Sociotechnical systems theory

Sociotechnical systems theory

Sociotechnical systems theory is theory about the social aspects of people and society and technical aspects of machines and technology. Sociotechnical refers to the interrelatedness of "social" and "technical" aspects of an organisation. Sociotechnical theory therefore is about "joint optimization", with a shared emphasis on achievement of both excellence in technical performance and quality in people's work lives. Sociotechnical theory, as distinct from socio-technical systems, proposes a number of different ways of achieving joint optimisation. They are usually based on designing different kinds of organisation, ones in which the relationships between socio and technical elements lead to the emergence of productivity and wellbeing.


Sociotechnical refers to the interrelatedness of "social" and "technical" aspects of an organisation. Sociotechnical theory is founded on two main principles:
* One is that the interaction of social and technical factors creates the conditions for successful (or unsuccessful) organisational performance. This interaction is comprised partly of linear ‘cause and effect’ relationships (the relationships that are normally ‘designed’) and partly from ‘non-linear’, complex, even unpredictable relationships (the good or bad relationships that are often unexpected). Whether designed or not, both types of interaction occur when socio and technical elements are put to work.
* The corollary of this, and the second of the two main principles, is that optimisation of each aspect alone (socio or technical) tends to increase not only the quantity of unpredictable, ‘un-designed’ relationships, but those relationships that are injurious to the system’s performance. Therefore sociotechnical theory is about "joint optimisation". Sociotechnical theory, as distinct from socio-technical systems, proposes a number of different ways of achieving joint optimisation. They are usually based on designing different kinds of organisation, ones in which the relationships between socio and technical elements lead to the emergence of productivity and wellbeing, rather than the all too often case of new technology failing to meet the expectations of designers and users alike.

The scientific literature shows terms like "sociotechnical" all one word, or "socio-technical" with a hyphen, "sociotechnical theory", "sociotechnical system" and "sociotechnical systems theory". All of these terms appear ubiquitously but their actual meanings often remain unclear. The key term 'sociotechnical' is something of a buzzword and its varied usage can be unpicked. What can be said about it, though, is that it is most often used to simply, and quite correctly, describe any kind of organisation that is comprised of people and technology. But, predictably, there is more to it than that.


Some of the central principles of sociotechnical theory were elaborated in a seminal paper by Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth in 1951. This is an interesting case study which, like most of the work in sociotechnical theory, is focused on a form of ‘production system’ expressive of the era and the contemporary technological systems it contained. The study was based on the paradoxical observation that despite improved technology, productivity was falling, and that despite better pay and amenities, absenteeism was increasing. This particular rational organisation had become irrational. The cause of the problem was hypothesized to be the adoption of a new form of production technology which had created the need for a bureaucratic form of organization (rather like classic C2). In this specific example, technology brought with it a retrograde step in organizational design terms. The analysis that followed introduced the terms ‘socio’ and ‘technical’ and elaborated on many of the core principles that sociotechnical theory subsequently became.

Responsible autonomy

Sociotechnical theory was pioneering for its shift in emphasis, a shift towards considering teams or groups as the primary unit of analysis and not the individual. Sociotechnical theory pays particular attention to internal supervision and leadership at the level of the ‘group’ and refers to it as ‘responsible autonomy’ Eric Trist & K. Bamforth (1951). "Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal getting", in: Human Relations, 4, pp.3-38. p.7-9.] The overriding point seems to be that having the simple ability of individual team members being able to perform their function is not the only predictor of combat effectiveness. There are a range of issues in team cohesion research, for example, that are answered by having the regulation and leadership internal to a group or team [Siebold, G. L. (1991). "The evolution of the measurement of cohesion". In: "Military Psychology", 11(1), 5-26.] . These, and other factors, play an integral and parallel role in ensuring successful teamwork which sociotechnical theory exploits.The idea of semi-autonomous groups conveys a number of further advantages. Not least among these, especially in hazardous environments, is the often felt need on the part of people in the organisation for a role in a small primary group. It is argued that such a need arises in cases where the means for effective communication are often somewhat limited. As Carvalho [ P.V.R. Carvalho (2006). "Ergonomic field studies in a nuclear power plant control room". In: "Progress in Nuclear Energy", 48, pp. 51-69 ] states, this is because “…operators use verbal exchanges to produce continuous, redundant and recursive interactions to successfully construct and maintain individual and mutual awareness…”. The immediacy and proximity of trusted team members makes it possible for this to occur. The co-evolution of technology and organizations brings with it an expanding array of new possibilities for novel interaction. Responsible autonomy could become more distributed along with the team(s) themselves. The key to responsible autonomy seems to be to design an organization possessing the characteristics of small groups whilst preventing the ‘silo-thinking’ and ‘stovepipe’ neologisms of contemporary management theory. In order to preserve “…intact the loyalties on which the small group [depend] …the system as a whole [needs to contain] its bad in a way that [does] not destroy its good”. In practice [A. Rice (1958). "Productivity and social organisation: The Ahmedabad experiment". London: Tavistock.] this requires groups to be responsible for their own internal regulation and supervision, with the primary task of relating the group to the wider system falling explicitly to a group leader. This principle, therefore, describes a strategy for removing more traditional command hierarchies.


