SOCIO-TECHNICAL SYSTEMS: CHANGE MANAGEMENT IN A PANDEMIC

INTRODUCTION

            The purpose of this paper was to review literature that discussed the evolution and application of an underlying theory used for the implementation of organizational change. The author chose to explore sociotechnical systems (STS). Given the stay in place and work from home impacts of Covid, STS can be a valuable framework for organizations and individuals. This paper will articulate the definition, evolution, and current application of STS as a change methodology. In addition, potential research opportunities will be introduced.

SOCIOTECHNICAL SYSTEMS ORIGINS

The principles of STS began through consulting work conducted by the Tavistock Institute, a research organization founded in 1946 (Trist, 1981). The original premise of the Tavistock Institute included that, “members were drawn from various social science disciplines, from psychoanalysis to economics, but it was to be problem- rather than discipline-centred” (Miller, 1993, para. 9). The goal of the institute was to address real world challenges with a multidisciplinary team.

Additionally, the Tavistock Institute was focused on conducting action research. This research, “is distinguishable in terms of its purpose, which is to influence or change some aspect of whatever is the focus of the research….Improvement and involvement are central to action research” (Robson, 2002, p. 215). Mumford (2006) postulated that, “The Tavistock pioneers believed that their research projects should not only be attempts to increase knowledge, but that they should also embrace the improvement of work situations that were unsatisfactory in human terms” (p. 318). Indeed, the Tavistock Institute believed that, “advances in social sciences could come only through involvement in tackling real-life human problems” (Miller, 1993, para. 9).

STS as a concept and term was coined by Trist and Bamforth (1951) when the authors were involved, as part of the Tavistock Institute, in a consulting engagement with British coal mines. The core challenge the authors addressed was a decrease in productivity despite increased mechanization. While the new mechanization promised greater efficiency and improved productivity, the adoption of these technologies led to labor disputes, higher absenteeism, and increased employee turnover within the British coal industry. Trist and Bamforth concluded that both technical and social systems were, “factors to be considered and postulated [and] that the relations between them should constitute a new field of inquiry” (Trist, 1981, p. 118).

STS definitions integrated social, or human elements, and technical tools within a larger context. Pasmore, Francis, Haldeman, & Shani (1982) proposed that STS could be defined when, “viewing organizations which emphasize[d] the interrelatedness of the functioning of the social and technological subsystems of the organization and the relation of the organization as a whole to the environment in which it operates” (p. 1182). Most STS definitions also carefully articulated the social and technical systems of work.

Social systems were the human elements of work for example, supervisory-subordinate relationships, motivation, and group membership. Trist (1981) suggested that social aspects included, “occupational roles and their structure, methods of payment, the supervisory relationship, [and] the work culture” (p. 133). Technical dimensions of work included tools, techniques, procedures, and devices that the social system used to accomplish the task of the organization. A current example of a technical system would be the installation of a new computer technology or program.

Ultimately, the goal of STS was the joint optimization of the social and technical systems meaning, “an organization will function optimally only if the social and technological systems of the organization are designed to fit the demands of each other and the environment” (Pasmore, Francis, Haldeman, & Shani, 1982, p. 1182). With joint optimization the social will not dominate the technical and the technical will not dominate the social; both will be equals. Pasmore, Francis, Haldeman, and Shani (1982) described this relationship:

Sociotechnical system interventions differ from socially focused methods in that they do not accept technology as given. Instead, arrangements of people and technology are examined to find ways to redesign each system for the benefit of the other in the context of the organizational mission and needs for survival. (p. 1182)

STS was distilled to six core principles (Burke, 2008). The first of these principles included STS as an open system. STS were impacted and embedded in an environment rather than isolated. The second core principle was that work organization consists of two interdependent systems: technical and social systems. These systems “are correlative in that one requires the other for the transformation of an input into an output” (Trist, 1981, p. 133). The third principle was that the work system was the basic unit, comprising a set of activities that make up a functioning whole, rather than single jobs and tasks. This principle was a reaction to the breaking of systems into smaller, discrete subsets and can be viewed as the anti-assembly line viewpoint. The fourth principle was that the work group was central to the system rather than the individual employee. In STS the team was considered more productive than individuals. The fifth principle leveraged principle four for regulation of the system was performed by the group, instead of supervisors. This principle has led to research and discussion of self-managed work teams and semi-autonomous work groups. Finally, the sixth principle was that “an individual worker is complementary to the machine, rather than an extension of it” (Burke, 2008, p. 39).

