Socio-technical theory

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Socio-technical theory


Acronym

STS, STT

Alternate name(s)

Socio-technical systems

Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)

N/A

Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)

People, technology, tasks

Concise description of theory

In the middle of the 20th century some of the optimistic predictions of the impact of technology on business efficiency and productivity were being confounded. There were many examples of the introduction of technology being associated with implementation problems often linked to resistance by the work force and a failure to achieve the expected benefits. Researchers, notably at the Tavistock Institute in London, with a background in the behavioural sciences (Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology) suggested that what was needed was a fit between the technical sub-system and the social subsystem which together made up an organization.

The technical subsystem comprises the devices, tools and techniques needed to transform inputs into outputs in a way which enhances the economic performance of the organization. The social system comprises the employees (at all levels) and the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and needs they bring to the work environment as well as the reward system and authority structures that exist in the organization. Later some authorities broadened the definitions to encompass the wider reach of the organization by including customers, suppliers, and the rules and regulations, formal and informal, which govern the relations of the organization to society at large. This became known as the environmental subsystem. The cornerstone of the sociotechnical approach, as the work of these researchers became named, was that the fit was achieved by a design process aiming at the joint optimization of the subsystems: any organizational systems will maximise performance only if the interdependency of these subsystems is explicitly recognised. Hence any design or redesign must seek out the impact each subsystem has on the other and design must aim to achieve superior results by ensuring that all the subsystems are working in harmony.

A number of authorities have outlined the way sociotechnical principles can be implemented. Albert Cherns enunciated a set of sociotechnical design principles in 1976 (Cherns, 1976) and these were updated in 2000 by Chris Clegg to encompass the new Internet based ICT (Clegg, 2000). Enid Mumford based an IS development methodology called ETHICS on sociotechnical principles (Mumford, 1995. Mumford 2003). She has published many detailed case studies involving the use of ETHICS.

Two sometimes conflicting set of values underlie much sociotechnical thinking (Land, 2000). The first is a belief in the importance of humanistic principles. The main task of the designer is to enhance the quality of working life and the job satisfaction of the employee. In turn the achievement of these objectives will enhance productivity and yield added value to the organization. The second set reflects managerial values. Sociotechnical principles are merely instruments for achieving primarily economic objectives. Humanistic objectives have no value in themselves but if their achievement produces a better performance from employees leading to the fulfilment of the economic objectives well and good. This conflict has led to suspicion of sociotechnical ideas by managers and employees as represented, for example, by trade unions. Nevertheless, sociotechnical ideas permeate much IS thinking even if not always referred to as such (Avgerou et al, 2004).

Sources:

Avgerou, C., Ciborra, C. and Land, F.F., editors, (2004), The Social Study of Information and Communications Technology: Innovation, Actors and Context, Oxford, OUP
Bostrom, R., Heinen, J. S., (1977), MIS Problems and Failures: A Socio-Technical Perspective, MIS Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3
Cherns, A., (1976), The Principles of Sociotechnical Design, Human Relations, Vol.2, No. 9, pp 783-792
Clegg, C.W., (2000), Sociotechnical Principles for Systems Design, Applied Ergonomics, Vol. 31, pp 463-477
Land, F.F., (2000), Evaluation in a Socio-Technical Context, in Basskerville, R., Stage, J., and DeGross, J.I., Organizational and Social Perspectives on Information Technology, pp.115- 126, Boston, Kluwer Academic Publishers
Mumford, E., (1995), Effective Systems Design and Requirements Analysis: The ETHICS Approach, London, Macmillan
Mumford, E., (2003), Redesigning Human Systems, Hershey, IRM Press

Diagram/schematic of theory

Sts.JPG

Originating author(s)

Eric Trist and Hugh Murray, Albert Cherns, Enid Mumford, Fred Emery, H.J. Leavitt, Frank Heller

See Mumford E., (2003) Redesigning Human Systems, IRM Press for a good summery of the development of the sociotechnical movement in many countries: Chapter 2, Socio-Technical Design: Its Early History pp 12-32.

In IS: Robert Bostrom and J. Stephen Heinen, Enid Mumford and Mary Weir, Frank Land and John Hawgood, Lynne Marcus, Rob Kling, Harold Sackman

Seminal articles

Bostrom, R. P., & Heinen, J. S., (1977). MIS problems and failures: A socio-technical perspective, MIS Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 17-32

Cherns, A., (1976), The principles of sociotechnical design, Human Relations, Vol. 29, No. 8, pp. 783-792.

