Sociotechnical Approach

The sociotechnical approach to organizational structure was developed in England during the late 1940s by Eric Trist and his colleagues at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. These researchers conducted seminal studies on the coal mining industry, where the introduction of new technology had shifted the social patterns of work so profoundly that productivity and job satisfaction were negatively affected. In response, managers and workers fundamentally reorganized their work patterns, returning to the small-team, collaborative process that had prevailed before the mechanization of the industry.

In these and subsequent studies across a variety of work settings, Trist and his colleagues found that technical changes in an industry (e.g., increased automation) consistently produce profound changes in the social aspects of work as well. They became convinced that work must be conceptualized as a joint social and technical process and that the so-called self-regulating work group is the essential building block of effective organizations.

Following the initial Tavistock studies, further experiments in the design of work according to sociotechnical principles proceeded slowly in the United Kingdom, India, and Europe during the 1950s. Support for the approach was bolstered in the early 1960s, when the government of Norway supported a labor and management effort to introduce Trist’s principles of “industrial democracy” into industry there. Highly publicized early examples of work designed around sociotechnical principles in the United States include the General Foods plant in Topeka, Kansas, and the Procter & Gamble plant in Lima, Ohio. In the years since those early efforts, sociotechnical principles have been widely applied in a variety of work settings. The approach is commonplace today and has come to be viewed as a major category of organizational theory.

Although there are no universally accepted defining principles and assumptions of the sociotechnical approach, the following ideas are commonly identified with this approach:

  • Organizations are open systems. They exist as animate entities in an environment of customers, competitors, suppliers, regulators, technology, stakeholders, and the broader economy. They must scan that environment, exchange with it (receive inputs and produce outputs), and anticipate and react to environmental changes in adaptive ways. The Tavistock group was strongly influenced by general systems theory as it was articulated in the physical sciences by Ludwig von Bertalanffy during the 1940s and 1950s. Fred Emery, a noted member of the Tavistock team, brought von Bertalanffy’s work to the attention of Trist and the rest of the Tavistock group, and it became a pillar of the sociotechnical approach.
  • Change is the norm in the environment of work. The business environment is aptly described as turbulent and uncertain, connoting that change can be sudden, extreme, and largely unpredictable. Turbulence disrupts previously stable patterns of interaction and requires a rethinking and redesign of work.
  • Joint optimization is essential. Because work is, by its very nature, an intertwined technical and social process, both aspects need to be integrated into the design of work to achieve the critical objective of improved productivity and quality of work life.
  • Equifinality, a notion diametrically opposed to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s concept that there is only one road to success, prevails. In all living systems, there are many possible ways to achieve the same outcome. Thus, there are many possible work designs that can achieve the joint goals of productivity and quality of work life.
  • Work must be designed for flexibility. Because the environment is constantly changing, no hardwired design, no matter how well adapted to current conditions, will continue to fit the evolving demands of the environment. The organization must be designed— and continually redesigned—for flexibility. The design process is never completed. No design is ever final.
  • Design with minimum critical specification. Work designers should specify only what absolutely must be specified in terms of technical and social job design parameters and allow the organization the flexibility to specify the rest for itself.
  • Stakeholder input is critical. Employee participation at multiple levels is essential in creating a sociotechnically designed organization and operating it daily. High levels of employee empowerment are central to the sociotechnical philosophy.
  • Teams do the work. Teams are the universal, most visible end product of sociotechnical design. The primary production unit is the self-directed work team (also known as the self-managing, self-regulating, semiautonomous, or high-performance team). Team members are usually expected or even required to acquire broader skills and more business knowledge so that they can take on a higher level of decision-making ability and authority. Internal controls gradually supplant external controls. Teams have access to much more information than workers in traditionally structured organizations. Continual learning and growth is expected. Thus, in practice, such multi-skilled teams commonly complete a whole, meaningful unit of work rather than a subcomponent only. They absorb some functions traditionally provided by support departments, such as managing quality, setting production goals, tracking performance and productivity, and making process improvements. Self-managing teams are the embodiment of the sociotechnical systems approach.
  • As teams become more capable of self-direction and less reliant on daily supervisory control, they are allowed to manage the bulk of their daily work internally. Management is then able to step out to the boundaries of the team—to focus more strategically on keeping the team linked with other teams and other parts of the organization and helping to build and manage such structures as pay-for-skill and gain-sharing programs, which support the team concept.
  • When problems occur, they should be handled at the source by those who directly encounter them. Thus, quality variances are detected and addressed promptly by line employees who are trained in quality as well as production.

There is a moderate amount of field research on the effectiveness of the sociotechnical approach. However, because applications vary widely, it is not always easy to determine what was done and which parts of the design or redesign may have been effective. And there certainly are reports in the literature of failed or minimally effective sociotechnical design efforts. Still, the bulk of the evidence from studies that meet the standard criteria of research excellence points to substantial increases in productivity— increased throughput, reduced rejects or scrap, decreased cycle time, and decreased machine downtime. Effects on employee satisfaction and quality of work life, measured directly through opinion surveys or indirectly through data on absenteeism, grievances, and job bid-outs, are also generally positive.

The huge body of anecdotal evidence is also strongly positive, showing productivity improvements in the 25% to 45% range and greatly improved employee satisfaction. Such gains, touted in the practitioner literature and lore, are sufficient to keep the approach prominent in contemporary practice.

Critics of the sociotechnical systems approach observe that applications commonly accept the technical work process as a given and focus largely on social redesign. Furthermore, despite such guiding principles as equifinality, the social redesign always results in the same solution—the self-managing team. A further criticism is that the classical sociotechnical design process, which relies on steering committees and design teams to do the analysis and design, is very slow (24 to 36 months being a common time frame) and costly. However, there are alternatives, such as the “future search” methodology, that compress the timeline for work redesign.

The sociotechnical systems philosophy and approach to the design of work continues to spread. The approach forms a central part of the philosophical base of the popular contemporary high-performance organization model.

References:

  1. Campbell, J. P., & Campbell, R. J. (1988). Productivity in organizations: New perspectives from industrial and organizational psychology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G. (2005). Organization development and change (8th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson/South-Western.
  3. Lawler, E. (2001). Organizing for high performance: Employee involvement, TQM, re-engineering, and knowledge management in the Fortune 1000. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Pasmore, W. A. (1988). Designing effective organizations: The sociotechnical systems approach. New York: Wiley.
  5. Trist, E. L. (1981). The sociotechnical perspective: The evolution of sociotechnical systems. In A. H. Van de Ven and W. F. Joyce (Eds.), Perspectives on organization design and behavior (pp. 19-75). New York: Wiley.

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