Carvajal [ R. Carvajal (1983). "Systemic netfields: the systems’ paradigm crises. Part I". In: "Human Relations" 36(3), pp.227-246.] states that “the rate at which uncertainty overwhelms an organisation is related more to its internal structure than to the amount of environmental uncertainty”. Sitter in 1997 offered two solutions for organisations confronted, like the military, with an environment of increased (and increasing) complexity:“The first option is to restore the fit with the external complexity by an increasing internal complexity. ...This usually means the creation of more staff functions or the enlargement of staff-functions and/or the investment in vertical information systems”. [ Sitter, L. U., Hertog, J. F. & Dankbaar, B., "From complex organizations with simple jobs to simple organizations with complex jobs", in: Human Relations, 50(5), 497-536, 1997. p. 498 ] . Vertical information systems are often confused for NEC but an important distinction needs to be made, which Sitter et al propose as their second option:“…the organisation tries to deal with the external complexity by ‘reducing’ the internal control and coordination needs. ...This option might be called the strategy of ‘simple organisations and complex jobs’”. This all contributes to a number of unique advantages. Firstly is the issue of ‘human redundancy’ [ D.M. Clark (2005). "Human redundancy in complex, hazardous systems: A theoretical framework". In: "Safety Science". Vol 43. pp. 655-677.] in which “groups of this kind were free to set their own targets, so that aspiration levels with respect to production could be adjusted to the age and stamina of the individuals concerned”. Human redundancy speaks towards the flexibility, ubiquity and pervasiveness of resources within NEC.

The second issue is that of complexity. Complexity lies at the heart of many organisational contexts (there are numerous organizational paradigms that struggle to cope with it). Trist and Bamforth (1951) could have been writing about these with the following passage: “A very large variety of unfavourable and changing environmental conditions is encountered ... many of which are impossible to predict. Others, though predictable, are impossible to alter.” Eric Trist & K. Bamforth (1951). "Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal getting", in: Human Relations, 4, pp.3-38. p.20-21.]

Many type of organisations are clearly motivated by the appealing ‘industrial age’, rational principles of ‘factory production’, a particular approach to dealing with complexity: “In the factory a comparatively high degree of control can be exercised over the complex and moving ‘figure’ of a production sequence, since it is possible to maintain the ‘ground’ in a comparatively passive and constant state”. On the other hand, many activities are constantly faced with the possibility of “untoward activity in the ‘ground’” of the ‘figure-ground’ relationship” The central problem, one that appears to be at the nub of many problems that 'classic' organisations have with complexity, is that “The instability of the ‘ground’ limits the applicability […] of methods derived from the factory”.

In Classic organisations problems with the moving ‘figure’ and moving ‘ground’ often become magnified through a much larger social space, one in which there is a far greater extent of hierarchical task interdependence. For this reason, the semi-autonomous group, and its ability to make a much more fine grained response to the ‘ground’ situation, can be regarded as ‘agile’. Added to which, local problems that do arise need not propagate throughout the entire system (to affect the workload and quality of work of many others) because a complex organization doing simple tasks has been replaced by a simpler organization doing more complex tasks. The agility and internal regulation of the group allows problems to be solved locally without propagation through a larger social space, thus increasing tempo.