Coakes, E, Willis, D., and Lloyd-Jones, R. (eds.) 2000, The New Sociotech: Graffiti on the Longwall, London Springer Verlag

Heller, F. (1997) Sociotechnology and the Environment, Human Relations, Vol. 50, No 5, pp. 605-624.

Kling, R., (1980), Social analyses of computing: Theoretical perspectives in recent empirical research, ACM Computing Surveys, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp: 61-110.

Land, F.F., (1987), Social Aspects of Information Systems, in Management Information Systems: The Technological Challenge, N Piercy (ed.), Croom-Helm, Beckenham, pp 11-57.

Leavitt, H.J., (1965). Applied organization change in industry: Structural, technical, and human approaches; new perspectives in organizational research, in March, J.G (ed.) Handbook of Organizations, Chicago, Rand McNally, p55-71.

Lindholm, R., and Norstedt, J.P., (1975), The Volvo Report, Swedish Employers ‘ Confederation

Markus, L., (1983), Power, politics, and MIS implementation, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 26, No. 6, pp. 430-444

Mumford, E., and Banks, O., (1967), The Computer and the Clerk, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul

Mumford, E., Land, F.F., Hawgood, J., (1980), Training the Systems Analyst of the 1980's: Four New Design Tools to Assist the Design Process, in Lucas, H., Land, F.F., Lincoln, T., and Supper, K., (eds.), The Information Systems Environment, North Holland.

Mumford, E. and Weir, M., (1979), Computer Systems and work Design: The ETHICS Method, New York, Wiley & Sons.

Passmore, W.A., Social Science Transformer: The Socio-Technical Perspective, Human Relations, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 1-22

Trist, E., & Murray, H., (1993), The Social Engagement of Social Science: A Tavistock Anthology (vol. II), , Philadelphia , University of Pennsylvania Press.

Originating area

Sociology, Human Relations, Management of Change, Systems Theory, Information Systems Design and Implementation

Level of analysis

The Organization, its employees and its environment

IS articles that use the theory

In its 50-60 year history sociotechnical theory and sociotechnical practice has accumulated a very large literature. Sociotechnical ideas began to be used in the IT/IS field in the 1960s. Below we have listed a representative sample of the IT related literature. It is in no way complete, and does not necessarily list all the important papers. It is also largely confined to papers from English speaking sources. We welcome any proposed additions stemming from other sources.

Adman, P., & Warren, L. 2000. Participatory sociotechnical design of organizations and information systems - an adaptation of ethics methodology. Journal of Information Technology, 15(1): 39-51.

Al-Mudimigh, A., Zairi, M., & Al-Mashari, M. 2001. ERP software implementation: An integrative framework. , 10(4): 216.

Alter, S., 2003, 18 Reasons Why IT-Reliant Work Systems Should Replace “The IT Artefact” as the Core Subject Matter of the IS Field, Communications of the AIS, Volume 12, Article 23

Bjorn, E and Munkvold, E, 2000, The Influence of Sociotechnical principles on Modern Organizational Change Practices in Coakes, E, Willis, D., and Lloyd-Jones, R. (eds.), The New Sociotech: Graffiti on the Longwall, London Springer Verlag

Bostrom, Robert P., & Heinen, J. S. 1977. MIS problems and failures: A socio-technical perspective. MIS Quarterly, 1(4): 11.

Carayon, Pascale, & Karsh, Ben-Tzion. Jun2000. Sociotechnical issues in the implementation of imaging technology. Behaviour & Information Technology, 19(4): p247-262.

Child, J., Mumford, E., & Beekman, G. 1995. Tools for change and progress - a sociotechnical approach to business process reengineering. New Technology Work and Employment, 10(2): 151-154.

Clegg, C. W., (2000), Sociotechnical principles for systems design, Applied Ergonomics, Vol. 31, pp 463-477

Clegg, C.W., Waterson, P., & Carey, N. 1994. Computer-supported collaborative working - lessons from elsewhere. Journal of Information Technology, 9(2): 85-98.

Clegg, Chris W., Waterson, Patrick E., & Axtell, Carolyn M. 1996. Software development: Knowledge-intensive work organizations. Behaviour & Information Technology, 15(4): 237-249.

