..to Tavistock's Anthology Volume II
The Social Engagement of Social Science
The Socio-Technical Systems Perspective
by Eric Trist
Origin of the Concept
The socio-technical concept arose in conjunction with the first of several field projects undertaken by the Tavistock Institute in the coal-mining
industry in Britain. The time (1949) was that of the postwar reconstruction of industry in relation to which the Institute had two action research projects.(2)
One project was concerned with group relations in depth at all levels (including the management/labor interface) in a single organization - an
engineering company in the private sector. The other project focused on the diffusion of innovative work practices and organizational arrangements
that did not require major capital expenditure but which gave promise of raising productivity. The former project represented the first comprehensive
application in an industrial setting of the socio-clinical ideas concerning groups being developed at the Tavistock. For this purpose a novel action
research methodology was introduced. (The book describing the project became a classic [Jaques, 1951].) Nevertheless, the organization was approached exclusively as a social system. The second project was led,
through the circumstances described below, to include the technical as well as the social system in the factors to be considered and to postulate that
the relations between them should constitute a new field of inquiry.
Coal being then the chief source of power, much industrial reconstruction
depended on there being a plentiful and cheap supply. But the newly nationalized industry was not doing well. Productivity failed to increase in
step with increases in mechanization. Men were leaving the mines in large numbers for more attractive opportunities in the factories. Among those who remained, absenteeism averaged 20 percent. Labor disputes were
frequent despite improved conditions of employment. Some time earlier the National Coal Board had asked the Institute to make a comparative study of a high producing, high morale mine and a low producing, low
morale, but otherwise equivalent mine. Despite nationalization, however, our research team was not welcome at the coal face under the auspices of the Board.
This paper is taken from E.L. Trist, "The Evolution of Socio-Technical Systems," in Perspectives on Organization Design and Behavior, edited by
A. H. Van de Ven and W. F. Joyce. New York: John Wiley, 198 1.
(2) Through the Human Factors Panel of the then government's Productivity
Committee on funds administered by the Medical Research Council.
There were at the Institute at that time six postgraduate Fellows being
trained for industrial fieldwork. Among these, three had a trade union background and one had been a miner. After a year, the Fellows were encouraged to revisit their former industries and make a report on any new
perceptions they might have. One of these Fellows, Ken Bamforth, returned with news of an innovation in work practice and organization which had
occurred in a new seam in the colliery where he used to work in the South Yorkshire coalfield. The seam, the Haighmoor, had become possible to
mine "shortwall" because of improved roof control. I can recall now the excitement with which I listened to him. No time was lost in my going up to
visit this colliery where, since we were introduced by Ken, the local management and union readily agreed to our "researching" their innovation
with a view to its diffusion to other mines. The area general manager (who had the oversight of some 20 mines) welcomed the idea. The technical
conception of the new scheme was his, though the men, with union support, had proposed the manning arrangements.
The work organization of the new seam was, to us, a novel phenomenon
consisting of relatively autonomous groups interchanging roles and shifts and regulating their affairs with a minimum of supervision. Cooperation between task groups was everywhere in evidence, personal commitment
obvious, absenteeism low, accidents infrequent, productivity high. The contrast was large between the atmosphere and arrangements on these faces and those in the conventional areas of the pit, where the negative
features characteristic of the industry were glaringly apparent. The men told us that in order to adapt with best advantage to the technical conditions in
the new seam, they had evolved a form of work organization based on practices common in the unmechanized days when small groups, who took responsibility for the entire cycle, had worked autonomously. These
practices had disappeared as the pits became progressively more mechanized in relation to the introduction of "longwall" working. This
method had enlarged the scale of operations and led to aggregates of men of considerable size having their jobs broken down into one-man/one-task
roles, while coordination and control were externalized in supervision, which became coercive. Now they had found a way, at a higher level of
mechanization, of recovering the group cohesion and self-regulation they had lost and of advancing their power to participate in decisions concerning their work arrangements. For this reason, the book which
overviewed the Tavistock mining studies was subtitled The Loss, Rediscovery and Transformation of a Work Tradition (Trist et al., 1963). The transformation represented a change of' direction in organizational
design. For several decades the prevailing direction had been to increase bureaucratization with each increase in scale and level of mechanization.
The organizational model that fused Weber's description of bureaucracy with Frederick Taylor's concept of scientific management had become pervasive. The Haighmoor innovation showed that there was an alternative.
Those concerned with it had made an organizational choice (Trist et al., 1963). They could, with minor modifications, have extended the prevailing
mode of working. They chose instead to elaborate a major design alternative. It was not true that the only way of designing work organizations
must conform to Tayloristic and bureaucratic principles. There were other ways, which represented a discontinuity with the prevailing mode. The technological imperative could be disobeyed with positive economic as
well as human results. What happened in the Haighmoor seam gave to Bamforth and myself a first glimpse of the "emergence of a new paradigm
of work" (Emery, 1978/Vol.II) in which the best match would be sought between the requirements of the social and technical systems.
Some of the principles involved were as follows:
¥ The work system, which comprised a set of activities that made up a functioning whole, now became the basic unit rather than the single jobs into which it was decomposable.
¥ Correspondingly, the work group became central rather than the individual jobholder.
¥ Internal regulation of the system by the group was thus rendered possible
rather than the external regulation of individuals by supervisors.
