This article explains the Socio Technical System (STS) in a practical way. After reading it you will understand the basics of this powerful management tool.
What is the definition of a Socio Technical System?
A Socio Technical System (STS) is an elaboration of socio-technical theory, which is an approach to complex organisational designs that particularly focuses on the interaction between human resources and technology / social and technical systems in the workplace.
The term also refers to the interaction between social network infrastructures and human behaviour. In both cases, these are not isolated but interactive elements that influence other processes.
The origin of Socio Technical System
The term Socio Technical System or STS was coined and introduced by Eric Trist, Fred Emery and Ken Bamforth in the decade after World War II. The term originated from prior research with coal mine workers: socio-technical theory.
The Socio-technical systems theory are about collective optimisation and development. Here, the emphasis is on achieving excellence in both the performances and the work of employees. The theory is also about the social aspects of people and society, and the technical aspects of organisations and processes.
Technical, in this sense, does not always refer to technology that arises from material studies, but also to procedures and knowledge about business processes.
Socio Technical System in more in detail
Sociologists study the complete social level separately from other disciplines, just as technologists study the technological level without involving other disciplines. Not one discipline has a monopoly on science, and all forms are equally valid.
Socio-technical means that these two disciplines are interconnected and are valued equally. Socio-technical means, among other things, that technology alone cannot be the guiding factor in the implementation of new work processes and systems. Equal attention must be given to both aspects, to ensure a high quality and satisfying work environment for employees.
Therefore, a STS aims to bring people and technology together. Nowadays, this concretely entails the integration of computers into social systems in order to achieve specific SMART goals.
Socio Technical System Components
By having groups of people and technology function as a system, defining and achieving new goals becomes more complex. The designers and users of these systems have to take several things into account. Some terms that are often repeated in the design process are:
People can be individuals but also groups or teams. The fact that individuals have different roles should be taken into account during the design process. In addition, an organisation needs people to build hardware and software, and people to use these within laws and regulations.
Hardware refers to things like the mainframe, peripheral appliances, computers, servers and connecting devices. A socio-technical system cannot function without hardware.
Software is the executable code written by the developers of the system. The software includes the operating system, applications and utilities. Software, like hardware, is an integral part of a STS.
The design of the Socio Technical System determines which data is collected, to whom this data is available and how the information is stored and managed.
Legislation and regulations
In many cases, there are laws that prescribe how employees should deal with employee data and other privacy-sensitive information. Government laws and regulations must be followed.
A system error is a technical concept that reveals the difference between the purpose of a system and the actual outcome of the system. It is important that the system does what it is designed to do.
Redundancy is also a technical concept and describes certain processes or components in a system that improve the reliability of the system as a whole. In the process of designing a completely reliable system, the design goal should be for it to make no mistakes (zero defects).
Regulation is a technical concept that refers to the process of detecting errors and responding to them. This also applies to errors caused by malfunctions in the system. The self-regulation ability of a system is important for the overall reliability of a system.
Resilience is a social concept and refers to the adaptability of a socio-technical system to self-regulate after a moment of failure and to be reactivated over time. Resilience is important in a system in which a high degree of reliability is not possible.
A Socio Technical System example
This example looks at a Silicon Valley company that releases new software which includes all kinds of technological highlights. The company assumes that everyone who will work with the software is technically skilled. When it turns out that the majority of people who will be using the software are in fact older, the usage of the system will be significantly reduced. This is exactly what socio-technical systems are about.
Research into technology in the workplace
Managers often think that they choose technology in order to enable their employees to perform at a high level. PwC investigated how employees view technology in the workplace and compared that to how senior management sees it. The more than twelve thousand employees who took part in the survey revealed that there is a significant gap between the way managers and employees view the implementation of digital tools.
The survey also found that managers claim to choose technology with their own people in mind, but employees in many countries see this differently. 90% of executives believe their company pays enough attention to employee needs when introducing new technology, but only half of the staff actually says the same. At the same time, 65% of executives themselves suffer from frustrations related to technological complex systems and computer systems in the workplace.
This experience gap is very important when it comes to Socio Technical Systems. If there is no clear understanding of the people who actually need to use the technology, their work experience could suffer. One bad work experience can affect the entire organisation and affect employee engagement and motivation.
It is therefore important that the organisation as a whole determines what employees are really looking for in new technology. This ranges from choosing new devices to choosing applications on the phone.
Socio Technical System summary
A Socio Technical System (STS) is a practical application of socio-technical theory and usually involves complex organisational designs which focus on the interaction between people in the organisation and technology.
The term was coined by Eric Trist and his fellow researchers. A STS is actually about combining scientific knowledge from various disciplines. Sociology and technology must be aligned to achieve the best possible results. The main goal of a Socio Technical System is to bring people and technology together.
Various terms are reflected in the design of these systems. A requirement for a socio-technical system is that it contains components of software, hardware and data. The systems must always be developed within the framework of legislation and regulations.
In order to make the systems as reliable as possible, developers must ensure that there are as little errors as possible in the system. And if they do occur, it is important that the system has a self-healing capacity and that the system can be restarted quickly. This is referred to as resilience.
Now it is your turn
What do you think? Do you recognise the explanation of the Socio Technical System? Can you give any examples of Socio Technical Systems used in your work environment? What other pitfalls and challenges are there in combining technological solutions with people? Do you have any tips or comments? Please let us know in the comments.
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Baxter, G., & Sommerville, I. (2011). Socio-technical systems: From design methods to systems engineering. Interacting with computers, 23(1), 4-17.
- Ropohl, G. (1999). Philosophy of socio-technical systems. Society for Philosophy and Technology Quarterly Electronic Journal, 4(3), 186-194.
- Trist, E. L. (1978). On socio-technical systems. Sociotechnical systems: A sourcebook, 43-57.
- Trist, E. L. (1981). The evolution of socio-technical systems (Vol. 2). Toronto: Ontario Quality of Working Life Centre.
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