More than socio-technical systems analysis

by Philip Boxer

Larry Hirschhorn and his co-authors raise an interesting question in their paper on sociotechnical systems in an age of mass customisation. They consider what happens in a pilot plant whose sole object is to learn new ways of organising production processes. What they discover is that in the place of worker autonomy as a goal, the meaning of the work becomes pre-eminent, and creating task boundaries becomes a dynamic collaborative process in a way that dissolves the old worker-manager distinction. This focus on meaning goes beyond the old focus on improving the quality of life in stable production environments:

“… When socio-technical systems theory (STS) first emerged as a discipline its moral roots in a worker’s right to competence and its political roots in industrial democracy enabled its practitioners to reach beyond the narrow issue of industrial efficiency, but the era of mass customisation has so up-ended the occupational structure – the distinction between working and managing is slipping away – that STS, a creature of the era of mass production, may slip into history.”

So in what ways must our understanding of socio-technical systems be extended to build on their rich legacy? Two points emerge as being key:

  • the dynamic nature of the relationship that is needed with the context for the work of the pilot plant in terms of what the customer wants, and
  • the meaning of the work within the larger context of the enterprise and its goals.

The first of these reflects the shifting of power over service design to the edge, arising from having to address the third asymmetry. The second raises the larger question of how that ‘edge’ is defined in the interests of the enterprise when demand becomes asymmetric – the what, how, who/m and why all have to be made responsive to demand.

So what does this require of the kinds of modelling we use? Two kinds of innovation are needed.

Firstly, we need to use an approach that can model the structure-determining processes as well as those that are structure-determined.

Secondly, we need to add to the models of task, information and sentient systems the related models of the organisation of task and information systems, and of the contexts out of which demands are arising. This gives us five distinct perspectives on the enterprise:

    (1) the task systems, (2) the information systems, (3) the vertical (hierarchical) and (4) horizontal (collaborative) organisation of those task and information systems, and (5) the organisation of demand within its customer context.

Putting all of these together as a composite model of the ways these systems are or are not consistent with each other is itself an expression of the ‘I’ of the modeller(s). And this is a way in which to collaborate in the construction of shared meaning.

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