¥ A design principle based on the redundancy of functions rather than on the redundancy of parts (Emery, 1967) characterized the underlying
organizational philosophy which tended to develop multiple skills in the individual and immensely increase the response repertoire of the group.
This principle valued the discretionary rather than the prescribed part of work roles (Jaques, 1956).
¥ It treated the individual as complementary to the machine rather than as
an extension of it (Jordan, 1963).
¥ It was variety-increasing for both the individual and the organization rather than variety-decreasing in the bureaucratic mode.
Conceptually, the new paradigm entailed a shift in the way work organizations were envisaged. Under the old paradigm, engineers, following the technological imperative, would design whatever organization
the technology seemed to require. This was a rule accepted by all concerned (Davis et al., 1955).
The "people cost" of proceeding in this way was not considered. Any
people cost, it was presumed, could be compensated for first by improving the socio-economic conditions of employment and then by improving
"human relations. " The movement under this latter title arose during the interwar period when the model of the technocratic bureaucracy was
becoming entrenched. It failed to arrest the spread of work alienation after World War II (Baldamus, 1951, 1961; Walker and Guest, 1952). At the Glacier Metal Company where Jaques (1951) carried out his research it
was observed that, despite the progressive personnel policies adopted and the far-reaching changes made in the character of management/ labor
relations, there was no reduction in the "split at the bottom of the executive chain." Nothing had happened to change the structure of jobs. There was no
change in the nature of the immediate work experience.
The idea of separate approaches to the social and the technical systems of an organization could no longer suffice for one such as myself who had
experienced the profound consequences of a change in social/technical relations such as had occurred in the Haighmoor development. Work organizations exist to do work - which involves people using technological
artifacts (whether hard or soft) to carry out sets of tasks related to specified overall purposes. Accordingly, a conceptual reframing was proposed in
which work organizations were envisaged as socio-technical systems rather than simply as social systems (Trist, 1950a). The social and technical systems were the substantive factors - the people and the
equipment. Economic performance and job satisfaction were outcomes, the level of which depended on the goodness of fit between the substantive factors. The following research tasks emerged in the Tavistock program:
¥ The theoretical development of the core concept.
¥ Development of methods for the analytical study of the relations of technologies and organizational forms in different settings.
¥ A search for criteria to obtain the best match between the technological and social components.
¥ Action research to improve the match.
¥ Finding ways to measure and evaluate outcomes through comparative and longitudinal studies.
¥ Finding ways to diffuse socio-technical improvements.
These tasks could not be carried out in a preplanned sequence. The research team had first to make an extensive reconnaissance of the field to
locate relevant opportunities. It then had to become actively linked to them in ways which would sanction their study in a collaborative mode. The idiom of inquiry was action research (Trist, 1976b).
Socio-technical studies needed to be carried out at three broad levels - from micro to macro - all of which are interrelated:
Primary work systems. These are the systems which carry out the set of'
activities involved in an identifiable and bounded subsystem of a whole organization - such as a line department or a service unit (cf. Miller,
1959/VoI. II). They may consist of a single face-to-face group or a number of such groups, together with support and specialist personnel and representatives of management, plus the relevant equipment and other
resources. They have a recognized purpose which unifies the people and the activities.
Whole organization systems. At one limit these would be plants or
equivalent self-standing workplaces. At the other, they would be entire corporations or public agencies. They persist by maintaining a steady state with their environment.
. These include systems in communities and industrial sectors, and institutions operating at the overall level of a society. They constitute what I have called "domains" (Trist, 1976a; 1979a). One
may regard media as socio-technical systems. McLuhan (1964) has shown that the technical character of different media has far-reaching effects on
users. The same applies to architectural forms and the infrastructure of the built environment. Although these are not organizations, they are
socio-technical phenomena. They are media in Heider's (1942) as well as McLuhan's sense.
As the historical process of a society unfolds, individuals change their
values and expectations concerning work roles. This changes the parameters of organizational design. Conversely, changes in technology
bring about changes in values, cognitive structures, life-styles, habitats and communications which profoundly alter a society and its chances of survival. Socio-technical phenomena are contextual as well as
Not all social systems are socio-technical. Emery (1959/Vol. II), following Nadel (1951), distinguished between "operative" and "regulative"
institutions and proposed restricting the term "socio-technical" to the former. Regulative organizations are concerned directly with the
psycho-social ends of their members and with instilling, maintaining or changing cultural values and norms; the power and the position of interest
groups; or the social structure itself. Many such organizations employ technologies as adjuncts and have secondary instrumental systems which are socio-technical. By contrast, organizations which are primarily
socio-technical are directly dependent on their material means and resources for their outputs. Their core interface consists of the relations between a nonhuman system and a human system.
There are mixed forms typified by the co-presence of psycho-social and socio-technical ends, which may be congruent or conflicting. An example of
the latter would be a prison with both an electronic surveillance system and a therapeutic community. Hospitals are inherently socio-technical as well
as psycho-social, which accounts for the complexity of some of their dilemmas.
From the beginning, the socio-technical concept has developed in terms of
systems since it is concerned with interdependencies. It has also developed in terms of open system theory since it is concerned with the environment in which an organization must actively maintain a steady state.
