Socio-Technical System Approach

An organization is a system that encompasses socio-cultural, environmental as well as technical aspects. These three components have to be well balanced for the organization to function properly. Moreover, it is through the interdependence of these components that organizational change and performance are realized. This simply means that an organization can not achieve its desired goals without a balanced interaction between its employees (the social subsystem), the customers and other stakeholders including the government (the environment) and the technology required for production of an end product (technical subsystem). Hence, the concept of socio-technical systems approach has been used in organizational management to explain the interactions between the three components of an organization. Furthermore, this approach has been widely used in the redesigning of organizational activities. This paper will therefore examine the socio-technical systems theory as used in organizations. The main focus will be on the adoption of socio-technical systems approach in the engineering sector. It will also give an overview of different approaches used in socio-technical systems as well as the risks involved in applying such approaches and decisions making.

Managers in an organization have a duty of ensuring that the organization satisfies the needs of all the stakeholders (the employees, customers, suppliers, government as well as the communities adjacent to the organization). The use of the socio-technical systems approach is therefore vital in the improvement of organizational performance. According to Baxter and Sommerville (n.d), a socio-technical system can be best understood as one that takes into consideration the human, social, organizational and technical factors required for the best functioning of an organization. They further comment that such a system should take into account the social and technical factors that affect organizational processes. For example, when implementing a new technological device such as a computer, it is important to evaluate its effect on the social system (employees). However, Errey and Liu (2006) acknowledge that socio-technical systems approach is a tool used in gauging the efficiency of adopting new technologies in improving the performance of an organization.

Socio-technical systems according to Badham, et al (2000) in Baxter and Sommerville (n.d) are characterized by a number of factors. Firstly, they should be composed of interdependent parts. Secondly, these systems should not only operate in internal environments but also in external environments. Thirdly, there are different ways of pursuing system goals; the path of achieving goals is not fixed. In the fourth place, it is mandatory that these systems have internal environments made of different interacting subsystems (technical, social and environmental). Finally, it is characteristic of social systems that their performance is dependent on an interaction between both technical and social subsystems. However, there are different socio-technical systems design approaches that have been developed across the world to suit different traditions.

Approaches Used In the Development of Socio-Technical Systems

According to Baxter and Sommerville (n.d), there are several approaches that can be used in the designing of socio-technical systems, especially in the field of engineering and include the following:

Soft Systems Methodology: this approach is rooted in engineering as opposed to social sciences, as it focuses mainly on the problem to be solved. It directs that the problem should be understood so as to give a way forward in getting the solution. The social part of this approach is taken into account when the views of all stakeholders are taken into consideration in the process of finding a solution to the identified problem (Baxter and Sommerville, n.d).

Cognitive Work Analysis: it is an approach that was designed to look into the performance process of socio-technical systems (Baxter and Sommerville, n.d). In other words, it was developed with the aim of projecting the performance of a system as opposed to ‘how work should be done or how work is done’ (Baxter and Sommerville, n.d).

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Socio-technical method: it is used in the designing of work systems. The main focus is on allocation of jobs either to machines or to humans; the designer gets to decide which jobs are to be done by the machines through Information Technology and those to be done by employees.

Ethnographic workplace analysis: it is informed by the nature of work to be done and how it influences the use and functioning of a system. Additionally, it focuses on the changes in job designs and the influence of awareness and physical design on the performance of work.

Contextual design: this mainly deals with designing products that match the customer’s work design. In other words, this approach focuses on customers and their work such that the system’s design will match the working procedure of a customer.

Cognitive systems engineering: Baxter and Sommerville (n.d) state that “this approach deals with the analysis of organizational issues and offers some practical support for systems design”. Through observation, this approach enables designers to identify the reasons for a success or failure of a certain system.

Human centered design: as the name suggests, its main focus is on humans. The socio-cultural backgrounds of the users will determine the type of design to be modeled. The design should be in sync with the organizational cultural practices.

Socio-technical systems approach as used in systems engineering

There is a strong case for using socio-technical systems approach in the designing of engineering systems especially in the field of information technology. Baxter and Sommerville (n.d) argue that the failure of an organization to meet deadlines and function effectively can not be blamed entirely on the failure of technology but on the lack of coordination between the subsystems. For example, an organization can improve its information technology system so as to improve service delivery to customers, but fail to achieve the anticipated results due to lack of motivation among the employees. This demonstrates that any change in an organization should spark change in the entire process chain, such that the entire system is redesigned to achieve the set goals.

