The Advantages and Disadvantages of Conceptualising the Organisation as a Socio-Technical System
What Is A Socio-Technical System?
Before discussing advantages and disadvantages of applying socio-technical approach in companies, it is necessary to define it in a few words. Socio-technical system is a system which has both a material technology and a social organization (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2010). The former consist of the equipment and methods of operations used to transform raw materials into products or services; the latter includes the work structure that relates people to the technology and to each other. (Cummings, 1978) These definitions are pretty scarce and do not give us much information about the concept itself, but they are something to begin with. All other, more specific, aspects of socio-technical systems will be presented further in this essay.
Historical Background of the Idea of the Socio-Technical Systems
This concept was developed by Eric Trist and Kenneth Bamforth in mid-twentieth century. Why not earlier? Because at the beginning of the twentieth century there was no need for that kind of approach to organizational design. Ford’s assembly line and Taylor’s scientific management triggered off a chain of changes, some of which are still present in today’s business world. Unfortunately, they did not bring only new formula for gaining much bigger profit, but also a lot of problems and undesirable side effects. Meaningless simple tasks were not much of an inspiration for workers. Strict rules, clearly defined roles and relationships inside organization killed every spur of joy and enthusiasm in employees. On the other side, technology developed at a great speed and it was not possible any more to operate in relaxed, cosy atmosphere where everyone worked as a big happy family. Companies expanded, they needed more complex organization, but bureaucracy just did not seem as the right answer to every problem. Socio-technical design offered new solutions. This concept was not developed only to assure that employees earn their living in a more pleasant environment, but also because researchers, such as Elton Mayo, discovered human factor and became aware of its importance in the race for profit. (Ropohl, 1999) Has the socio-technical system managed to fulfil both its purposes or failed to do it?
The Advantages of Socio-Technical Systems
This brief historical introduction implies that just the inventing of the socio-technical system was a radical and constructive move. The social aspect of this system brought many positive changes. Work is now based on collaboration of employees, not on fulfilling segmented assignments. The feeling of joint effort in achieving goals creates more pleasant working environment. Employees find themselves doing meaningful work in an interaction with their colleagues. As the impact of formalization and standardization has been reduced, it is expected from workers to show greater knowledge and deeper understanding of what they are doing. This leads to greater number of opportunities for enhancing skills and professional improvement. Of course, it is not something that each employee sees as an advantage. Trist himself (1981) wrote about his observations that there are individual differences in motivation pattern.
Some people need strict orders and defined place in company’s hierarchy or otherwise they will feel insecure and frustrated. The socio-technical design managed to overcome this problem, as members of each group occupy certain positions and have tasks to complete, but have greater freedom to do so and also have better insight in their own contribution. Not just that there is an increase in the degree of satisfaction among employees, but also in the amount of productivity. These groups mentioned above are one of the most famous ‘products’ of socio-technical theory. They are called autonomous groups. They have not be widely accepted and applied, but they have proved to be efficient. One of the most famous cases – The Mannley Innovation is an explicit example that socio-technical systems functions well in reality, not just in theory.
Another plus for the socio-technical system is that the number of managers who occupy higher positions in hierarchy can be reduced, as focus of the control is partially in the groups themselves. This means that less money is needed for highly-educated managers whose skills must be well paid. Also, leaders of the groups are in better position to detect problems during production process, as they have the technical knowledge that most external controllers do not have. This means that less money and time will be spent on dealing with the unexpected situations.
In my opinion, the greatest value of this system lies in the fact that it is concerned both with those who gain profit and those who create it. It is designed to meet the social and psychological needs of employees in order to increase the profitability of the work and make it all compatible with the technology in use.
Ideas of socio-technical design are not applicable only in the mining industry, oil refineries, but also in completely different segments of industry, such as textile (Trist, 1981) and even in hospitals. This can be considered as a great advantage, as this approach is broad enough to offer a suitable framework for organizing a whole range of different types of organizations.
The Disadvantages of Socio-Technical Systems
The broad framework of socio-technical system can also have a negative side. Some authors, such as Dillon (2000), claim that this system is not good enough for implementation in companies whose area of work is technology and that applying it can even cause a communication breakdown! This sounds as a paradox, but Dillon gives a quite reasonable explanation: technology companies are changing fast, becoming more and more customer-oriented and need a usable system, so in order to achieve that they need defined sequence of steps in solving specific problems they face. Socio-technical system cannot offer something like that. In its strongest spot lies its greatest weakness – the freedom of choice and responsibility. Not all the organizations can rely on the sound mind and decisions of their employees, sometimes the consequences are too serious and no risk is allowed.