As a result of the STS research and intervention conducted by the Trist and Bamforth in the British coal mines, “Absenteeism dropped by one-half, productivity increased by 95% compared with 78% before technology, and fewer conflicts and labor disputes occurred” (Daft, 1988, p. 159). These results were satisfying for the Tavistock Institute, as well as, Trist and Bamforth who concluded that STS research and implementation should be conducted in industry settings because, “Work organizations exist to do work—which involves people using technology artifacts (whether hard or soft) to carry out sets of tasks related to specified overall purposes” (Trist, 1981, p. 121).

EVOLUTION OF SOCIOTECHNICAL SYSTEMS

At its inception in the late 1940s and early 1950s, STS was influenced by the mechanization and strategies of WWII. Trist (1981) recalled that, “Then came World War II. A new military sociotechnical system appeared in the form of the German Panzer Divisions, formidably competent in the way they linked men and machines to fit their purposes” (p. 124). Trist also outlined that as the war progressed, military strategists emphasized small group formations because they, “recogniz[ed] their power to make flexible decisions and to remain cohesive under rapidly changing conditions” (p. 124).

Once the war was over and reconstruction began, STS ran counter to the prevailing assembly line and industrial approach. Given that there was a large labor pool available due to soldiers returning to civilian roles, as well as the need to reconstruct core infrastructure and key industries that had been decimated by the war, work was organized in a “one-person/one-job unit” (Trist, 1981, p. 125). This approach broke apart the work system into an assembly line approach where no group shared the ownership of a completed product. In addition, command and control hierarchies, similar to early military structures, were implemented and maintained.

Despite these challenges, STS and its proponents studied and implemented STS programs in a number of industries including, textiles, steel, and health care during the mid-1950’s and 1960’s. During this time, STS was influenced by Lewin’s (1951) research on group decision making and “on the commitment to action consequent on participation and on the performance superiority of the democratic mode” (Trist, 1981, pp. 124-125). Lewin’s influence brought forth new applications of STS as a tool for union negotiation and the development of democracy.

In the 1970’s, STS seemed to reach a high point in popularity (Mumford, 2006; Pasmore, Francis, Haldeman, & Shani, 1982, Trist, 1981). During this decade environmental factors were conducive for the implementation of STS because industry was expanding and there were frequent difficulties between labor and management. Trist (1981) recalled increased recognition and acknowledgement that, “advanced industrial societies were producing conditions that were impoverishing the overall quality of life” (p. 137). In addition, in 1972, the Council for the Quality of Working Life was founded, thus “internationalizing” the socio-technical movement (Mumford, 2006). At the core of this movement was that, “work-tasks should be redesigned to generate worker satisfaction and harmony in the workplace” (Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 2010).

In a comprehensive historical review of STS, Pasmore, Francis, Haldeman, & Shani (1982) summarized over 130 STS research efforts that occurred in North America in the 1970s. These studies explored STS in a range of organizations and industries including, the armed forces, management information systems interventions, production facilities, the automobile industry, and healthcare. The most prevalent features of these studies included the use of autonomous work groups, technical skill development, and alternative reward systems based on STS principles (Pasmore, Francis, Haldeman, & Shani, 1982).

Mumford (2006) observed a diminished interest in STS research and implementation during the 1980s and 1990s. One speculation for this diminished interest included the rise and application of lean manufacturing concepts. The goal of lean manufacturing was to “achieve the highest possible productivity and total quality, cost effectively, by eliminating unnecessary steps in the production process and continually striving for improvement” (Bateman, & Snell, 2009, p. 343). For the lean approach to be effective several conditions, which were similar to the core principles of STS, were needed including, a broadly trained workforce, informal peer communication, general purpose equipment, an emphasis on teams to produce products, long-term, cooperative relationships with suppliers, and the use of cross-functional teams (Bateman, & Snell, 2009). Lean manufacturing proved to be a more cost-effective change methodology than STS interventions.

