sociotechnical systems approach
sociotechnical systems approacha prescriptive approach to organizational design which, utilizing SYSTEMS THEORY, emphasizes the need to consider the interrelationship between social and technical systems.
The approach was developed by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations largely as a critique both of classical approaches, which sought to establish universal principles of organizational design, and of the common practice of designing plant layout solely according to technical criteria (social and psychological considerations being an afterthought). In contrast, the sociotechnical systems approach questioned the universalist assumption of’one best way’ and emphasized the possibility of organizational choice. Technology, for example, is seen as a limiting rather than a determining factor. This makes possible the consideration of alternative technical and social systems. Sociotechnical systems theory aims at systematizing the consideration of alternatives in order to facilitate the best choice. This would allow systems to meet their ‘primary task’ by optimizing the relationship between technical efficiency and human satisfaction through diagnosing the ‘best fit’. The classic illustration of this approach involved an analysis of technical change in postwar British coal mines (Trist et al., 1963).
Whilst some theorists and practitioners find much of value in the anti-universalist and humanistic stance of this approach, there are critics and sceptics. At a conceptual level the perspective can be seen to suffer from:
- assumptions associated with systems theory (e.g. reification, system goals);
- the possibility of a reductionist confusion of psychological and structural levels of understanding;
- the charge of consultancy-based managerialist sociology (Brown, 1967; Silverman, 1970). Thus some theorists, having contrasted direct and indirect management control systems, point out that control and participation is limited to certain organizational issues and that consideration needs to be given, for example, to the distribution of the benefits of increased productivity. In addition, Mumford's case studies in participative sociotechnical systems design reveal some of the problems of resistance to designing bottom upwards, both from management and higher grade employees, and in the difficulties employees have in participating in design (Mumford, 1980).