Let’s think about Twitter and Facebook for a moment. (You know, the platforms that you probably opened as soon as you woke up to browse news headlines and see pictures of your cousin’s new kitten.)
Are they social media companies? Are they social media websites? Are they complex software running in the cloud on hardware, groups of people creating and maintaining software, or groups of users who are members of social media platforms?
In some sense, Twitter and Facebook are actually all the above. It’s hard to isolate these two platforms from the communities that make them possible or from the technology that powers them.
The increase of organizations that rely on both technology and human interaction has given way to more holistic approaches grounded in sociotechnical systems theory. Take the increasingly vital role customer experience (CX) now plays—the end customer really is part of a sociotechnical system when we understand it properly. After all, without customers, most businesses don’t last very long.
Appreciating how these systems function together helps you visualize the big picture behind your technological ecosystem.
What is a sociotechnical systems approach?
Inside a sociotechnical system (STS), you’ll find people, software, hardware, the organization, and any number of other systems functioning together as a whole. Understanding how a sociotechnical system works takes a lot more than just looking at the information systems, human resources, or organizational theory by itself.
Let’s use email providers as examples of STSs. Consider how Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook, and other email systems could be described and analyzed. Each of these systems is distinct, but they also interact with other systems in an STS to form a functional email program:
- Development team and the organization: Developers, in creating and maintaining email software, must interact with technology systems as well as other human systems.
- Hardware: Used along with software by developers and ultimately by end-users.
- Software: Uses hardware and is created by and maintained by developers and other teams within the company. End-users of the software also interact with it.
- Users: Interacting with and influencing the other systems through their behaviors as customers and consumers, users are another critical part of an email STS.
When you elevate the entire sociotechnical system over managing your business in disparate parts, it’s easier to grow and respond to change. Sociotechnical systems are an effective way to bring technology and people together while managing risks and improving the human experience of today’s technologies.
The sociotechnical theory
Essentially, sociotechnical systems theory sees the holistic, interconnected contribution of technology and the human systems that operate and interact with it. As people and tech function together, they form a system, one that adds complexity and is more than the “sum of its parts.”
The principles of sociotechnical systems
The sociotechnical theory is highly interested in fixing some of the most significant problems that traditional organization structures encounter. In response to increasingly complex business environments, many organizations became so complex themselves that this added complexity started interfering with productivity and effectiveness.
Early on in the history of sociotechnical systems, the technical nature of these systems was initially emphasized more, leading to frequent labor disputes. Companies soon realized that the social side of sociotechnical systems makes a significant contribution to their success. After all, without a happy and highly skilled workforce, an organization isn’t much more than its technology.
By designing and managing your organization to operate with adaptable, socially savvy principles, your business is preparing to work more effectively through uncertainty and change.
These sociotechnical principles were developed to respond to and manage complexity:
- Adaptability and system resilience: Sociotechnical systems prioritize adaptability. The organizational structure favored by sociotechnical theory is one that’s highly adaptable to change and flexible even in managing uncertainty.
- Responsible autonomy: Instead of placing responsibility solely with the individual contributor, sociotechnical theory focuses on the group or team level. Small, closely operating groups of team members who share responsibility and are able to collaborate together benefit from fewer silos and are often able to communicate more effectively.
- Whole tasks for entire lifecycles: Instead of moving one project through multiple teams throughout the project lifecycle, sociotechnical systems allow a single team to shepherd the project from start to finish. The group is able to be more flexible about resolving the task. Projects don’t become “someone else’s problem” but are champion-led by a team empowered with decision-making responsibilities.
- Meaningful tasks: Because teams have ownership of tasks and start-to-finish responsibilities, these tasks retain their meaning and provide closure for everyone involved.
Sociotechnical system layers
Multiple layers making up the STS stack. These layers may themselves be distinct systems, but they function as part of the whole STS and influence and impact both other layers and systems outside of the STS.
When equipment fails, for instance, that’s the equipment layer causing downtime that potentially has an adverse impact on the entire organization and therefore the entire STS. Redundancy and resilience are built into the STS to try and mitigate the risk. In fact, the design of the STS anticipates change and incorporates strong risk management best practices.
These layers are often part of an STS:
- Organizational layer: Strategy, management, and internal regulations and processes
- Social layer: The broader culture, regulatory environment, and laws outside of the organization as well as the people who are end-users and customers
- Business process layer: Business activity-supported processes that define how technology is used internally and how the business operates
- Equipment layer: Hardware the business relies upon for development and operations
- Operating system layer: Systems that bring hardware and other software together
- Data management and communications layer: Layer that bridges the operating system and the application so information can be used and managed appropriately
- Application layer: Software that customers or end-users see and interact with. It provides the user interface and is often the most visible layer of the STS
Typically, each of these layers is present inside of an STS, but layer composition and the degree of importance associated with each one can vary depending on the organization and industry.