Von Bertalanffy's (1950) paper on "Open Systems in Physics and Biology" became available at the time that the socio-technical concept was being
formulated. It influenced both theory-building and field projects, compelling attention alike to selfregulation and environmental relations. As regards the special role of technology, Emery put it as follows:
The technological component, in converting inputs into outputs, plays a major role in determining the self-regulating properties of an enterprise. It
functions as one of the major boundary conditions of the social system in mediating between the ends of an enterprise and the external environment. Because of this, the materials, machines and territory that
go to making up the technological component are usually defined, in any modem society, as "belonging" to an enterprise, or are excluded from
similar control by other enterprises. They represent, as it were, an "internal environment." This being the case, it is not possible to define
the conditions under which such an open system achieves a steady state unless the mediating boundary conditions are in some way represented
amongst the "system constants" [cf. von Bertalariffy, 1950]. The technological component has been found to play this mediating role and hence it follows that the open system concept, as applied to the
enterprise, ought to be referred to the socio-technical system, not simply to the social system, (Emery, 1959)
An interest in social and technical relations arose in my own thinking first at the niacrosocial level, next at the whole organizational level and thence at
the level of primary work systems. This last, however, became the crucial level as regards the initiation of field projects that provided the concrete route through which the broader levels could again be reached.
Lewis Mumford (1934) in Technics and Civilization had introduced me to the idea of linking the two. Anthropology and cultural history suggested that,
if the material and symbolic cultures of a society were not connected by any simple principle of linear causality (as some interpreters of Marx have
implied), they were nevertheless intertwined in a complex web of mutual causality (Trist, 1950b/Vol.I). In the language of E.A. Singer (1959) they
were coproducers of each other. The technological choices made by a society are critical expressions of its world view. As new technologies develop, new societal possibilities may or may not be taken up. The mode
of their elaboration may he constructive or destructive. There are unanticipated consequences. In the period following World War 11 the information technologies of the second industrial revolution were already
beginning to make themselves felt. It seemed not unlikely that there would be as big a cultural shift associated with them as with the energy technologies of the first industrial revolution.
As regards the whole organization level, the first industrial project in which I was involved made it impossible not to look at the relations between
technical and social systems. This encounter was with the jute industry in Dundee, Scotland, where in the late 1930s I was a member of an interdisciplinary research team studying unemployment. The spinning
section of the industry was being "rationalized," causing not only more unemployment but a deskilling of the remaining workers, along with an
extension of managerial controls. As to alienation, workers in the interview sample would say that they might as well be unemployed, while the
appearance of time-study personnel provoked a bitter reaction in the trade unions. In the changes taking place, the technical and social aspects were
interactive. A new socio-technical system emerged - that of a more controlling "technocratic bureaucracy" with very different properties from
the earlier system in terms of which jute spinning had been, and jute weaving still was, organized.
Then came World War II. A new military socio-technical system appeared
in the form of the German Panzer Divisions, formidably competent in the way they linked men and machines to fit their purposes. The French army
had failed to develop an equivalent system, despite de Gaulle's proposals. As the war proceeded, military technology gave increasing scope for, and
prominence to, small group formations, recognizing their power to make flexible decisions and to remain cohesive under rapidly changing
conditions. This led to a recasting of the role of junior officers and the kind of relations (more open and more democratic) best maintained between
them and their men. In Britain the War Office Selection Boards to which I was attached were created to choose officers capable of behaving in this
way (Murray, 1990/Vol. I). The Boards made extensive use of W.R. Bion's (1946) method of leaderless groups, which allowed leadership to emerge
and rotate in a variety of group settings. All this opened up new areas of group dynamics - extended after the war when Bion (1950; 1961) introduced therapy groups at the Tavistock Clinic. A parallel influence was
that of Lewin's (1939; 1951) experiments on group climates and group decision making, together with the beginnings of the National Training Laboratories at Bethel, Maine. These traditions became fused at the
Tavistock. Bion focused on the unconscious factors obstructing the attainment of group purposes and on group creativeness; Lewin on the commitment to action consequent on participation and on the performance
superiority of the democratic mode. Both emphasized the capacity of the small group for self-regulation, an aspect of systems theory which received increasing attention as cybernetics developed (Weiner, 1950).
Going Against the Grain of the 1950s
To a number of us at this time, and certainly to me, it seemed that the small self-regulating group held the clue to a very great deal that might be
improved in work organizations. Knowledge about this allowed considerable advances during and immediately after World War II. Experiences in industry in the reconstruction period had shown that
socio-technical relations were patterned on the breakdown of work into externally controlled one-person/one-job units and that top- down management hierarchies were being even more rigidly maintained than in
the prewar period. The pattern of technocratic bureaucracy was increasing in strength.
Hence the interest of the Haighmoor development, which pointed to the
existence of an alternative pattern going in the opposite direction to the prevailing mode. The Divisional Board, however, did not wish attention
drawn to it. They feared the power change that would be consequent on allowing groups to become more autonomous at a time when they themselves were intent on intensifying managerial controls in order to
accelerate the full mechanization of the mines. They refused to allow the research to continue and balked at Bamforth and myself referring to it in the
paper that we published (Trist and Bamforth, 1951) on conventional longwall working. It would lead, they said, to expectations that could not be fulfilled; for, while autonomous groups might be successful on the
Haighmoor shortwalls, they would not be feasible on the longwall layouts which represented the prevailing method of mining. Later, this opinion was
found to be false, though widely held. The Divisional Board's reaction suggested that any attempt to reverse the prevailing mode would be met with very serious resistance. To move in the opposite direction meant
going against the grain of a macro-social trend of institution building in terms of the model of the technocratic bureaucracy, which had yet to reach its peak or disclose its dysfunctionality.