Whole tasks

Another concept in sociotechnical theory is the ‘whole task’. A whole task “has the advantage of placing responsibility for the […] task squarely on the shoulders of a single, small, face-to-face group which experiences the entire cycle of operations within the compass of its membership.” The Sociotechnical embodiment of this principle is the notion of minimal critical specification. This principle states that, “While it may be necessary to be quite precise about what has to be done, it is rarely necessary to be precise about how it is done” [ A. Cherns (1976). "The principles of sociotechnical design". In: "Human Relations". Vol 29(8), pp.783-792. p.786 ] . This is no more illustrated by the antithetical example of ‘working to rule’ and the virtual collapse of any system that is subject to the intentional withdrawal of human adaptation to situations and contexts. The key factor in minimally critically specifying tasks is the responsible autonomy of the group to decide, based on local conditions, how best to undertake the task in a flexible adaptive manner. This principle is isomorphic with ideas like Effects Based Operations (EBO). EBO asks the question of what goal is it that we want to achieve, what objective is it that we need to reach rather than what tasks have to be undertaken, when and how. The EBO concept enables the managers to “…manipulate and decompose high level effects. They must then assign lesser effects as objectives for subordinates to achieve. The intention is that subordinates’ actions will cumulatively achieve the overall effects desired” [ J. Storr (2005). "A critique of effects-based thinking". RUSI Journal, 2005. p.33 ] . In other words, the focus shifts from being a scriptwriter for tasks to instead being a designer of behaviours. In some cases this can make the task of the manager significantly less arduous.

Meaningfulness of tasks

Effects Based Operations and the notion of a ‘whole task’, combined with adaptability and responsible autonomy, have additional advantages for those at work in the organization. This is because “for each participant the task has total significance and dynamic closure” as well as the requirement to deploy a multiplicity of skills and to have the responsible autonomy in order to select when and how to do so. This is clearly hinting at a relaxation of the myriad control mechanisms found in the more classically designed organizations like.

Greater interdependance (through diffuse processes such as globalisation) also bring with them an issue of size, in which “the scale of a task transcends the limits of simple spatio-temporal structure. By this is meant conditions under which those concerned can complete a job in one place at one time, i.e., the situation of the face-to-face, or singular group”. In other words, in classic organisations the ‘wholeness’ of a task is often diminished by multiple group integration and spatiotemporal disintegration. [ Eric Trist & K. Bamforth (1951). "Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal getting", in: Human Relations, 4, pp.3-38. p.14.] . The group based form of organization design proposed by sociotechnical theory combined with new technological possibilities (such as the internet) provide a response to this often forgotten issue, one that contributes significantly to joint optimisation.

Topics in sociotechnical systems theory

Socio-technical system

A sociotechnical system is the term usually given to any instantiation of socio and technical elements engaged in goal directed behaviour. Sociotechnical systems are a particular expression of sociotechnical theory, although they are not necessarily one and the same thing. Sociotechnical systems theory is a mixture of sociotechnical theory, joint optimisation and so forth and general systems theory. The term sociotechnical system recognises that organisations have boundaries and that transactions occur within the system (and its sub-systems) and between the wider context and dynamics of the environment. It is an extension of Sociotechnical Theory which provides a richer descriptive and conceptual language for describing, analysing and designing organisations. A Sociotechnical System, therefore, often describes a ‘thing’ (an interlinked, systems based mixture of people, technology and their environment).

Socio-technical systems approach

Socio-technical systems in organizational development is the term for an approach to complex organizational work design that recognizes the interaction between people and technology in workplaces. The term also refers to the interaction between society's complex infrastructures and human behaviour. In this sense, society itself, and most of its sub-structures, are complex socio-technical systems.

Job enrichment

Job enrichment in organizational development, human resources management, and organizational behavior, is the process of giving the employee a wider and higher level scope of responsibilitiy with increased decision making authority. This is the opposite of job enlargement, which simply would not involve greater authority. Instead, it will only have an increased number of duties. [ Richard M. Steers and Lyman W. Porte, "Motivation and Work Behavior", 1991. pages 215, 322, 357, 411-413, 423, 428-441 and 576.]