Cooper, Joan, Gencturk, Nilay, & Lindley, Robyn A. Jan1996. A sociotechnical approach to smart card systems design: An Australian case study. Behaviour & Information Technology, 15(1): 3-13.

Davis, Gordon B., Lee, Allen S., Nickles, Kathryn R., Chatterjee, Sanjay, Hartung, Robert, & Wu, Youlan. 1992. Diagnosis of an information system failure. Information and Management, 23(5): 293-318.

Degreene, K. B. 1991. Rigidity and fragility of large sociotechnical systems - advanced information technology, the dominant coalition, and paradigm shift at the end of the 20th-century. Behavioral Science, 36(1): 64-79.

Eason, Ken. 2001. Changing perspectives on the organizational consequences of information technology. Behaviour & Information Technology, 20(5): 323-328.

Frohlich, Markham T., & Dixon, J. R. 1999. Information systems adaptation and the successful implementation of advanced manufacturing technologies. Decision Sciences, 30(4): 921-957.

Galliers, R. D., Swatman , P. M. C., & Swatman, P. A. 1995. Strategic information-systems planning - deriving comparative advantage from EDI. Journal of Information Technology, 10(3): 149-157.

Goodman, E. C. 1998. A methodology for the 'user-sensitive implementation' of information systems in the pharmaceutical industry: A case study. International Journal of Information Management, 18(2): 121-138.

Griffith, Terri L., Fuller, Mark A., & Northcraft, Gregory B. 1998. Facilitator influence in group support systems: Intended and unintended effects. Information Systems Research, 9(1): 20.

Grover, Varun, & Jeong, Seung R. 1995. The implementation of business process reengineering. Journal of Management Information Systems, 12(1): 109.

Herrmann, Thomas, & Loser, Kai-Uwe. 1999. Vagueness in models of socio-technical systems. Behaviour & Information Technology, 18(5): 313-323.

Hirschheim, R, & Kleini, H. K. 1994. Realizing emancipatory principles in information systems development: The case for ETHICS. MIS Quarterly, 18(1): 83.

Iivari, J., & Hirschheim, R. 1996. Analyzing information systems development: A comparison and analysis of eight IS development approaches. Information Systems, 21(7): 551-575.

Keen, Peter G. W. 1981. Information system and organizational change. Communications of the ACM, 24(1): 24.

Kendall, Julie E., & Kendall, Kenneth E. 1993. Metaphors and methodologies: Living beyond the systems machine. MIS Quarterly, 17(2): 149.

Kettinger, William J., & Teng, James T. C. 1997. Business process change: A study of methodologies, techniques, and tools. MIS Quarterly, 21(1): 55.

Kling, Rob, & Courtright, Christina. 2003. Group behaviour and learning in electronic forums: A sociotechnical approach. Information Society, 19(3): 221.

Kling, Rob, McKim, Geoffrey, & King, Adam. 2003. A bit more to it: Scholarly communication forums as socio-technical interaction networks. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 54(1): 47-67.

Lamb, R. 1996. Of bicycles, bakelite, and bulbs: Toward a theory of sociotechnical change. Information Processing & Management, 32(5): 644-646.

Lamb, Roberta, & Kling, Rob. 2003. Reconceptualizing users as social actors in information systems research. MIS Quarterly, 27(2): 197-235

Land, F.F., and Hirschheim, R., 1983, Participative Systems Design: Its Rationale, Tools and Techniques, Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, Vol. 10, April

Langefors, B. 1966. Theoretical analysis of information systemsStudentlitteratur, Lund, Sweden.

Langefors, Borje. 1978. Discussion of the article by Bastrom and Heinen:MIS problems and failures: A socio-technical perspective. MIS quarterly, 2(2): 55.

Lin, A. and Cornford, T. 2000, Sociotechnical Perspectives on Emergence Phenomena, in Coakes, E, Willis, D., and Lloyd-Jones, R. (eds.) The New Sociotech: Graffiti on the Longwall, London, Springer Verlag

Lu, S. C. Y., & Cai, J. 2000. Stars: A socio-technical framework for integrating design knowledge over the internet. IEEE Internet Computing, 4(5): 54-62.

Luna-Reyes, Luis F., Zhang, Jing, x00F3, n#Gil-García, J. R., & Cresswell, Anthony M. 2005. Information systems development as emergent socio-technical change: A practice approach. European Journal of Information Systems, 14(1): 93-105.