Several major pioneer studies were carried out during the decade. They established a number of research findings of key importance; however,
their effect on industrial practice was negligible. Neither what happened nor what failed to happen is widely known. These studies are reviewed here to
provide a short account of what turned out to be the latency decade of the socio-technical approach.
Continuation of the Mining Studies
If the Haighmoor development had general meaning, it was reasonable to assume that similar developments would occur elsewhere. In fact, a parallel
development in a more advanced form and on a larger scale emerged in another Division of the National Coal Board (East Midlands), where one of the Area Managers, W. V. Sheppard (1949; 1951), was developing a
method of continuous mining - a radical innovation designed on what appeared to be socio-technical principles. There were two versions: the
semi-mechanized (Wilson et al., 1951; Trist et al., 1963/Vol. II) and the fully mechanized (Trist, 1953a). The second was delayed because of teething
troubles in an ingenious but somewhat underpowered cutter-loader invented by Sheppard. Faces were 100 and 120 yards in length, alternating
advance with retreat and concentrated in one district so that only one main road needed to be maintained. Autonomous groups Of 20 to 25 conducted
all operations on one shift. There were three production shifts every 24 hours instead of one shift - the other two shifts had been concerned with
coal face preparation and equipment shifting that were now done in parallel with coal getting. All members were multiskilled and were paid the same
day wage, that was then judged more appropriate for continuous mining than a bonus. Productivity and work satisfaction were unusually and consistently high. A beginning was made in spreading the new system to
six pits. Emery (1952), who was over at the Tavistock on sabbatical from Australia, made a study of this process, paying special attention to required changes in the supervisor's role. After Area-wide appreciation
conferences had been held for managers and under-managers, an Area Training School was designed (Trist, 1953b) to which groups of eight (operators, foremen and mechanics) from each pit scheduled to go over to
the new system came for a week (during which they visited the original mine). They had sessions with everyone concerned from the Area general
manager to the face workers and the trade union secretary, who conducted the sessions in the new group organization. Members of these groups began to meet weekly to compare experiences. A kind of socio-technical
development center was created in the Area workshops. This model was not picked up again for another 12 years, when something like it emerged both in the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project (Thorsrud and Emery,
1964; Emery and Thorsrud, 1992/VoI. II) and the Shell Philosophy Project (Hill, 1971/Hill and Emery, Vol. II). It was a forerunner of "the deep slice"
used by Emery (Emery, 1976) and by Emery and Emery (1974/VoI. II) in their method of Participant Design.
A study of overall Area organization was made (Trist, 1953c). The
incoming technology, in association with autonomous work groups, reduced by one the number of management levels underground. Group Centres between collieries and the Area office were obviously redundant.
Eventually, Divisional Boards between operating Areas and the national headquarters in London also seemed unnecessary. These superfluous levels of management were based on narrow spans of control which
implied detailed supervision of subordinates at all levels rather than the socio-technical concept of boundary management which was congruent with maximizing the degree of self-regulation through an entire
organizational system. In the course of time, these levels were in fact eliminated. This showed how the socio-technical concept could affect the
organization as a whole and reduce the administrative overhead which has become so excessive in large technocratic and bureaucratic organizations.
Having reached the whole organization systems level, our research efforts (though on independent funds) were again stopped when a new Divisional Chairman took over. What had happened was seen in an entirely
technological perspective - that of the new cutter-loader which had been introduced. Because machines of this type were judged not to be as good
a bet for further mechanization as "shearing" machines, the whole project was regarded as not meriting continuation. Besides, granting more
autonomy was not popular. The union regionally negotiated special pay for operators of new equipment. This broke up the unity of the face groups,
which were further decimated when bonuses were introduced for various classes of workers. As time went on, the conventional system began to
reinstate itself. Sociologically, this setback and the earlier one over the Haighmoor may be seen as examples of what Schon (1971) has called the "dynamic conservatism" of organizations.
A search of other coalfields produced only one, Durham, where the Divisional Board and the regional organization of the National Union of Mineworkers said they would like to proceed with social research into
mining methods. Virtually all extant methods were available in the same low seam in a single area in the older part of the coalfield where customs were
uniform and traditions common. Here, the research team found what the conventional wisdom had held to be impossible: the working of the conventional, semimechanized, three-shift longwall cycle by a set of
autonomous work groups (locally known as "composite"). Groups Of 40 to 50 men interchanged the various jobs required while alternating shifts in
ways they felt best and evolved an innovative pay system that seemed equitable to them. Output was 25 percent higher with lower costs (40 percent) than on a comparison face similar in every respect (conditions,
equipment, personnel) except that of work organization. Accidents, sickness and absenteeism were cut in half (Trist et al., 1963/Vol. II). Only
one man left the composite faces in two years. Over the four-year period of the project, the conversion of an entire colliery with three seams from
conventional to composite working was followed in detail. Much was learned about the conditions under which autonomous groups prosper and under which they fail. The potential of self-regulating groups in fully
mechanized installations was studied and the research team began to collaborate in the design of socio-technical systems for the most advanced
technology then available. A meticulous study of a single face team was made by Herbst (1962). It explored the mathematical relations between a number of key variables.
