Sociotechnical systems theory (STS) is an organizational design approach with a core focus on the interaction between people and technology.
Understanding sociotechnical systems theory
Sociotechnical systems theory strives to identify and understand the relationship between the social and technical aspects of an organization.
English organizational behavior theorist Eric Trist was one of the first and most important contributors to the work behind the theory.
To better understand the coal mining industry and how it was changing in response to new technology, Trist conducted a study of World War II-era mines and their workers at the Tavistock Institute in London.
Trist and his counterparts found that a change in technology caused a social change in the mining company.
Workers were placed onto shifts where each individual performed the same task and each worked in relative isolation to the point where communication was difficult.
There was also an imbalance of managers to subordinates in each shift.
While technology was introduced to improve productivity, it had the opposite effect.
Workers became bored of performing repetitive tasks in the same location and instead preferred to move around completing different tasks.
In conclusion, Trist noted that the technical aspect of restructuring work did not consider the social aspect of the workers and their needs.
The two principles of sociotechnical systems theory
Sociotechnical systems theory is based on two main principles:
Interaction between social and technical factors
The interaction between social and technical factors within an organization creates the conditions necessary for optimal or sub-optimal performance.
This performance is driven by linear “cause and effect” relationships and also by non-linear relationships that tend to be unpredictable or unexpected.
The optimization of one aspect alone (either social or technical) increases the unpredictability of relationships that negatively impact organizational performance.
From these two principles, we can see that sociotechnical systems theory is concerned with joint optimization.
In other words, leaders must develop both the social and technical aspects so that each works in harmony with the other.
Sociotechnical systems theory defines this harmony as the holistic, interconnected contribution of technology within an organization and the people who operate or interact with it.
Both aspects should function in unison to efficiently create products and services and should be greater than the sum of their parts.
Sociotechnical systems theory in modern business
Compared to the relatively simple coal mining ventures of Trist’s day, modern businesses face added complexity as social and technical factors become more intertwined.
Consider the questions that arise when one seeks to define Twitter or Facebook, for example. Are they social media websites? Or perhaps social media companies?
Could they be considered cloud-based software based on hardware, or simply collections of users who are also members of a social media platform?
In truth, both companies are all of these things, but the point is that separating their social and technical aspects is difficult. Twitter’s tech would be worthless without its users, and its users would have little value without its tech.
When further complexity is introduced by dynamic markets and rigid management structures, it can start to interfere with productivity and organizational effectiveness.
To solve this problem and design businesses that are savvy, adaptable, and better able to navigate change, several best practices can be adopted:
Sociotechnical theory advocates responsibility at the team level and not the individual level.
Smaller teams who are free from silos share the load and can collaborate and communicate more effectively.
Adaptability and resilience
Sociotechnical systems focus on adaptability and are favored by organizational structures that adapt to change and can manage uncertainty.
When teams of employees have ownership of a task from start to finish, they consider their work to be more meaningful.
The likelihood of joint optimization is increased when meaningful tasks are combined with new technological possibilities afforded by the internet.
Similarly, teams who are responsible for a project across the entire lifecycle deliver better outcomes than if it involved multiple teams.
To increase productivity, sociotechnical theory posits that task precision is more important than how teams ensure the task is precise in the first instance.
- Sociotechnical systems theory (STS) is an organizational design approach with a core focus on the interaction between people and technology.
- Sociotechnical systems theory is based on two main principles. The first is that interaction between social and technical factors creates the conditions necessary for optimal or sub-optimal performance. The second is that optimizing one factor in isolation increases the chances of unexpected, sub-optimal outcomes.
- Modern businesses deal with complexity arising from technological integration and dynamic markets. This can be alleviated to some extent by four best practices that deal with responsible autonomy, adaptability and resilience, meaningful tasks, and whole tasks in project management.
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