With regard to organizations, a key historical trend has been the heightened awareness of (and desire for) semi- or wholly autonomous task-oriented work groups -- a development strongly associated with the approach to workplace systems and design labelled the socio-technical approach (sometimes written 'sociotechnical' or 'ST'). This tradition dates back to work done to better organize work and workers in British coal mines after WWII. (Trist & Bamforth, 1951) From this seminal work evolved a set of principles about how to address the design of jobs and work organizations in parallel with the design of work tools (e.g., Herbst, 1972; Kelly, 1978; Trist, 1973; 1981). Although formulated for industrial settings, the socio-technical perspective was later transplanted to the world of information systems (cf. Olerup, 1988).
Speaking very generally, the socio-technical tradition developed as a partial alternative to engineering approaches adhering to what Bansler (1989) terms a 'system theoretical tradition' -- a view of the workplace as a unitary machine operating systematically and humans as functional components of that mechanistic system. It was obvious that such engineering approaches (e.g. Tayloristic 'scientific management') undervalue or ignore the human aspects of work. Alternatives to this approach (mainly social / humanistic studies) had theretofore been of little apparent concrete utility, because they underdetermined functional aspects of work activity, hence underdetermining the specifications for constructive interventions. One summation of the typical distinctions drawn between the socio-technical perspective and the earlier engineering / systems theoretical tradition (that of Nurminen,1987) is presented in the table below.
Comparative Table: Systems Theoretical (Engineering) vs. Socio-Technical Perspectives (based on Nurminen, 1987) Systems Theoretical Socio-Technical ________________________________________________________________________
Knowledge: Objective Objective reality mapping but instrumental
Users: Inadequate Active user of mechanical unit IT in work
Actor in Man or machine Man or machine Information (preferably machine) (user-friendly) Tasks:
Communication: Man-machine Man-machine (user-friendly)
IT System in Centralized Fits social needs Organization: departmental
IT System and Separate Interfaces between Organization: social and technical systems
Systems Life cycle model Participative Development:
The socio-technical tradition divides the workplace into distinct yet intertwined human (socio-) and artificial (-technical) domains, each of which must be addressed on its own terms and simultaneously correlated with the other. This dualistic perspective maps readily onto the character of CSCW research activities. Some (e.g., those best construed as pure computer scientists or developers) address artifacts without informing us about group work, while others (e.g., ethnomethodological analyses) illustrate aspects of task interactivity without directly illuminating the technology to be prescribed. Enquiry directed at this juncture between IT and work groups therefore tends to fall onto one or another side of the dividing line identified by socio-technical proponents. The determination of CSCW researchers to unite (or at least associate) work covering both the social and the technical aspects of IT support for group work was presaged in the sociotechnical tradition.
NOTE: The socio-technical approach is thematically intertwined with a number of other key perspectives and bodies of work, most notably: action research, participatory design (PD), and human-centred design. These other related threads will not be pursued here and now because they concern the scope of contributory privilege and mode of intervention in IT design efforts rather than the focus on work groups which is germane to this discussion at this point.
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