDF
Pattern Languages for CMC Design
Chapter 28
Anton Nijholt, Dirk Heylen, Rutger Rienks
In this chapter the authors discuss a particular approach to the creation of socio-technical systems for the meeting domain. Besides presenting a... Sample PDF
Creating Social Technologies to Assist and Understand Social Interactions
Chapter 29
Jos Benders, Ronald Batenburg, Paul Hoeken, Roel Schouteten
This chapter sketches an Organization Design perspective called “Modern Socio-technical Design”, and subsequently discusses the implementation of... Sample PDF
A Modern Socio-Technical View on ERP-Systems
Chapter 30
Mary Allan, David Thorns
The chapter introduces the Bourdieuean habitus and field theory as a framework for an alternative way of investigating how perceptions of Media Rich... Sample PDF
Being Face to Face: A State of Mind or Technological Design?
Chapter 31
Rebecca M. Ellis
This chapter introduces the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his concepts of “the field” and “capital” in relation to eBay. In any given... Sample PDF
Applying Bourdieu to eBay's Success and Socio-Technical Design
Chapter 32
Christopher A. Miller
This chapter focuses not on technology mediation of human relationships, but rather on human-like relationships with technology itself. The author... Sample PDF
Relationships and Etiquette with Technical Systems
Anton Nijholt
Prologue: Socio-Technical Implementation
Chapter 33
Laura Anna Ripamonti, Ines Di Loreto, Dario Maggiorini
The necessity of supporting more and more social interaction (and not only mere information sharing) in online environments is the disruptive force... Sample PDF
Augmenting Actual Life Through MUVEs
Chapter 34
Mohamed Ben Ammar, Mahmoud Neji, Adel M. Alimi
Affective computing is a new artificial intelligence area that deals with the possibility of making computers able to recognize human emotions in... Sample PDF
The Role of Affect in an Agent-Based Collaborative E-Learning System Used for Engineering Education
Chapter 35
Pernilla Qvarfordt, Shumin Zhai
Eye-gaze plays an important role in face-to-face communication. This chapter presents research on exploiting the rich information contained in human... Sample PDF
Gaze-Aided Human-Computer and Human-Human Dialogue
Chapter 36
Licia Calvi
The chapter presents and combines the results of two case studies dealing with online communities1 in order to understand under which conditions... Sample PDF
How to Engage Users in Online Sociability
Chapter 37
Ivan Launders
The UK National Health Service (NHS) provides the opportunity to undertake local socio-technical system design to help staff maximize the... Sample PDF
Socio-Technical Systems and Knowledge Representation
Chapter 38
Claire de la Varre, Julie Keane, Matthew J. Irvin, Wallace Hannum
This chapter describes the design of a sociotechnical system to support rural high school students in an online distance education (ODE) course. The... Sample PDF
Social Support for Online Learning
Chapter 39
Jeremy Birnholtz, Emilee J. Rader, Daniel B. Horn, Thomas Finholt
This chapter uses the theoretical notion of common ground to explore remote participation in experimental research. On one hand, there is a desire... Sample PDF
Enabling Remote Participation in Research
Starr Roxanne Hiltz
Prologue: Socio-Technical Evaluation
Chapter 40
John M. Carroll, Mary Beth Rosson, Umer Farooq, Jamika D. Burge
Socio-technical systems are social systems that incorporate technological infrastructures. At the group level of analysis, the most important... Sample PDF
Community Collective Efficacy
Chapter 41
Tanguy Coenen, Wouter Van den Bosch, Veerle Van der Sluys
This chapter views social networking sites as supporting social capital and the advantages which derive from it, namely emotional support... Sample PDF
An Analysis of the Socio-Technical Gap in Social Networking Sites
Chapter 42
Olga Kulyk, Betsy van Dijk, Paul van der Vet, Anton Nijholt, Gerrit van der Veer
This chapter addresses awareness support to enhance teamwork in co-located collaborative environments. In particular, the authors focus on the... Sample PDF
Situational Awareness In Collaborative Work Environments
Chapter 43
Janet L. Holland
This chapter deals with research on the development and use of an assessment instrument for measuring affective satisfaction in online learning. The... Sample PDF
A Scale of Affective Satisfaction in Online Learning Communities
Chapter 44
David Hinds, Ronald M. Lee
In this chapter, the authors suggest how measures of “social network health” can be used to evaluate the status and progress of a virtual community.... Sample PDF
Assessing the Social Network Health of Virtual Communities
Chapter 45
Bertram C. Bruce, Andee Rubin, Junghyun An
This chapter introduces situated evaluation as an approach for evaluating socio-technical innovation and change. Many current evaluations simply... Sample PDF
Situated Evaluation of Socio-Technical Systems
Chapter 46
Heike Winschiers-Theophilus
Communities all over the world have established their own value systems which do not necessarily correlate with the intrinsic values of technology.... Sample PDF
Cultural Appropriation of Software Design and Evaluation
Charles Steinfield
Prologue: The Future of Socio-Technical Systems
Chapter 47
Peter J. Denning
Wicked problems (messes) are tangled social situations that are too costly to stay in and too intransigent to get out of. Collaboration is essential... Sample PDF
Resolving Wicked Problems through Collaboration
Chapter 48
Rachel McLean
As a social activity, the shopping experience can not be recreated or improved through technical design alone. This chapter proposes that there is... Sample PDF
The Myth of the e-Commerce Serf to Sovereign Powershift
Chapter 49
Theresa Dirndorfer Anderson
This chapter explores the challenges associated with teaching the principles of socio-technical systems in the dynamic climate that characterizes... Sample PDF
Teaching the Socio-Technical Practices of Tomorrow Today
Chapter 50
Isa Jahnke
The chapter describes an empirical study of a socio-technical community—as an extended part of an institution— with the aim of revealing its... Sample PDF
Socio-Technical Communities: From Informal to Formal?
Chapter 51
Laurence Claeys, Johan Criel
This chapter introduces the concept of critical user participation as a means to see the socio-technical gap in context aware applications as an... Sample PDF
Future Living in a Participatory Way
Chapter 52
Paul Hodgson
This chapter analyses the formation and generation of social trust through communications technology in postmodern society, and presents some... Sample PDF
The Impact of Communications Technology on Trust
Chapter 53
Kenneth E. Kendall, Julie E. Kendall
This chapter explores the social, organizational, and individual impacts of emerging information technologies using the advent of recent... Sample PDF
Good and Evil in the Garden of Emerging Information Technologies
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