For a social media platform, the application layer may be a customer’s primary interaction within the STS. A bank, in contrast, may also have physical branches, landing somewhere between the equipment and business process layers in terms of functionality but often used alongside the application layer to receive banking services.
Popular examples of sociotechnical systems
Since sociotechnical systems bring communities of humans together with technology, some of the most well-known examples of STSs are large technology companies and platforms. Social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are examples as well as other technology companies such as Apple and Microsoft.
Companies that aren’t traditionally part of the tech sector could count as sociotechnical systems, though. Technically speaking, a bank, a chemical manufacturer, or a government might be considered to be STSs given the extent to which they rely on various technologies and complex internal systems.
Benefits of sociotechnical systems
Bringing together the benefits of managing technical and social systems, sociotechnical systems may provide you with the best of both worlds. STSs recognize the complexity created by having humans work with technology, reducing your risk of missing complexity or taking a system layer for granted.
STSs have multiple benefits for organizations:
Easy management of sophisticated human challenges: Communities and individuals add complexity to STSs, but the system’s ability to manage human relationships allows organizations to respond more effectively. If, for instance, an STS is presented with public relations problems, the company’s Agile structure and connection to the outside community can help the organization respond.
Self-regulation and error detection: With a flat hierarchy and responsive structure, teams inside an STS can quickly recognize problems and deploy resources to resolve them.
Trust and responsibility: Since groups are autonomous, they can take responsibility for fixing problems and can supervise the process from start to finish. By design, teams are trusted to do their work effectively.
Typical obstacles with sociotechnical systems
Since STSs use a distinct organizational structure and operate with unique risks and opportunities, there are several potential problems that sociotechnical systems are vulnerable to:
Limited systems understanding and blind spots: A poor understanding of how different layers interact may increase your organization’s risk of accidents, result in a less effective response to environmental changes, or other issues. The effectiveness of an STS relies on your ability to interpret how the layers impact each other and prevent silos from emerging that could separate teams and reduce their effectiveness.
Wrong or inaccurate information: Good information is essential for business decision-making inside an STS. If the information is not precise enough to be helpful or contains inaccuracies, teams within the system are at risk of acting incorrectly based on the information they have.
Human-machine challenges: Given that the technical systems rely on human systems working with them as operators and users, errors can show up without an easily discovered cause or origin.
Complexity that outgrows organizational design: Some technologies and new systems created through STSs can themselves become too big or complex for their companies to manage. In such a situation, the organizational structure may need to adapt and change somewhat in response.
Less control: Managers don’t always have direct control over every aspect of a sociotechnical system. For example, a company can’t necessarily control how customers respond to a new rebranding or how an evolving regulatory environment will directly impact the long-term viability of their brand.
For these obstacles, STSs can be prepared even if they can’t always solve the entire problem. When people work with technology, a certain degree of error is nearly impossible to prevent. Fortunately, your response to these risks can help your company navigate challenges more effectively.
How to address sociotechnical system challenges
Planning, communication, and ongoing improvement can help STSs. Consider how these general approaches can strengthen your organization:
See each layer as a unique strength: Although it may be tempting sometimes for you to dread how complex your STS is with all of its different systems, each of these systems presents unique strengths you can use to improve the health of your business. By themselves, individual systems may be myopic in their focus. Ensure your products stay relevant, for instance, by looping in the societal layer and getting feedback from customers.
Focus on reliability: Whenever signs of errors pop up, make sure your teams have the right resources. Empower your teams so they know their own reliability in their own domains and can act whenever a problem arises.
Have good information: Keeping your organization’s data reliable and accessible may prevent blind spots. When you know you can trust your information, your teams can be empowered with greater autonomy to use that information. For instance, you should be well-informed about the state of your technology systems.
Embrace continuous improvement: STSs aren’t perfect, but they can improve every day if teams and the organization at large are committed to becoming more effective.
Awareness of how STSs function together and how your organization’s layers impact your business objectives can help you proactively address challenges in your environment.
Sociotechnical systems, technology, and society
Sociotechnical systems allow people to work with technology in ways that benefit society and advance organizational goals. Taking a broader perspective of technology and incorporating a human element can help us build more effective companies and improve the customer experience.
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