A report was submitted to the National Coal Board (Trist and Murray, 1958). The results were not disputed. But the Board's priorities were
elsewhere - on the closing of uneconomical pits in the older coalfields and on carrying the union with it in implementing the national power-loading
agreement, deemed critical for full mechanization. The Board was not willing to encourage anything new that might disturb the delicately balanced
situation as the industry contracted in face of the greater use of oil. On the union side, the Durham Miners' Association sent the report to their National
Executive. No reply was received at the Tavistock Institute.
Hugh Murray has since made an archival study of composite agreements in
various British coalfields. There were quite a few of these in the mid-1950s, but they were regarded simply as wage settlements. There was no understanding that they might have implications for work organization.
In the late 1960s Murray carried out an action-research study of layouts using very advanced technology. He found that the coincidence of specialized work roles and high absentee rates was giving rise to
wide-scale disruption of production processes. Men were posted to places in their specialty all over the mine through a "pit market." There was little
cohesion in work teams. Efforts to introduce multiskilling, which would have afforded the basis for greater team cohesion, met with little success (Murray and A. Trist, 1969).
During the 1970s an experimental section based on autonomous groups was tried out in a mine in the American coal industry with its room-and-pillar layouts and very different technology of roof bolting,
continuous miners and shuttle cars. Positive results were obtained comparable to those obtained earlier in Britain, not only as regards productivity but also safety, which was the reason for union collaboration.
Although a second autonomous section was started, an attempt to diffuse this form of work organization to the mine as a whole encountered insuperable difficulties which were not foreseen by members of the
Labor/Management Steering Committee or the research team (Trist et al., 1977; Susman and Trist, 1977/VoI. II). This project has been independently evaluated by Goodman (1979)
The difficulties centered on the resentment of those not included in the experiment toward the privileges of those who were. This resentment would not have become acute had not expansion of the mine led to some
inexperienced new recruits winning places (and hence the top wage rate) on the second autonomous section when experienced men withdrew their
bids at the last moment in order to stay with a foreman (who then deserted them). There was no infringement of seniority rules, but the issue split the union.
The project shows in great detail how unanticipated and uncontrollable events in the broader, as well as the immediate, context can influence outcome in the later stages of an action-research undertaking. For
example, the union's national situation and leadership changed dramatically. The project also shows how the encapsulation of an innovation can prevent its diffusion and the dangers of applying classical
experimental research design in the "moving ground" of a real-life field situation. Such a design was a condition of receiving initial support at the
mine and from the sponsors of the national program of which it was a part.
Studies in Other Industries
Meanwhile, at the Tavistock, opportunities were sought in other industries.
The first to arise was not only in another industry - textiles - but in another culture-India. In 1953 the late A.K. Rice (1958; 1963; 1953/VoI. II) paid his
first visit to the Calico Mills in Ahmedabad during which time an automatic loom shed was converted from conventional to autonomous working, with results that surpassed expectations. Later, the change was diffused
throughout the nonautomatic weaving sheds in this very large organization, which employed 9,000 people. Rice did no more than mention through an
interpreter the idea of a group of workers becoming responsible for a group of looms. The loomshed employees took up the idea themselves, coming back the next day with a scheme that they asked management's
permission to implement. Terms regarding a progressive payment scheme were negotiated and the first trials of the new system began. As with the
mines, major initiatives were taken by the workers themselves. The depth of their commitment became apparent when the Communist Party of India
(orthodox) took offense at the "Ahmedabad Experiment," since it involved collaboration, and drafted a number of their members from various parts of
the country into the city, already swollen with refugees from West Pakistan, to agitate against it. Though their families were threatened and attempts
were made to set Hindu and Muslim workers against each other, the Calico's employees stood by an innovation that was largely their own creation.
Yet the group method, as it was called, did not spread to other mills as originally expected. I asked Shankalal Banker, the venerable leader of the
Ahmedabad Textiles Union, about this when I was in Ahmedabad in 1973. He replied that the other owners did not want to share their power. Also, as
Miller (1975/VoI. II) reports, the nonautomatic loomsheds gradually regressed to conventional ways of working. Training was not kept up. New
middle managers, who knew little of what had originally taken place, took over. Senior management became preoccupied with marketing and diversification. The automatic loom sheds, however, retained the group
method and their high level of performance and satisfaction with it.
The Tavistock workers sought to discover how far alternative organizational
patterns existed in service industries. An instance was found in a large retail chain consisting of small stores run by four to six employees with
shared tasks and all-round skills; the "manager" was a working charge-hand (Pollock, 1954). When, however, this organization enlarged its
stores and extended its lines of sale, specialized jobs with several different statuses and rewards appeared, along with formal control mechanisms.
At roughly the same time, opportunity arose to explore the possibility of an alternative organizational mode in a large teaching hospital. Advances in
medical technology had turned the hospital into a "high pressure" center for intensive treatment, while reducing the length of patient stay and extending
the range of diseases coped with. This had created severe problems in nurse training. The work system consisted of a set of tasks broken down
into narrow jobs in a closely similar way to that in large-scale industry.
An attempt to introduce, in an experimental ward, the concept of a group of
nurses becoming responsible for a group of patients met with both medical and administrative resistance, though much was learned about the embodiment in social structure and professional culture of psychological
defenses against anxiety (Menzies, 1960/Vol. I). Integrated ward teams have since been developed in Australia by Stoelwinder (1978; Stoelwinder and Clayton, 1978).
