These days there are incessant debates about the adoption of Enterprise 2.0 platforms, tools and practices.
We’ve been here before … we just did not have the infrastructure or the tools, nor the awareness or skill levels of large numbers of people.
As information technology first began its relentless march into the daily lives of people in the areas of work (mainframes, early integrated systems, desktops computers in the workplace) and general information-seeking (early days of websites and the Web), thinkers and organizational development conultants began paying attention to the intersection of technology and sociology. Many of the grandfathers and grandmothers of the field of organizational development will find the material on socio-technical systems familiar, and perhaps refreshing in the context of networked workplaces.
The material outlined below comes from a comprehensive Wikipedia entry on Socio-technical Systems, and I have edited it for the purposes of this blog post.
Sociotechnical systems (or STS) in organizational development is 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 substructures, are complex sociotechnical systems. The term sociotechnical systems was coined in the 1960s by Eric Trist and Fred Emery, who were working as consultants at the Tavistock Institute in London.
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 sociotechnical 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.
It’s too intensive an experience to go into the deep details of STS here, but let me draw out a few of the core elements of socio-technical systems theory and principles. It should be self-evident that they are central to the examination and adoption of collaborative social computing in todays modern organizations
Sociotechnical refers to the interrelatedness of social and technical aspects of an organization. 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) organizational 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).
- 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.
Principles of Socio-technical Systems Theory
Some of the central principles of sociotechnical theory were elaborated in a seminal paper by Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth in 1951.
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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 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.
“…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’”.
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”
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.
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”
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”
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.
In classic organisations the ‘wholeness’ of a task is often diminished by multiple group integration and spatiotemporal disintegration.
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.
I’ve done a significant amount of editing above (by chopping out significant-but-complicated-and-jargon-laden parts of the extract from Wikipedia). Suffice it for now to say that socio-technical systems theory and principles anticipated the dynamic tension between the (potential) every-which-wayness of hyperlinked human activity while maintaining a fierce focus on the need for concentration ofn setting and achieving meaningful objectives that drive organizational performance.
It seems clear to me that as organizations explore and take action regarding the implementation of Enterprise 2.0 capabilities, knowledge work will need to be designed differently .. away from the linear ’cause-and-effect’ and sequential thinking evident in today’s job descriptions and organizational charts, towards adaptability, autonomy, whole tasks and individuals taking responsibility for the effectiveness of the networks in which they are engaged that address the organization’s objectives.
The socio-technical systems approach involves complex organizational work design that recognizes the interaction between people and technology in workplaces, as a subset or mirror of the interaction between society’s complex infrastructures and human behavior.
The elements of the approach brought to a specific organization are:
Job enrichment – 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.
Job enlargement – increasing the scope and reach of a job’s duties and responsibilities. This argues against over-specialisation and the division of labour whereby work is divided into small units, each of which is performed repetitively by an individual worker.
Job rotation - an approach to employee and management development. A schedule of varying assignments gives people a breadth of exposure to large parts of or the entire operation.
Motivation – stimulating and enhancing the initiation, direction, intensity and persistence of positive and constructive behaviors, or more simply increasing the desire and willingness to do something.
Process improvement – actions taken to identify, analyze and improve existing processes within an organization to meet new goals and objectives. ‘Process’ in a networked environment is an emerging area of study, as the linear BPR that has dominated the past two decades will be impacted, sometimes dramatically, by the dynamics of purposeful network activity.
Task analysis – how tasks are accomplished - information which can be used for many purposes, such as personnel selection and training, tool or equipment design, procedure design and automation. Again, the notion of ‘tasks’ will sometimes (often ?) see dramatic impact as networked activity around an objectives increases.
Work design – the application of sociotechnical 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.
Many thinkers and consultants in the Enterprise 2.0 space are recognizing and discussing the need to re-design knowledge work and the small and large structural elements of organizations, due to the growing pervasiveness of today’s information-flow infrastructure.
The principles and elements of socio-technical systems theory, and offshoots like Emery and Trist’s Participative Work Design (on which I have written before), are in my opinion very useful and practical sources for thinking through and implementing some of the changes … in mental models and in practices … that I believe will be necessary to obtain the latent potential available in purposeful social computing aimed at an organization’s objectives for better and more responsive performance.
I’ll be glad to learn what you think.
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