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Socio-Technical Systems and Organizational Values
Modern organizations define themselves using statements of vision. They state their vision in terms of human resources and technology, a socio-technical view. Modern organizations also define themselves in terms of values. New employees entering the organization learn the value system from employees with longevity in it. How organizations incorporate socio-technical systems as a reinforcement tool of their value system is the focus of this paper.
In business, small and large, values determine course the business sets for itself. Yukl (2006) defines values as key statements of an organization. The value statement is ideological, what the organization considers important. Many values find their way into organizations including customer service, innovation, satisfaction of internal and external constituents, and excellence. Yulk’s view of values suggests something deeper. Organizational values and value creation are the soul of competitive edge, competitive advantage.
Hill and Jones (1998) write of management values as statements of how managers will conduct themselves and how they will do business. Managers in high performing businesses conduct themselves with stakeholders in mind. Winston (2002) suggests that high performing leaders accept the values of the organization as being of higher consequence and importance.
Values of an organization (customer service, innovation, satisfaction) imply an organization is a system. Senge (1990) tells us that organizations are organic systems of interconnected and interrelated sub-groups. This suggests more than brick and mortar structures, it suggests organizations of people, technology, and social interaction. Technology, according to Davis (1996), is a “conceptual bridge” between science and economics. This link gives form to how organizations manage. Conversely, Wren (2005) presents the view of technological change being disturbing to the social system of an organization. Socio-technical systems offer leverage to dispel the disturbing nature of change.
Lee (2000) explains social of the socio-technical systems as the habitual attitudes of people. He includes the relationships between people with their values and behavioral styles. He also describes it as the formal power structure identified using traditional organizational charts. However, he continues with the aspect of an informal power structure based on influence and knowledge. The technical system makes up second part of the dyad. This system, according to Lee (2000), is “machinery, processes, procedures and a physical arrangement.”
A socio-technical system, abbreviated STS for the remainder of this paper, is people and technology blended. Yet, this is a much too simple definition. Some elements of STS are closely interrelated; therefore, it is not easy to distinguished items within a STS as purely technical or purely social. Aldridge (2004) explains STS as approaching organizational work groups as social systems and macro social systems. A third level of work observed is primary work systems. The primary work system according to Aldridge is one or more work units involved in face-to-face work. Work units collaborate jointly and have support of management, relevant technology, resources, and workplace specialists. Aldridge includes the writings of Trist (1981) when defining macro social systems, “…macro social systems include systems in communities and entire business sectors as well as societal institutions” (Trist, 1981, pg. 11). The STS design in work groups is increasing productivity of the group and increasing job satisfaction through optimization of social factors and integration with technical factors.
Elements of STS
According to an anonymous article on STS, the author explains some of the components integrated into a functional socio-technical system. Explained separately, each component has its own character; however, it is clear how closely linked each is and overlaps the others.
• Hardware is computers and computing peripherals, the classic technology of modern business. Organizations today do not exist without some kind of computing network, connecting wires, routers, and individual workstations.
• Software includes operating systems (Windows, UNIX, Apple, etc). As technology advances, it is increasingly difficult to separate hardware and software. Software varies based on organizational needs; yet software allows companies to create data for storage on hardware devices. The software often runs from the same hardware devices used for storage. Software facilitates social interaction by allowing distantly remote people an opportunity to message each other in almost real-time.
• Physical surroundings (physical setting) help establish the social and technical rules of engagement. Building with an open floor plan and open desk arrangement allows open social interaction among workers. Buildings with offices separating workers reduce interaction. Managers with an inner sanctum guarded by a secretary’s office establish a hierarchy of power.
• People, by name and by title, make up an integral part of any organization culture, social environment. Within an organization people have roles they play, positions they work in, and ancillary roles they exercise. Within their roles, they use their surrounds with hardware and software to support their roles.
• Procedures define operational procedures in an organization. Procedures are statements of rules and norms formally written. Outside the formal written procedural statements are unofficial ties to data flow and reporting relationships. Procedures attempt to define culture in a STS but the informal norms and behaviors are equally important to understand when developing a STS model.
• Laws and regulations are similar to procedures but impose stronger public sanctions when violated.
• Data and data structures in STS involve collection and storage of an organization’s information. Additionally, this element explains data use, retrieval, or presentation for use.
An organization’s socio-technical system supports the business as a great place to work. More than that, STS is a key factor to supporting leadership initiatives, vision, and values. Observed in 1949 in Great Britain, researchers developed socio-technical systems in South Yorkshire coalmines. They saw the technical improvements in mining coal combined with highly motivated work groups who self-regulated and collaborated closely became more productive than traditional work groups with the same technological improvements. Another observation was the self-regulated and collaborative teams were more cooperative among themselves, performing multiple tasks rather than one man one job, and committed to Ortgeist (spirit of the place) (Aldridge, 2004).
