socio-technical system

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socio-technical system A term devised to avoid the rather simplistic technological determinism in much mainstream organization theory. It was coined by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in Britain, and used in the theory of organizational choice which guided their programme of applied research.

Though accepting the conventional wisdom of industrial sociology and the Human Relations Movement that in-plant technical factors affect the quality of social relationships at work, the Tavistock researchers argued that technology merely constrains human action, rather than rigidly determining behavioural outcomes. Conscious choice can build good human relations into the technical workflow. Indeed, for any productive problem there is typically a range of technologically equivalent solutions, with differing implications for human relations.

By emphasizing the element of choice, and the mutual influence of technology and the social systems of the workplace, the Tavistock researchers sought to move away from technological determinism towards greater appreciation within management of the need for consultation, innovation, flexibility, and an open mind in the design of work processes and procedures. The consultancy and action research work which led to the formulation of socio-technical systems was carried out in the coal-mining and textiles industries in Britain and India in the 1940s and 1950s, and seemed to show that work teams which operated a flexible allocation of tasks and jobs achieved higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and fewer accidents than work teams with a rigid division of labour and inflexible ‘segregated’ task groups.

The Tavistock studies were criticized for underestimating the difficulties of reconciling economic, technical, and social efficiency. However, the idea of the socio-technical system (though not the term itself) has passed into conventional thinking about work organization, flexibility issues, and the impact of technical change.