The Social Requirements of Technical Systems

The Social Requirements of Technical Systems

Brian Whitworth (Massey University - Auckland, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch001
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A socio-technical system (STS) is a social system built upon a technical base. An STS adds social requirements to human-computer interaction (HCI) requirements, which already add to technical (hardware and software) requirements. Socio-technical systems use technology to connect people socially, for example through e-mail, electronic markets, social network systems, knowledge exchange systems, blogs, chat rooms, and so forth. Yet while the technology is often new, the social principles of people interacting with people may not be. The requirements of successful social communities, whether mediated by computers or the physical world, may be similar. If so, socio-technical systems must close the gap between social needs and technical performance, between what communities want and what the technology does. If online society is essentially a social system, of people interacting with people, social principles rather than the mediating technology should drive its design. Societies create value through social synergy, which is lost for example when people steal from others, whether time (spam), money (scams), credibility (lying), reputation (libel) or anything else of value. The success of today’s global information society depends upon designing the architecture of online interaction to support social goals. This chapter briefly reviews some of the emerging requirements of STS design.
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Man is a social animal




A socio-technical system (STS) is a social system sitting upon a technical base, with email a simple example of social communication by technology means. Whether a community is electronically or physically mediated a socio-technical system is people communicating with people through technology rather than the physical world (which is a “socio-physical system”). The term socio-technical was introduced in the 1950’s by the Tavistock Institute as the manufacturing needs of industry confronted the social needs of local communities, e.g. longwall mining in English coalmines (see It opposed Taylorism which broke down assembly line jobs into “most efficient units”, suggesting that technical systems needed to respect social needs, e.g. a nuclear plant near a village had to balance its technical needs against social needs. The socio-technical view later developed into a call for more ethical computing by supporters such as Mumford (Porra & Hirscheim, 2007).

General Systems Theory

In general systems theory (Bertalanffy, 1968) systems form when autonomous (self-directing) parts mutually interact to create equally autonomous wholes. Such systems do not reduce entirely to their parts as their creation involves not just those parts but also complex feed-back and feed-forward interactions. Just as a person is a system of autonomous cells, so a society is a “system” of autonomous citizens. Such holistic systems, whether simple cells or complex people, can self-organize and self-maintain (Maturana & Varela, 1998).

The socio-technical system (STS) is not just social and technical systems side-by-side but the whole unit. For example, a pilot flying a plane is two side by side systems with different needs, one mechanical (the plane) and one human (the pilot). In human computer interaction (HCI) these systems must work together–pilots must understand the plane’s controls, which must be understandable by its crew. The STS is the plane plus crew as a single system with human and mechanical levels. On the mechanical level the human body is just as physical as the plane, with weight, volume etc. However the “crew + plane” system can now strategize and predict, say in an aerial dogfight. The perspective change seems minor, but has major ramifications. If a human system sits next to a technical one it is usually secondary, as ethics is an afterthought in engineering, but if social systems include technical ones, as physical societies have architectures, then the social contextualizes the technical even as it is created by it. Hence STS research is not just applying sociological principles to technical effects (Coiera, 2007), but how social and technical aspects integrate into a higher level system with emergent properties.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Group: Any set of people who consider themselves a group (Bales, 1950; De Sanctis and Gallupe, 1987).

Communication Setting: That through which communication occurs, which may involve many channels, for example, telephone and loudspeaker are different communication settings.

Communication Interface: Operates at the boundary between communicating entities and the channel (Lim and Benbasat, 1991) and may also record (store) and process communications.

Communication Environment: Any combination of communication settings available to communicators, for example, a communication environment of telephone plus email.

Channel: A single, connected stream of signals, e.g. stereo sound has two channels.

Communication: A single transmission of meaning or information between one or many sender(s) and one or many receiver(s) (Lim & Benbasat, 1991).

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