Lyytinen, Kalle, & Mathiassen, Lars. 1998. Attention shaping and software risk--A categorical analysis of four classical risk management approaches. Information Systems Research, 9(3): 233-255.

Markus, Lynne. 1983. Power, politics, and MIS implementation. Communications of the ACM, 26(6): 430.

Molina, A. H. 1990. Transputers and transputer-based parallel computers - sociotechnical constituencies and the buildup of british european capabilities in information technologies. Research Policy, 19(4): 309-333.

Molina, A. H. 1995. Sociotechnical constituencies as processes of alignment: The rise of a large-scale european information technology initiative. Technology in Society, 17(4): 385-412.

Mumford, E. 1983. Designing human systems, the ETHICS approachManchester Business School, Manchester, U.K.

Mumford, E. 1983. Designing participatively: A participative approach to computer systems design, Manchester Business School, Manchester, England.

Mumford, E. 2000, Socio-technical design: An Unfulfilled Promise or a future Opportunity, in Baskerville, R., Stage, J., and DeGross, J.I., Organizational and Social Perspectives on Information Technology, pp 33-46, Boston, Kluwer academic Publications

Mumford, E., & Weir, M. 1979. Computer systems in work design-the ETHICS method, Associated Business Press, London.

Mumford, E., Land, F.F. and Hawgood, J., (1978), A Participative Approach to Planning and Designing Computer Systems and Procedures to Assist This, Impact of Science on Society, Vol. 28, No.3.

Mumford, E., Land, F.F. and Hawgood, J., (1978), A Participative Approach to Forward Planning and Systems Change, published in Information Systems Methodologies - Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Vol. 65, Springer Verlag.

Paddock, C. E. 1986. A critical-view of factors affecting successful application of normative and sociotechnical systems-development approaches. Information & Management: 49-57.

Palvia, S. C., Sharma , R. S., & Conrath, D. W. 2001. A socio-technical framework for quality assessment of computer information systems. Industrial Management & Data Systems, 101(5-6): 237-251.

Rivlin, Ehud, Botafogo, Rodrigo, Shneiderman, & Ben. 1994. Navigating in hyperspace: Designing a structure-based toolbox. Association for Computing Machinery.Communications of the ACM, 37(2): 87.

Ryan, Sherry D., & Harrison, David A. 2000. Considering social subsystem costs and benefits in information technology investment decisions: A view from the field on anticipated payoffs. Journal of Management Information Systems, 16(4): 11.

Ryan, Sherry D., Harrison, David A., & Schkade, Lawrence L. 2002. Information-technology investment decisions: When do costs and benefits in the social subsystem matter? Journal of Management Information Systems, 19(2): 85-127.

Shani, A. B., Grant, Robert M., Krishnan, R., & Thompson, Eric. 1992. Advanced manufacturing systems and organizational choice: Sociotechnical system approach. California management review, 34(4): 91.

Sharma, R. S., Conrath, D. W., & Dilts, D. M. 1991. A socio-technical model for deploying expert systems. I. the general theory. Engineering Management, IEEE Transactions on, 38(1): 14-23.

Stylianou, Anthony C., Madey, Gregory R., & Smith, Robert D. 1992. Selection criteria for expert system shells: A socio-technical framework. Communications of the ACM, 35(10): 30-48.

Sutcliffe, A. G. 2000. Requirements analysis for socio-technical system design. Information Systems, 25(3): 213-233.

Taylor, J. C. 1982. Designing an organization and an information-system for central stores - a study in participative socio-technical analysis and design. Systems Objectives Solutions, 2(2): 67-76.

Whitworth, Brian, & De Moor, Aldo. 2003. Legitimate by design: Towards trusted socio-technical systems. Behaviour & Information Technology, 22(1): 31.

Zemke, R. 1987. Sociotechnical systems: Bringing people and technology together. Training, 24: 47.

Links from this theory to other theories

General system theory, Actor network theory, Soft systems theory

External links

http://www.sociotechnical.org/archive.htm, A link to almost 500 Publications about the socio-technical approach

http://www.sociotechnical.org, website of British Computer Soceity Sociotechnical Group

http://www.essex.ac.uk/chimera, A post-disciplinary institute mainly involved in 'sociotechnical' research and consulting

http://www.bayswaterinst.org, An important part of the activity of this institute is sociotechnical

http://www.ifipwg82.org/tiki-index.php

Original Contributor(s)

Hamid Akbari and Frank Land

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