Excellence in Practice through a Socio-Technical, Open Systems Approach to Process Analysis and Design

Excellence in Practice through a Socio-Technical, Open Systems Approach to Process Analysis and Design

Peter M. Bednar (School of Computing, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK), Christine Welch (University of Portsmouth Business School, Portsmouth, UK), and Christopher Milner (University of Portsmouth Business School, Portsmouth, UK)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 9
DOI: 10.4018/IJSS.2016010108
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Nowadays, organizations pursue their aims in a context of distributed collaboration, creating a need not only for supporting work systems, but for a human-centred focus in which individual and group sense-making and learning are supported by appropriate toolsets. The authors argue that development of such toolsets requires an open systems approach. This paper discusses examples of such approaches, including non-competitive benchmarking (NCB), as a vehicle for knowledge transfer, leading to process improvement and potential for enhanced organizational performance. The paper goes on to discuss tools and techniques that may be used to support desire to reflect upon ‘best practice' in socio-technical design, without losing contextual relevance in design. The authors use these examples to explore ways in which engaged actors may be supported to create and share their contextually-dependent tacit knowledge. The foundation of open systems approaches is discussed, showing how socio-technical approaches continue to have relevance today.
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Business managers are often heard to express a view that ‘People are the company’s greatest asset’. However, this view is not always translated into effective practice. We believe that a holistic, socio-cultural approach to organizational change, recognizing the contextually-dependent nature of work is clearly the best strategy to pursue. In order to empower people to contribute their contextually-relevant ‘know-how’, both as individuals and in communities of practice, two prerequisites can be identified. The first is an open culture of ‘mindfulness’ in which people feel supported to express their views, even where these conflict with accepted ideas (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007, p.23); the second is a foundation for creativity in the form of useful and usable methodologies for inquiry and design of future practice (Bednar and Welch, 2006).

Any technical system developed to support human activities can only be regarded as worthwhile if it is experienced by the engaged actors as useful to them in their work roles (Bednar and Welch, 2009); and in order for technologies (including Information & Communication Technologies) to be ‘useful’ they must play an instrumental role within an organizational setting. The purpose of technology implementation is therefore to bring about a change in organizational behavior. However, an organization can be viewed as a dynamic, open system that is created and recreated continuously over time by interactions among the human individuals who are its members (Mumford, 2006; Bednar, 2007). Change of behaviour is not determined by technologies; it requires purposeful engagement by the actors concerned. To illustrate this point, we will explore a case example: how Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (GOSH) brought about needful change in their system for handover from one surgical team to another in infant care. This involved a novel endeavor in collaboration with the Ferrari and McClaren Formula 1 pit teams, and also with two aviator training captains. Through a process of non-competitive benchmarking, knowledge was shared among the teams and used by staff at GOSH to bring about beneficial change in their practice (Catchpole, et al, 2007).

In this paper, we discuss ways in which creative learning spirals may be established that support individuals to escape from entrapment in established routines and generate new protocols for enhanced performance through reflection (Bateson, 1972). In GOSH, staff in the infant coronary care field made use of non-competitive benchmarking with teams from fields as disparate from their normal experience as Formula 1 pit crews and pilot trainers from aviation. Their vision was to redesign their behavior and movements in the operational units concerned with infant heart surgery in order to reduce mortality rates.

In the past, many writers on organizations have referred to management as a practice of goal setting/seeking. It has been suggested that organizational culture is formed over time through shared goals and values (Schein, 1992). Such sharing, if possible, would require negotiation of differing perspectives held by individuals. Checkland (1999) suggests that “Consciousness makes man a meaning-endowed animal” (p.218). As such, it is always possible for each individual to select from a range of possible meanings. We consider each individual to have a multitude of competing worldviews, all of which change through time as a result of experience. Perceptions by about the same phenomenon different individuals within a group may overlap, but will vary from each other and will also change over time. For this reason, agreement on a single description of a ‘real’ human activity system will be elusive and consensus on its ‘goals’ impossible to achieve. Individuals coming together in organizational settings may develop views of a common good which they collectively pursue. However, it is unlikely that the collection of individuals interacting within that human activity system will all share the same perception of the nature of their system or of the nature of that ‘common’.

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