As the last years of the immediate postwar period came to a close in the early 1950s, the mood of the society changed from collaboration, which
had fostered local innovation, to competition and an adversarial climate in management/labor relations, which discouraged local innovation. No further
instances of an alternative pattern were identified. Nevertheless, the mining and textile studies had suggested that continuous production industries
which were advancing in automation might develop requirements which could eventually lead in a direction counter to the prevailing mode. Accordingly, analytic socio-technical studies were instituted in chemical
plants and power stations (Murray, 1960; Emery and Marek, 1962). These studies disclosed a basic change in the core shop-floor tasks: workers
were now outside the technology- adjusting, interpreting, monitoring, etc. They had become managers of work systems. They needed conceptual and
perceptual skills rather than manipulative and physical skills. They usually worked interdependently with others because the essential task was to
keep a complex system in a steady state. The opportunity to go over to an alternative pattern, however, did not seem to be under any "hot pursuit,"
though Bell (1956) had pointed to the possibility and Woodward (1958) noted the presence of fewer supervisors in continuous process than in mass production plants.
For a moment it looked as though a major action-research opportunity would be forthcoming in Britain. Richard Thomas and Baldwin (RTB), the
largest complex in the British steel industry, were preparing to build the most modem steelworks in Europe. They wanted to break with many constraining precedents in management and with work practices that would
inhibit taking full advantage of the most advanced equipment. The director of education and training invited the Tavistock to collaborate with him in evolving a new set of roles and decision rules, indeed a whole
organizational structure, that would be a better match with the new technology. The method proposed was a series of participative workshops
to be held in the RTB staff college, which would be attended by the different levels and functions of management, foremen, key operators and shop
stewards. But there were delays in site construction-the ground proved more marshy than expected - and huge additional expenditures were incurred, which worried the Treasury. The participative workshops were
never held. In the end, an organizational structure and the various associated appointees were crash-programmed, and all the old roles and practices were reinstated with (as time showed) negative consequences of
a severe kind (Miller and Rice, 1967).
There was a rising interest in socio-technical relations among a number of social scientists concerned with industry in the British setting. In Scotland,
Burns and Stalker (1961) observed a new management pattern, which they called "organismic" as contrasted with "mechanistic," in more
technologically advanced industry. Woodward (1958) related changes in organizational structure to broad types of technology. Fensham and Hooper (1964) showed the increasing mismatch between conventional
management and the requirements of a rationalized rayon industry. Such studies, however, were widely interpreted (not necessarily by their authors)
as supporting a theory of technological determinism. There could be no organizational choice, as had been suggested by the Tavistock researchers.
In the United States (5)
attention had been drawn to the counterproductive consequences of extreme job fractionalization (Walker and Guest, 1952). But concepts of job enlargement and rotation and, later, of job enrichment
(Herzberg et al., 1959), though concerned with socio-technical relations, focused on the individual job rather than on the work system. In its orthodox
form, job enrichment did not countenance participation but relied on experts brought in by management.
No attempt has been made to cover the work of the many colleagues who became involved in this field, from its opening up in the decade of the
1970s, in the United States, Canada and many countries in Europe.
In continental Europe there were occasional signs of a concern with
altemative organizational modes. Westerlund (1952) reported the introduction of small groups on the Stockholm telephone exchange. A similar transformation had been carried out in Glasgow by a
telecommunications engineer (Smith, 1952). King (1964), from a training approach, had introduced groups with a good deal of scope for self-regulation in small textile firms in Norway. Van Beinum (1963) had
completed his studies in the Dutch telecommunications industry. In the United States Davis (1957) introduced the concept of job design. This
constituted a basic critique of industrial engineering and opened the way for systems change which could involve groups and encourage participation. A working relationship between him and the Tavistock group
An opportunity for stocktaking occurred at an International Conference on Workers' Participation in Management in Vienna (Trist, 1958). Interest
centered on co-determination in Germany and on the Yugoslav workers councils. The idea of involving workers directly in decisions about what should best be done at their own level seemed strange to those concerned
with industrial democracy. Only marginal attention was paid to the idea that an alternative pattern of work organization to that prevailing might be on the
horizon. In the end, however, it was not entirely ignored (Clegg, 1960).
Confusion regarding the forms and meaning of industrial democracy has
persisted. Four different forms may be distinguished, all of which represent modes of participation and the sharing of power. They are:
Interest group democracy,
i.e., collective bargaining, through which organized labor gains power to take an independent role vis-a-vis management.
Representative democracy whereby those at the lower levels of an
organization influence policies decided at higher levels (workers on boards, works councils).
Owner democracy as in employee-owned firms and cooperative
establishments where there is participation in the equity.
Work-linked democracy whereby the participation is secured of those directly involved in decisions about how work shall be done at their own
These four forms may be found independently or together, in consonance or contradiction, and in different degrees in various contemporary industrial
societies. The work-linked form has been the last to appear historically and is that with which the socio-technical restructuring of work is associated
(Trist, 1979b). It is the only approach which positively changes the immediate quality of the work experience. The other approaches, which
have their own merits, do not affect the basic problem of worker alienation. Increasing congruency may be hypothesized among the four factors in the
longer run. Organizational democracy would be a preferable term to industrial democracy.
A monograph by Emery (1959), who had returned to the Tavistock, put
forward a first generalized model of the dimensions of social and technical systems, showing that, though they were multiple, they were not so numerous that analysis would become unmanageable. Eight dimensions
were identified on the technical side, including level of mechanization/automation, unit operations, the temporo-spatial scale of the production process and so forth.(6)
On the social side, rigorous attention had to be paid to occupational roles and their structure, methods of payment, the supervisory relationship, the work culture, etc. - all of which
belong to the "socio" rather than the "psycho" group (Jennings, 1947). The psycho group, concerned with interpersonal relations and Bion-type "basic
assumptions" regarding group behavior, however important, did not represent the starting point. Appropriate structural settings had to be created before desirable social climates and positive interpersonal
relations would have the conditions in which to develop.