Finally, while STS was first implemented as a model to improve industry productivity and efficiency, it transformed into a worldview. Mumford (2003) wrote:

Socio-technical systems design provides a new worldview of what constitutes quality of working life and humanism at work. It facilitates organizational innovation by recommending the removal of many elite groups and substituting flatter hierarchies, multiskilling and group decision-making. It wants to replace tight controls, bureaucracy and stress with an organization and technology that enhances human freedom, democracy and creativity. (p. 262)

Mumford (2006) continued to reflect on a broader purpose for STS when stating that STS were, “seen by its creators as a means for optimizing the intelligence and skills of human beings and associating these with new technologies that would revolutionize the way we live and work” (Mumford, 2006, p. 320).

CURRENT APPLICATION

Given Mumford’s (2006) optimistic viewpoint on the blending of the social and the technical one would expect that current STS interventions would demonstrate a symbiotic relationship between man and machine. However, this did not appear to be the case (Ure, et al., 2009). Current STS research demonstrated that technology was the primary driver of changes to the social systems in organizations rather than a more balanced change driven by both technology and social factors. Doherty and King (2005) found that:

the implementation of information technology within organizations almost invariably results in a wide variety of, often very significant, impacts upon the design of the business, its economic performance and the working conditions of members of staff; technical change is the catalyst for organizational change. (p. 1)

In addition, the authors concluded that “progress in producing socio-technical approaches that explicitly address the human and organizational aspects of systems development projects, has been painfully slow” (p. 2).

To balance these views Luna-Reyes, Zhang, Gil-Garcia, and Cresswell (2005), sharing a viewpoint similar to Mumford (2006), suggested that, “Information technology has the potential to change social and organizational structures and simultaneously be affected by these structures in its design, implementation, and use.” (Luna-Reyes, Zhang, Gill-Garcia, & Cresswell, 2005, p. 94). A key component to the effective use of STS will be leadership that focuses on the end result and construct change management programs that balance man and machine (Lee, Kim, Paulson, & Park, 2008). Berg, Mortberg, and Jansson (2005) cautioned that, “the development and use of technology emanates from and remains linked with human values, dreams, needs and circumstances prevalent in society.” (Berg, Mortberg, & Jansson, 2005, p. 346).

Information Technology

Much of the current research in STS was focused on the adoption and implementation of information technology (IT) such as IT infrastructure (Hermann, Hoffman, Junau, & Loser, 2004; Luna-Reyes, Zhang, Gil-Garcia, & Cresswell, 2005), knowledge management (Herrmann, Loser, & Jahnke, 2007), mobile technology (Berg, Mortberg, & Jansson, 2005), and social networks (Bryl, Giorgini, & Mylopoulos, 2009). The ultimate goal of STS in IT program adoption and implementation was represented by Lee, Kim, Paulson, and Park’s (2008) model shown in figure 1.

Figure 1:                                                         Adapted from Lee, Kim, Paulson, & Park, 2008

            Since STS was a systemic construct unintended consequences could likely be catastrophic (Winner, 2004). Winner (2004) presented the vulnerability inherit in STS citing examples of “dirty” nuclear bombs, and Y2K. Other examples included the Space Shuttle Columbia’s disintegration, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant reactor explosion (Tarn, Wen, & Shih, 2008). Tarn, Wen, and Shih (2008) suggested that catastrophic failures of STS were created through a combination of breakdowns in the human and technical domain. The breakdowns in the human domain include economic, training, procedural, operational complacency, and construction deficiency. Breakdowns in the technical domain included system design flaws and equipment failures. Tarn, Wen, and Shih (2008) concluded that STS failures occur when, “complicated cascading situations overwhelm control systems that will either prematurely shutdown the system or not respond because it does not recognize what’s going on” (p. 258).

Bionics

            The field of bionics was an application of STS and may be, in this author’s estimation, the pinnacle of the concept of integrating man and machine. The etymology of bionics comes, “from bi (as in “life”) + onics (as in “electronics”); the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms” (Fischman, 2010, p. 35). Fischman (2010) presented several experimental bionics called neural prostheses. The neural prostheses take the place of missing or damaged body parts and were “embedded in…nervous systems that respond to commands from their brains” (p. 39). This technology has been used to replace arms, provide vision for the blind, hearing for the deaf, and may someday be used for artificial skin that could sense temperature and touch.