Job enlargement

Job enlargement means increasing the scope of a job through extending the range of its job duties and responsibilities. This contradicts the principles of specialisation and the division of labour whereby work is divided into small units, each of which is performed repetitively by an individual worker. Some motivational theories suggest that the boredom and alienation caused by the division of labour can actually cause efficiency to fall.

Job rotation

Job rotation is an approach to management development, where an individual is moved through a schedule of assignments designed to give him or her a breadth of exposure to the entire operation. Job rotation is also practiced to allow qualified employees to gain more insights into the processes of a company and to increase job satisfaction through job variation. The term job rotation can also mean the scheduled exchange of persons in offices, especially in public offices, prior to the end of incumbency or the legislative period. This has been practiced by the German green party for some time but has been discontinued


Motivation in psychology refers to the initiation, direction, intensity and persistence of behavior. [Geen, R. G. (1995), Human motivation: A social psychological approach. Belmont, CA: Cole.] Motivation is a temporal and dynamic state that should not be confused with personality or emotion. Motivation is having the desire and willingness to do something. A motivated person can be reaching for a long-term goal such as becoming a professional writer or a more short-term goal like learning how to spell a particular word. Personality invariably refers to more or less permanent characteristics of an individual's state of being (e.g., shy,extrovert, conscientious. As opposed to motivation, emotion refers to temporal states that do not immediately link to behavior (e.g., anger, grief, happiness).

Process improvement

Process improvement in organizational development is a series of actions taken to identify, analyze and improve existing processes within an organization to meet new goals and objectives. These actions often follow a specific methodology or strategy to create successful results.

Task analysis

Task analysis is the analysis of how a task is accomplished, including a detailed description of both manual and mental activities, task and element durations, task frequency, task allocation, task complexity, environmental conditions, necessary clothing and equipment, and any other unique factors involved in or required for one or more people to perform a given task. This information can then be used for many purposes, such as personnel selection and training, tool or equipment design, procedure design (e.g., design of checklists or decision support systems) and automation.

Work design

Work design or job design in organizational development is the application of socio-technical systems principles and techniques to the humanization of work. The aims of work design to improved job satisfaction, to improved through-put, to improved quality and to reduced employee problems, e.g., grievances, absenteeism.

See also

* Complex systems
* Cybernetics
* Feedback
* Social network
* Sociology
* Socio-technical systems
* Systems theory
* Systems science


Further reading

* Kenyon B. De Greene (1973). "Sociotechnical systems: factors in analysis, design, and management".
* Jose Luis Mate and Andres Silva (2005). "Requirements Engineering for Sociotechnical Systems".
* Enid Mumford (1985). "Sociotechnical Systems Design: Evolving Theory and Practice".
* William A. Pasmore and John J. Sherwood (1978). "Sociotechnical Systems: A Sourcebook".
* William A. Pasmore (1988). "Designing Effective Organizations: The Sociotechnical Systems Perspective".
* Pascal Salembier, Tahar Hakim Benchekroun (2002). "Cooperation and Complexity in Sociotechnical Systems".
* James C. Taylor and David F. Felten (1993). "Performance by Design: Sociotechnical Systems in North America".
* Eric Trist and H. Murray ed. (1993)."The Social Engagement of Social Science, Volume II: The Socio-Technical Perspective". Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
* James T. Ziegenfuss (1983). " Patients' Rights and Organizational Models: Sociotechnical Systems Research on mental health programs".
* Hongbin Zha (2006). " Interactive Technologies and Sociotechnical Systems: 12th International Conference, VSMM 2006, Xi'an, China, October 18-20, 2006, Proceedings".

External links

* Günter Ropohl, [ Philosophy os socio-technical systems] , in: Society for Philosophy and Technology, Spring 1999, Volume 4, Number 3, 1999.
* JP Vos, [ The making of strategic realities : an application of the social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann] , Technical Universiy of Eindhoven, Department of Technology Management, 2002.

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