The others were the natural characteristics of the material, the degree of' centrality of the various productive operations, the character of the
maintenance and supply operations and that of the immediate physical work setting.
The original formulation of social and technical relations had been made in
terms of obtaining the best match, or "goodness of fit," between the two. In conjunction with the Norwegian Industrial Democracy project (Emery and
Thorsrud, I992/VoI. II), Emery reformulated the matching process (in terms of the more advanced systems theory that had become available) as the joint optimization of the social and technical systems.
The technical and social systems are independent of each other in the sense that the former follows the laws of the physical sciences, while the latter follows the laws of
the human sciences and is a purposeful system. Yet they are correlative in that one requires the other for the transformation of an input into an output.
This transformation comprises the functional task of a work system. Their relationship represents a coupling of dissimilars that can only be jointly
optimized. Attempts to optimize for either the technical or social system alone will result in the suboptimization of the socio-technical whole.
In the language of Sommerhoff (1950; 1969), a work system depends on the social and technical components becoming directively correlated to produce a given goal state. They are co-producers
of the outcome (Ackoff and Emery, 1972). The distinctive characteristics of each must be respected else their contradictions will intrude and their complementarities
will remain unrealized (Trist, 1981/Vol. II).
This logic was held to underlie job and organizational design. Failure to build it into the primary work system would prevent it from becoming a
property of the organization as a whole. Emery (1967; 1976/Vol. II) further proposed that, at the most general level, there are two basic organizational
design principles. Paradigm I, based on the redundancy of parts, is represented in all forms of bureaucracy (from the pyramids onwards). Paradigm II, based on the redundancy of functions, is represented in
self-managing groups leading to organizational democracy. This appears in emerging socio-technical forms.
The conceptual advances were "directively correlated" with the involvement
of the Tavistock research team in the action- research opportunities which occurred as the decade of the 1960s unfolded. A further round of developments took place in 1965 (Davis et al., 1965).
On Purposeful Systems (Ackoff and Emery, 1972) has had far-reaching conceptual influence on subsequent work.
The Pathfinding Role of the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project
The hypothesis was made that no further advances could be expected until changes occurred in the "extended social field" of forces at the macrosocial level. Any happening of this kind would change the
opportunities for, and meaning of, the efforts at the primary work system and whole organization levels. While no one could foretell where and when
this might occur, such a happening could be expected from the increasing impact of the new information-based technologies.
The science-based industries were the "leading part" of the Western
industrial system. They functioned as the principal change-generators and brought about many other changes, directly or indirectly (Emery and Trist,
1972/ 1973). Western societies were beginning what is often referred to as the second industrial revolution.
The anticipated happening occurred in 1962 in Norway where little
modernization of industry had taken place in comparison with other Scandinavian countries. Economic growth had slowed down; the largest paper and pulp company went bankrupt; Norwegian firms were being taken
over by multinationals. In many other respects this very small country began to feel it had lost control of its own destiny. Its environment had become what Emery and I (1963) have called "turbulent."
A sudden demand for workers' control erupted in the left wing of the trade union movement. Neither the Confederation of Employers nor the Confederation of Trade Unions felt they understood what it was about.
Having set up an Institute for Industrial Social Research at the Technical University in Norway, they asked it to conduct an inquiry into the matter.
Given the political pressures, Einar Thorsrud, the director, who had close contacts with the Tavistock Institute, felt that the inquiry would be better
undertaken in association with a group outside Norway, which had accumulated relevant experience. Accordingly, he invited the Tavistock to collaborate. Very soon Emery and I became, with Thorsrud, part of a
planning committee composed of representatives of the two Confederations. The task was to work out a jointly evolved research design. Involvement of the key stakeholders in each step was a basic
principle of the design.
The first inquiry undertaken was into the role of the workers' directors, whose existence was mandated by law both in state-owned enterprises and
in those where the state had some capital (former German capital given to Norway by the Allies after World War II). Various members of the board
were interviewed, including the workers' directors, the principal members of management and of the trade union organization. It was found that,
whether the workers' directors were outstanding performers or not, their presence, though valued as enhancing democratic control, had no effect on
the feelings of alienation on the shop floor or on performance (Thorsrud and Emery, 1964; 1969). Accordingly, it was proposed that a complementary
approach be tried - that of securing the direct participation of workers in decisions about what was done at their own level. These findings were
widely discussed throughout the two Confederations and in the press. A consensus was reached that the mode of direct participation should be
tried. The committee chose two sectors of industry that were not doing well and that were of strategic importance for the future of the economy (paper
and pulp, and metal working). Criteria were established for selecting plants to conduct socio-technical field experiments that would serve as
demonstration projects. Joint committees within these sectors then chose likely plants which the research team visited to test their suitability and to secure local participation.