STS Applied Organizationally
A recent Internet search found the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Logistic Center’s statement of beliefs and commitments. Not all cited here; however, these selected ones reinforce concepts of socio-technical systems.
• Results Oriented – The Logistics Center constantly drives for results and success. We drive issues to closure, persist despite obstacles and opposition, and maintain a high energy level. Our employees readily put in the needed time and effort to achieve results.
• Innovation – The future of the Logistics Center is assured only as long as it welcomes and rewards innovation, creativity, and resourcefulness. We recognize “trial and error” as being elements of innovation and continuous improvement. Innovation has been the cause of success for the Logistics Center.
• Quality – We provide the best quality in all of our products and services. Our goal is to exceed industry benchmarks.
• People – People are our most important resource. We respect the individual’s dignity and value their contributions. We invest in training and education to give our employees the tools to make the Logistics Center a world-class organization.
• Teamwork and Collaboration – The Logistics Center provides a positive and challenging environment that supports the achievement of mission goals and fosters team spirit. We are partners with our customers, stakeholders, suppliers, and are committed to union/management partnerships.
• Integrity and Openness – The Logistics Center values trust, sincerity, honesty, and candor in relationships both personally and organizationally. We encourage our employees to express ideas, opinions, and thoughts in an honest and genuine manner.
• Corporate Citizenship – The Logistics Center values a positive corporate image and is sensitive to our corporate responsibilities to the community. We actively participate and support community involvement.
In post-industrial organizations, STS helps leaders create constructs that are enabling, empowering, in turn, enabling and empowering accelerates communication, and learning and knowledge. Within the context of knowledge building and knowledge, sharing, STS, through collaboration, allows work groups’ flexibility to develop original work patterns and competitive advantage.
Leaders Role in STS
Davis (1996) urges successful leaders to lead as if the future is now. Accomplishing this means seeing the final product rather than the processes of the product. STS employs the right people and the right technology at the right time within a structure that supports organizational values.
In an environment of rapid change, having a competitive advantage allows organizational foresight. However, foresight requires maintaining core values. Socio-technical systems support organizational values by maintaining organizational memory and shared experiences. Memory and shared experiences provide views of where the organization was while keeping everyone tracking toward future vision. An organization with strong STS standards uses their technology to preserve history, create performance benchmarks, and develop knowledge and learning environments. Strong quality systems demonstrate teams’ abilities to eliminate obsolete practices while staying within the framework of original values.
Stated earlier, organizations are systems of interrelated parts with differing skills and skill levels. STS, working within an organizations value system promotes wisely those with skills, knowledge, and ability. Additionally, STS, working with the value system, provides workers with the tools needed to grow in the skills, knowledge, and abilities so they, too, can be promoted. Members of self-directed teams seek new or improved skills from within the STS and through their interconnection with team members.
Self-directed teams improved productivity and commitment to the team and organization in English coalmines in 1949 and self-directed teams continue being productive and committed. Therefore, an organization employing socio-technical systems can grow into the future, yet hold fast to its historical past and the values making the group viable.
Aldridge, J. W. (2004). aboutChange Solutions. Encyclopedia of Distributed Learning (ISBN 0-7619-2451-5). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Anonymous, (no date). Why a Social-Technical System? Retrieved online January 12, 2006 from [http://www.computingcases.org/general_tools/sia/socio_tech_systems.html].
Anonymous, (1996 – May-June). Maintaining Organizational Memories. TQM/CCI News. Retrieved January 22, 2006 from [http://www.grafix9000.com/documents/ccinews_organizational-memory.pdf].
Davis, S. (1996). Future Perfect. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Hill, C. W. L. & Jones, G. R. (1998). Strategic Management: An Integrated Approach. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Lee, Q., (2000). Quality in the Balance: Six-Sigma – A Socio-Technical System. Retrieved online January 12, 2006 from [http://www.sixsigma.com/library/content/c020902a.asp].
Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Currency and Doubleday.
Trist, E. L. (1981). The evolution of socio-technical systems: A conceptual framework and an action research program. Ontario Quality of Working Life Center, Occasional Paper no. 2.
U. S. Federal Aviation Administration – Logistics Center. Organizational Values. Retrieved online January 22, 2006 from [http://www.logistics.faa.gov/StratPlan/values.htm].
Winston, B. (2002). Be a Leader for God’s Sake. Virginia Beach, VA: Regent University, School of Leadership Studies.
Wren, D. A. (2005). The History of Management Thought (5th Ed.) Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Wren, J. T. (1995). The Leader’s Companion: Insights on Leadership Through the Ages. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in Organizations (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
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