            The technique used to connect the brain and the prostheses was, “called targeted muscle reinnervation [and] uses nerves remaining after an amputation to control an artificial limb” (Fischman, 2010, p. 40). Fischman used the analogy of severed telephone wires to describe this technique. The telephone wires, in this case nerves and muscles, were still connected to the brain yet are severed at the site of the amputation. By connecting electronics to these nerves and muscles the brain can, with practice and patience, command the prostheses. However, Fischman (2010) cautioned that, “As scientists have learned that it’s possible to link machine and mind, they have also learned how difficult it is to maintain that connection” (p. 40).

Self-Managed Work Teams

Self-managed work teams continue to be explored (Elloy, 2008; Frankforter & Christensen, 2005; Muthusamy, Wheeler, & Simmons, 2005) in current studies. This research continues because, “The emergence of the knowledge worker has resulted in escalating numbers of highly educated, self-motivated specialists who often know more about their particular work area than their managers” (Muthusamy, Wheeler, & Simmons, 2005, p. 54). In addition, there was value to both the individual and the corporation for adopting semi-autonomous teams. The expected benefits for individuals included increased job satisfaction, improved communication, shorter decision times, and improved employee self-esteem. The expected benefits for corporations included cost control, speed and flexibility, and quality (Frankforter & Christensen, 2005). Dankbaar (1997) proposed that, “The approach [STS] advocated a better balance between the social and the technical aspects of production systems and proposed the introduction of semi-autonomous work groups as a key element in high-motivation-high-productivity organizations.” (p. 570). Finally, “The socio-technical perspective focuses on the work environment of teams and advocates that team members will experience job enrichment when both the technical and social aspects of the work are jointly optimized as a system” (Muthusamy, Wheeler, & Simmons, 2005, p. 56).

STS IN A PANDEMIC

            A silver lining of the Covid Pandemic could be the rise in STS awareness as organizations quickly sent home entire workforces and figured out how to manage their businesses in a remote environment. For example, Zoom saw its February-April 2020 quarter revenue increase over double than the same quarter in 2019, $328 million to $122 million (Kastrenakes, 2020). This dramatic increase indicated the awareness of leveraging technical tools to support productivity, social connection and team continuity.

Health care organizations rapidly moved into video consultations with mixed results as reported by providers (Jimenez-Rodriguez, Garcia, Robles, Salvador, Ronda & Arrogante, 2020). Health care providers indicated that there were many clinical situations and diseases where video consultations would be appropriate, efficient and effective. For example, medical follow-up appointments may be more efficient through video consultant. Challenges with the use of video consultation included technology training, technology reliability and readiness (Jimenez-Rodriguez, et al., 2020) demonstrating the complexity of STS in the health care arena.

College campuses became STS labs as courses at many campuses moved from face-to-face to online. At the author’s university approximately 80% of courses in the Spring 2020 semester needed to transition from face-to-face to online. Faculty spent over 400 hours in a self-help resource from March-June 2020. Over 60 technology support sessions were hosted in March and April of 2020. These aggressive numbers demonstrate the challenge, and opportunity, the pandemic brought to the STS of the university.

RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES

            Given the current pandemic, a potential research opportunity could include a survey of leaders regarding the technical needs that were implemented and what social impacts were realized and considered. The research could also include an exploration of technical and social changes that were made from the start of the pandemic until now i.e., what systems were implemented and how they were received by the members of the organization. A research study that would be particularly interesting to this author would be in higher education and how learning management systems and pedagogy has changed and flexed given the pandemic and more to online and hybrid course offerings.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of this paper was to review current literature discussing the evolution and application of an underlying theory used for the implementation of change in organizations. Potential research opportunities related to the Covid pandemic were introduced. The impact of STS and the Covid pandemic was best summarized by Mumford (2006);

The most important thing that socio-technical design can contribute is its value system. This tells us that although technology and organizational structures may change, the rights and needs of the employee must be given as high a priority as those of the non-human parts of the system (p. 338).

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