This work grew out of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in England.
They explored ways to improve productivity and morale in organizations through
"action research". Foremost in their assumptions is that organizations
"consist of the relation between a nonhuman system and a human system"
In the socio-technical view, both systems need to be considered when jointly
optimizing the two. Unlike top-down managerial approaches, they emphasize
bottom up participation, discretionary behavior, internalized regulation,
and work-group autonomy (Scott p. 111)
They also explored how organizations tried to survive in both social an
economic environments, largely through the development of semi-autnomous
group that have more flexibility. Through their action-based research they
try to create organizational forms that serve both the human community and
the interests of technical efficiency (Scott p. 112).
Socio-technical systems and Work Design
Tavistock/socio-technical theorists emphasize that both the social and technical
systems must be jointly optimized. Rational approaches ignore the psychological
and social needs of the workers when introducing new technologies, and tend
to overformalize the worker's activities and interactions in forcing a fit
between the worker and the technology.
They believe that repetitive, undemanding work undermine commitment and
performance motivation (Scott p. 249). At the work group level, competition
and close supervision causes stress, petty deceptions, scapegoating, and
low morale (Scott p. 249). It was first made apparent in a study of British
coal mines (Trist and Baumforth, 1951). The initial introduction of the
long-wall method disrupted social ties and autonomy in the mines and was
only effective after the social concerns were addressed.
Basically, they disagree with the rational system perspective that by standardizing
and routinizing work demands work performance is enhanced. Instead, a large
body of socio-technical research has focused on the social psychological
aspects of work and job characteristics required in effective work design.
Job characteristics research assumes that specific attributes of the job
such as variety, autonomy, and required interaction are associated with
worker motivation and job performance (Scott p. 250). Later research has
shown that these relationships are mediated by individual worker expectations
and needs (Hackman and Oldham, 1980). So far the theories are only weakly
supported, and the research suffers from methodological inconsistencies.
The socio-technical approach has focused more on work group interactions
than individual performance. Properly structured work groups, it is assumed,
can provide incentives, assistance, and social support better than individual
job design programs. Autonomous work groups, quality circles are popular
examples of this perspective. Groups are often given resources and responsibilities
for areas like safety and quality control and work as a team to indentify
and correct inefficiencies and work issues.
In situations of high uncertainty, the socio-technical approach emphasizes
the redundancy of functions over the redundancy of parts (Emery and Trist,
1965). Rather than reducing jobs to simple tasks that workers can be quickly
trained and replaced if necessary, train workers for multiple roles and
allow them to be self-regulating. Put workers in roles rather than jobs.