The research team made a study of the culture and history of Norwegian society. Industrialization had been late and more benign than in those European countries (or the United States) where industrialization had
occurred earlier. Industrial relations were stable at the national level where the two Confederations accepted their complementarity. Norway had not
passed through a period during which patterns of deference to authority had become entrenched. Traditions of egalitarianism were deep and had
been more continuously maintained than in most western societies. The hypothesis was made that this configuration would be favorable for the
development of direct participation in the workplace. These favorable conditions were strengthened by the homogeneity of the society and by its
small size. Members of key groups knew each other and overlapped. If they decided to move in a new direction, networks existed through which a wide support base could soon come into existence.
These contextual conditions permitted a series of four major socio-technical field experiments involving work restructuring not only to be launched but, in three cases, to be sustained (Thorsrud and Emery, 1964;
1969). Yet the hypothesis that widespread diffusion into Norwegian industry would occur from high profile field sites turned out to be wrong. They
became encapsulated (Herbst, 1976). The diffusion took place in Sweden at the end of the decade - when the Norwegian results created great interest in the Employers and Trade Union Associations. Thorsrud was
invited to visit. By 1973, between 50 and 1,000 work-improvement projects of various kinds, small and large, were going on in many different
industries. A new generation of Swedes (better educated and more affluent refused (by absenteeism and turnover) to do the dullest and most menial
jobs. The importation of Southern Europeans created social problems. Something had to be done. Managers and unions took up the Norwegian approach and adapted it to their own purposes.
After that, shifts in the macrosocial field in Scandinavia recentered attention on the representation of workers on boards of management just
when, in Germany, some interest appeared in direct worker participation. A number of laws have been passed in Norway and Sweden. In both countries a third of the members of the boards have to be workers'
The Shell Philosophy Project
In Britain a large-scale socio-technical project, begun by Shell (UK) with the Tavistock Institute in 1965, showed the need to develop a new
management philosophy to establish values and principles which could be seen by all to guide work redesign, if commitment was to be secured not
only from the various levels of management but also from the work force (Hill, 1971/Hill and Emery, Vol. II). This project began with a three-and-a-half day off-site meeting with the 11 most senior managers, the
internal consultants and four senior people from the Tavistock. It led to a whole series of two-and-a-half day, off-site residential conferences to
discuss the original draft philosophy and to amend and ratify it. These conferences involved all levels of the organization from the Board to the
shop floor and the outside trade union officials as well as the shop stewards.
After some four years, the advances brought about were arrested by an
exceedingly complex situation within both the company and the industry. The ways in which the clock began to be turned back are described in Hill's
(1971 /Hill and Emery, Vol. II) book. The approach, however, was taken up by Shell in other countries - Australia, Holland and, more recently, Canada.
It appears to be characteristic of innovative processes that after a certain time particular implementive sites reach their limit. The burden of
trailblazing is then taken up by others where favorable conditions emerge.
Meanwhile, what had happened regarding work restructuring and
participation, especially in Sweden, created interest in the United States. Though one or two pioneer socio-technical projects had been under way for
some time in the United States, it was not until 1972 that wider public interest was awakened. Notions of work alienation were popularized by the
media and associated with the threat of declining productivity in the face of Japanese and West German competition.
At an international conference held at Arden House in 1972, the term
"quality of working life" (QWL) was introduced by Louis Davis. While "industrial democracy" fitted most European countries, the term had
dangerous connotations in the United States at that time. Along with "Work in America" (Special Task Force, 1973; O'Toole, 1974), which extended
consideration to the mental health aspects of the workplace and the work/family interface, this conference set the tone for further developments.
In Bateson's ( 1972) sense, it repunctuated the field. The two volumes of papers emanating from it (Davis and Chems, 1975) became its standard reference work. Since then socio-technical concepts and methods have
become one input into a wider field concerned with changing social values and with studying the effects of values on organizations and their individual
members. The age of resource scarcity coincided with increasing recognition that advanced industrial societies were producing conditions
which were impoverishing the overall quality of life. The quality of life in the workplace is coming to be seen as a critical part of this overall quality. It is
now less accepted that boredom and alienation are inherently a part of work life for the majority, or that they must perforce accept authoritarian
control in narrow jobs. Examples can be pointed to in almost any industry of alternative forms of socio-technical relations where these negative features
do not have to be endured. For individuals and organizations alike, there is a choice.
In the 1950s the societal climate was negative toward socio-technical
innovation. Thirty years later, in the 1980s the societal climate has become more positive (Walton, 1979). Nevertheless, in most Western countries the
support base remains limited in face of the persisting power of the technocratic and bureaucratic mode. Yet this mode is being experienced as
increasingly dysfunctional in the more complex and uncertain conditions of the wider environment Emergent values are moving in the direction of
regarding personal growth and empowerment as human rights. All who wish them should have the opportunity to cultivate them. The workplace constitutes a key setting for this purpose. A Norwegian law of 1976 gives
workers the right to demand jobs conforming to Emery's six psychological principles that shaped the original socio-technical experiments of the Norwegian Industrial Democracy project:
¥ learning opportunity
¥ own decision power
¥ organizational support
¥ societal recognition
¥ a desirable future
In 1981 a second international conference was held, this time in Toronto,
Canada. The 200 people attending the first conference in 1972 were almost entirely academics. In 1981, 1,700-1,800 people attended, most of whom were either managers or trade unionists. The real-world people were
in the process of taking over. A large number of those present, including myself, expected a solid further development to take place during the 1980s. By and large, however, this has not happened. There has been
much stagnation. Only in the last three or four years has the forward movement resumed. It cannot be said, even now, that it has become mainstream in any country. To make it so is the EXCITING NEXT TASK !