Socio-Technical Theory and Work Systems in the Information Age

Socio-Technical Theory and Work Systems in the Information Age

Ken Eason (Loughborough University, UK) and José Abdelnour-Nocera (University of West London, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch005
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This chapter sets the traditional focus of socio-technical systems theory on primary work systems in a modern context where information and communication technology (ICT) has a major influence in the way work is undertaken. The chapter begins with a summary of the original work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and critically reviews the major concepts to emerge from these studies. This is followed by a review of recent studies of the impact of ICT on work systems and how socio-technical systems concepts are used to interpret these findings. Finally, concepts and methods of designing socio-technical systems are reviewed in the context of current ways of designing and implementing customizable and generic ICT systems in organizations. The authors call for a recognition and evaluation of socio-technical systems as never completed but evolving over time; placing an emphasis on the emergent behavior resulting from the use of new technical systems.
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Technology presumes there’s just one right way to do things and there never is.

—Robert M. Pirsig


Work Systems As Socio-Technical Systems

After the Second World War many companies mechanised their production systems in the confident expectation of great improvements in productivity. In many instances, however, the results fell far below expectations. The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London undertook a number of studies to explore why the results were so disappointing. In one of these studies Trist et al (1963) studied the introduction of longwall coal mining techniques in two coalfields in England. In longwall coal mining the traditional small coalface worked by a small group of miners using pick and shovel was replaced by a long coalface in which the coal was ‘shot fired’ and then loaded onto conveyor belts that ran the length of the face. What the investigators found was that, although the technology made it easier to win coal, the social structure of the work roles of the miners had been completely changed in ways that made it difficult for them to co-operate. Whereas the small team at the coal face had previously worked closely together to complete the whole mining process, there were now three shifts of miners on the longwall coalface undertaking different activities on different shifts, e.g. one shift was devoted entirely to dismantling equipment and moving it forward. Each shift now had its own specialised staff devoted to the tasks that were intended to be undertaken on their shift. The new organisation was proving inflexible and whenever problems occurred, a very common occurrence in difficult underground conditions, the work of whole shifts could be lost. The authors coined the term socio-technical to demonstrate that, whilst the technical system might be an improvement on the old one, if its use disrupted the tightly organised system of work roles that was the social system, the result would be sub-optimal performance of the overall work system.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Workarounds: Informal practices for handling exceptions to the normal workflow procedures in the operation of a work system

Task Interdependence: The degree and form of relationship that exists between the sub-tasks to be undertaken in the completion of an overall task

Semi-automous Work Group: A group undertaking operational work that has discretion over the way it utilises its resources in the performance of its shared task

Work System: The collection of interdependent human and technological resources deployed to produce the operational outputs of an enterprise

Open System: A system that sustains its equilibrium with and through its interactions with its relevant environment

Action Research: A reflective process in which problem solvers engage in research activities to inform the action strategies they adopt

Minimum Critical Specification: Socio-technical design that proceeds by specifying only that which must be defined at each stage of the design process

Transitional System: A temporary system or institution established to facilitate reflection and evaluation of alternatives as one system is replaced by another

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