Socio-Technical Systems

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" (Trist, 1981).

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.