..to Tavistock's Anthology Volume II

The  Social Engagement of Social Science
Volume II
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.

(1) 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.

Macrosocial systems . 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  organizational.

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)

Source Influences

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.


(5) 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  was established.

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 level.

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.

Conceptual Developments

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.


(6) 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' representatives.

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 !