This 48-minute video illustrates the power of 'Socio-Technical Systems' (STS) thinking as a force for improving business results in human and economic terms; and, the potential for 'Technological Choice' in the design and layout of hardware and software so as to meet the needs of people--in radically successful approaches to the design of Work Organization.

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   See Video - "Engineering for Commitment:   Socio-Technical Design of Work" .
See Also – Good Reading: "Socio-Technical Systems Theory: From the Industrial to the Knowledge Age"

Socio-Technical Design of Work & Technological Choice

All forms of work consist of two inseparable parts—the 'technical' – the operations performed on things or information to produce a product or service – and the 'social' – what people say and do with other people to accomplish their work. It is vital to always consider these two parts of work together – as a 'system' – when we design organizations. (See Emery & Trist: "Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems", Vol. II: The Socio-Technical Perspective, Trist/Tavistock Anthology.)

For practical purposes, it is often necessary to isolate 'technical' issues such as the design of particular machinery or software. Nevertheless, 'technical' design is inextricably linked to 'social'/ human dimensions.

First, as Louis Davis, a mechanical engineer and professor of organizational sciences at UCLA wrote so eloquently for many years, the design process of production technology has embedded within it, social system planning and psychosocial assumptions. "Take something as simple…as deciding whether to place a meter on a particular machine. To make this decision, the designer must answer questions…Does the operator really require the information? How important is ease of physical availability? What about the timeliness of the information? If the meter is not available to give the operator direct feedback, what are the consequences for the kind of decisions the operator can make…?" (See Louis E. Davis, 1979, Optimizing Organization-Plant Design, Organizational Dynamics, pp. 3-15.) As these questions illustrate, 'technological' choice goes deeply into a consideration of the ways in which people will be required to work, how they will be supervised, and indeed, the overall structure of the organization.

Secondly, as an engineer, Davis saw that 'technical' systems are highly dependent for their real-time operational efficiency, on the design of the 'social' system—the roles and structured interaction among people in the work process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in what Davis called the "central character" of automated process technology. "The humans in automated systems are interdependent components required to respond to stochastic, not deterministic, conditions." (See Emery & Trist: "The Coming Crisis for Production Management", Vol. II: The Socio-Technical Perspective, Trist/Tavistock Anthology.) Through automation, there has also been a shift in the skill demands imposed by technology upon people, from high-coordination motor skills, in favour of mental-perceptual-decision-making skills. "As work becomes more technically complex, more involvement of workers, more coordination among work groups, and more horizontal communication are required." (See Louis Davis & James Taylor, (1975), Technology Effects on Job, Work, and Organizational Structure, Volume 1: The Quality of Working Life, The Free Press, NY.) Ironically, while there continue to be fewer individuals required to operate and maintain high-technology organizations, these organizations are far more dependent for their success on the actions of these fewer people.

Lou Davis believed that we have no alternative but to consider 'technical' systems and 'social' systems as 'joint' systems, with elements of one residing in the other. The concept may be relatively easy to grasp. The challenge is to integrate the two perspectives in practice. Lou Davis' most definitive work that describes this interdependence was his book, Design of Jobs, (Penguin Books) written and co-edited in 1972 with his long-time collaborator at UCLA, social psychologist, Jim Taylor. This systems thinking culminated in Davis' collaboration with an Englishman, Albert Cherns, who codified a set of principles (See Emery & Trist: "Principles of Socio-Technical Design", Vol. II: The Socio-Technical Perspective, Trist/Tavistock Anthology.)

Despite the (implicit or explicit) connections between 'technical' and 'social' design, there has been a persistent view of technological "determinism", in which technology is seen to evolve according to its own inherent logic. What usually follows is the 'fitting' of people and their work procedures to meet the needs of the technical system. However, as Davis wrote (see Emery & Trist: "The Coming Crisis for Production Management", Vol. II: The Socio-Technical Perspective, Trist/Tavistock Anthology), new technology "possesses an often unrecognized flexibility that can, within limits, be designed quite differently to meet the needs of social systems. This disaffirms the notion of 'technological imperative' widely held by both engineers and human resource specialists."

As an indication of this 'technical' flexibility, a substantial chapter in the video program "Engineering for Commitment" provides several examples of choices and alterations made in design and layout of technology, in order to meet 'social' systems needs. One case involved modification of key equipment in the design of an innovative Nabisco bakery. In another case, the infrastructure of a Mead Paper plant was altered to enable more effective operator control of a key conversion process. Perhaps, the most significant example occurred on 'Refinery Row' in Sarnia, Canada at a new Shell Chemical facility. Here, the 'character' of the technology involved in the manufacture of a plastics component led to design choices affecting both technical and social systems. In the technical system, some very unconventional decisions were made in the location of laboratories, the design of a central operator control room, and the computer system that gave operators the information feedback to regulate the chemical process.

This potential for 'technological choice' is even more prevalent in white-collar work, given the increased flexibility of software (as compared with hardware). See Good Reading, Painter: "Socio-Technical Design of Knowledge Work & IT", and
Shani: "Organization Design and The Knowledge Worker", and
"Nonroutine Office Work ", Vol. II: The Socio-Technical Perspective, Trist/Tavistock

Effective 'technological choice' requires an integrated, systems-based approach to design. (See Good Reading, Painter: "The Process and Content of Work Design".) The foundation is a set of values and principles developed and shared by designers of both the technical and social systems. To carry forward systems-oriented design requires constantly open communication and ongoing coordination between these designers. Furthermore, to achieve a systems design that is operationally sound, and which will garner the commitment of operating personnel, it is vital that line managers and employees be actively involved in both the technical and social system design processes. (See the video program "Participative Work Design".)

In summary, the "socio-technical systems" concept commits designers to the view of the work organization as a 'system' and to a systemic process of design requiring constant examination of the interactions between technical and social systems, with an eye to unintended effects. For engineers or others to focus exclusively on the design of a technical system, and either copy another social system or let it evolve haphazardly relegates achievement of successful performance to extraordinarily good luck. Conditions for organizational success and survival can be optimized only through a participative process of comprehensive design.

   See Video - "Engineering for Commitment:   Socio-Technical Design of Work".
See Also – Good Reading: "Socio-Technical Systems Theory: From the Industrial to the Knowledge Age"