sitemapCSCW History/Background: The Socio-Technical Tradition

Historical Background to CSCW and Groupware:
Attention to Team-Level Work Organization (The Socio-Technical Tradition)


Copyright 1989, 1992, 1996 Randall Whitaker.
This material may be freely cited, copied, and/or distributed, so long as the author attribution is included.

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.


Further Readings on the Socio-Technical Perspective: Gutenberg Resources

Bansler, J., Systems Development Research in Scandinavia: Three Theoretical Schools, Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, Vol. 1, no. 1 (August 1989), pp. 3-20.

Herbst, P., Socio-technical Design, London: Tavistock, 1972.

Kelly, J., A Reappraisal of Sociotechnical Systems Theory, Human Relations, Vol. 31 (1978), no. 12, pp. 1069-1099.

Mumford, E., Designing Human Systems for New Technology: the ETHICS Method, Manchester: Manchester Business School, 1983.

Mumford, E., Sociotechnical Systems Design -- Evolving Theory and Practice, in Bjerknes, Gro, Ehn, Pelle, and Morten Kyng (eds.), Computers and Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge, Avebury (UK): Aveshot, 1987, pp. 59-76.

Mumford, E., and T. Ward, Computers: Planning for People, London: Batsford, 1968.

Mumford, E., and M. Weir, Computer Systems in Work Design -- the ETHICS Method, London: Associated Business Press, 1979.

Nurminen, M., Different Perspectives: What are They and How can They be Used?, in Docherty, P., K. Fuchs-Kittowski, P. Kolm, and L. Mathiassen (eds.), Systems Design for Human Development and Productivity: Participation and Beyond, Amsterdam: Elsevier North-Holland, 1987, pp. 55-62.

Olerup, A., Socio-Technical Design of Computer-Assisted Work, Oslo: University of Oslo Department of Informatics Research Report no. 116, 1988.

Sandberg, Å., Socio-technical Design, Trade Union Strategies, and Action Research, in Mumford, E., R. Hirschheim, G. Fitzgerald, and A. Wood-Harper (eds.), Research Methods in Information Systems, Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1985, pp. 79-92.

Susman, G., and R. Evered, An Assessment of the Scientific Merits of Action Research, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 23 (1978), pp. 582-603.

Trist, E., A Socio-technical Critique of Scientific Management, in Edge, D., and J. Wolfe (eds.), Meaning and Control: Essays in Social Aspects of Science and Technology, London: Tavistock, 1973.

Trist, E., Engaging with Large-Scale Systems, in Clark, A. (ed.), Experimenting with Organizational Life: The Action Research Approach, London: Plenum, 1976, pp. 43-57.

Trist, E., The Socio-technical Perspective: The Evolution of Socio-technical systems as a Conceptual Framework and as an Action Research Program, in van de Ven, A., and W. Joyce (eds.), Perspectives in Organization Design and Behavior, London: Wiley, 1981, pp. 32-47.

Trist, E., and K. Bamforth, Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Long-Wall Method of Coal-Getting, Human Relations, Vol. 4 (1951).

Trist, E., G. Higgin, H. Murray, and A. Pollock, Organisational Choice: Capabilities of Groups at the Coal Face under Changing Technologies, London: Tavistock, 1963.

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