Apart from not being applicable to all kinds of organization, there are some other negative sides of socio-technical system. One of them is the fact that it is far from being easy to create autonomous groups which will fulfil their purpose. Some of their characteristics previously mentioned as advantages can be perceived in a different way. Task differentiation lies in the core of the autonomous groups. It refers to the extent to which the group’s task is itself autonomous forming a self-completing whole. The more autonomous the group’s task, the more differentiated its task boundary from other organizational units (Cummings, 1978). It is easy to define, but hard to accomplish. For some managers it is a great source of trouble to form groups which characteristics distinguish them from others, but not too much, as they are still part of a wider context. If there is no balanced differentiation, socio-technical system can be not just ineffective, but also damaging for the organization. The problem lies in the fact that there are no strict rules how to form autonomous groups, because it is up to members to build their structure and up to managers to find them place in the organization. If there are no clear boundaries and connections with others groups, its members will not experience the benefit of meaningful work, as they will not be able to perceive the whole picture of the process, which is the purpose of this system.
Another problem also stems from the concept of autonomous group: task control, as defined by Cummings (1981), refers to the extent to which employees can regulate their behaviour to convert raw materials into finished products. Simply, this means that group members choose on their own work methods and sequence of work activities. If the groups consist of specialists, this is an excellent method for dealing with the unexpected and stressful situations, because there is no need for permission for changing the working routine when the time is of great importance. But on the other hand, too much freedom cannot be given to all groups and reasons can be different. Managers may believe that the staff is qualified enough to take that responsibility, but then in the in the end it can turn out that they were wrong. Same as with the task differentiation – it is quite challenging to find the balance between too much and too little freedom. Both ends of that continuum lead to inefficiency. Also, managers who control these groups have to be aware of the fact that too much interference is not desirable. They have to keep the distance and be more of guides than controllers in a usual sense. If the manager’s impact is too strong on the group then we can no more talk about the group’s autonomy.
The last, but not least important disadvantage of this system that will be mentioned here is the lack of individuality. Almost every individual strives to develop to their fullest potentials and there is less possibility for something like that when one operates as a team member. On the one hand, teamwork contributes to the high spirit of employees, but on the other it can cause a decrease in motivation of individual members. Some of them can even feel frustrated because they cannot show their potentials. This could be a problem especially with above-average talented people who would be more helpful if they acted on their own. Also, when socio-technical system is implemented, the hierarchy is flatter, which implies that there are fewer opportunities for climbing the career ladder and it is widely known that this serves as the motivation for many of us.
Before giving the final thought on this subject I would like to present the summarized table from Trist’s work that shows what socio-technical system brought with it:
|Old Paradigm||New Paradigm|
|Man as the extension of the machine||Man as complementary to the machine|
|Tall organization chart, autocratic style||Flat organization chart, participative style|
|Competition, gamesmanship||Collaboration, collegiality|
|Organization’s purposes only||Members’ and society’s purposes also|
(Trist, 1981, Table 2-3)
This table shows that socio-technical system is more human-oriented than others. As I advocate the humanistic approach to management and organizing, I believe that it is much better than bureaucratic or scientific approach. People are not machines and although they are able to adapt to new situations, their power to do so has a limit. Once that limit is reached, consequences can be catastrophic. Even from the profit-makers’ point of view it is not desirable to have demotivated employees who would have ran as far as they could from their work place just if they could. Socio-technical system balances needs and strivings of both. It is true that it takes a lot of effort to build this system successfully. It largely depends on effective communication channels, qualified staff and appropriate use of technology in each sector. But before completely rejecting this organizational design one should take into consideration the fact that the socio-technical system frees the organization from restraints of bureaucracy to the content of both employees and managers. Whatever approach you decide to pursue, there will be difficulties. Socio-technical system has changed since it was developed. Of course, it is still far from perfect, but its adaptability allows managers to customize it for their company’s needs and take the best from it. As Charles Caleb Colton said: Where we cannot invent, we might at least improve.
Buchanan, D. A., & Huczynski, A. (2010). Organizational Behaviour, Harlow. Financial Times Prentice Hall.
Ropohl, G. (1999). Philosophy of socio-technical systems. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 4(3), 186-194.
Trist, E. (1981). The evolution of socio-technical systems. Occasional paper, 2, 1981.
Dillon, A. (2000). Group dynamics meet cognition: combining socio-technical concepts and usability engineering in the design of information systems. In The New SocioTech (pp. 119-125). Springer London.
Cummings, T. G. (1978). Self-regulating work groups: A socio-technical synthesis. Academy of management Review, 3(3), 625-634.