What is sociotechnical systems theory?

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.

Optimizing systematically

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:

Responsible autonomy

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.

Meaningful tasks

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.

Whole tasks

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.

Key takeaways

  • 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.

Main Free Guides:

Related Leadership Concepts


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Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

RASCI Matrix

A RASCI matrix is used to assign and then display the various roles and responsibilities in a project, service, or process. It is sometimes called a RASCI Responsibility Matrix. The RASCI matrix is essentially a project management tool that provides important clarification for organizations involved in complex projects.

Flat Organizational Structure

In a flat organizational structure, there is little to no middle management between employees and executives. Therefore it reduces the space between employees and executives to enable an effective communication flow within the organization, thus being faster and leaner.

Tactical Management

Tactical management involves choosing an appropriate course of action to achieve a strategic plan or objective. Therefore, tactical management comprises the set of daily operations that support long strategy delivery. It may involve risk management, regular meetings, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.

High-Performance Management

High-performance management involves the implementation of HR practices that are internally consistent and aligned with organizational strategy. Importantly, high-performance management is a continual process where several different but integrated activities create a performance management cycle. It is not a process that should be performed once a year and then hidden in a filing cabinet.

Scientific Management

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