In context, the analysis in this paper will focus on the implementation of an IT system in a mining company and the effects of the adoption of such a system. The IT system will be aimed at improving the managerial functions through keeping an online data system of employees; improvement of sales and marketing strategies through the use of the internet; and enhancing of information security such that organizational data is stored in a safe place where prying eyes can not reach.

For this project to be successful, the company should take a socio-technical systems approach such that all the three components (social, environmental and technical) are connected to working mutuality. According to Baxter and Sommerville (n.d), to avoid inefficiency and designing of poor systems, it is the responsibility of the management to make the decision of adopting socio-technical systems engineering (STSE) whereby a socio-technical approach is applied in the systems engineering cycle.

To make such a system successful, the employees should be trained on the use of the IT infrastructure. Therefore, the company should be ready to invest more in training and development of employees such that they will be competent enough to handle the change. For instance, a computer illiterate salesperson can not be provided with a computer with the expectations that he will use it to improve sales. Likewise, computer literate employees should receive further training so as to acquire skills that will keep them relevant to the changing technological world.

Moreover, the management should ensure that the facilities provided are comfortable for the users. Therefore, work ergonomics should be considered so that employees do not strain when working. Proper physical conditions in the work place will enhance the adaptation of the employees to the system changes.

The social component should also be empowered through recruiting of more personnel who are IT specialists, so that they train the rest of the workforce on IT skills. The organization’s human resource department should as well be keen on employing competitive IT personnel. Furthermore, employees should be given more power to make decisions regarding the performance of their tasks. In other words, workers should be given a certain degree of autonomy so that they perform their duties with minimal supervision. That is to say that managers or supervisors should seek to hire employees that really understand their professional tasks so that the management operates hands-off. This will in turn encourage creativity and innovation among the employees.

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On the technical part, the new technology should be so well integrated in the business operations such that it becomes a daily component of the employees’ activities. This, according to Baxter and Sommerville (n.d), it is known as domestication of the system such that all stakeholders become familiar with it. For example, the sales and marketing technical design should be formulated to accommodate advertisement and marketing strategies. Likewise, the human resource department’s technical design should allow for safe record keeping that is inaccessible to unauthorized personnel.

Environmentally, the adoption of the information technology in the organizational process should ensure that the requirements of the suppliers, customers and the government are satisfied. The management must ensure that the system is in line with the legal requirements set up by the government. On the other hand, the needs of both the customers and suppliers have to be satisfied; the relationships between organizations and their suppliers and customers should be enhanced if a change in technology occurs. This is to say that a technical change should not severe the relationship between an organization and its stakeholders.

Moreover, the role of the decision makers is critical in determining the success of the implementation of this IT system in the mining company. The managers have to ensure that every part of the organizational system is redesigned to accommodate this technical change. It is the responsibility of the management to ensure that a human centered approach is employed so that the cultural aspects of all employees are taken into consideration.

The decision makers should also take into consideration the organizational issues that will affect the implementation of an IT system. Therefore, it is their responsibility to invest in checking the viability of existing organizational processes. This will give an insight into the organization’s performance and how the introduction of the IT system will impact on the entire organizational processes. The question is, ‘what needs to be changed and what has to be retained?’ This will act as a guide to the management in making decisions that will encourage the success of the new technological system. Training of employees is also a key in ensuring that a new system will be successful; employees should first understand the existing organizational processes so that they can be able to understand the impact of the new system on the processes.

Furthermore, the decision makers have the responsibility of performing an analysis of the developmental process of implementing an organizational IT system. According to Baxter and Sommerville (n.d), this process involves the four fundamental activities of procurement, analysis, construction and operation. During procurement, the decision makers decide on the systems to be retained as well as the new ones that have to be acquired either internally or externally. This follows an extensive analysis of all the stakeholders’ needs that will be addressed by this new system. After this comes the integration of the new system into the existing systems and databases. Finally, there is the actual implementation of the new system whereby it is put into use and changes proposed when need be to suit changing organizational processes.

Risks associated with the adoption of an IT system in a mining company

The upgrading of a traditional management system into a modern one is faced by several risks and its outcomes are uncertain. One way of modernizing organizational processes is through adopting the use of information technology in all organizational departments. The first risk of introducing a new technical system could be the loss of important company data due to unfamiliarity with the system. This mostly happens in cases where the employees are not fully empowered to handle this new system. Loss of data could also be brought about by systemic failures such as crushing of computer systems where data can not be retrieved.

Secondly, the implementation of an IT system in the company is faced by security risks such as hacking of the system by unauthorized personnel. This will expose confidential information to rivals. For example, the financial statements, client details and employees’ personal details can get into the wrong hands if the new system is not well protected.

The initial stages of the implementation of an IT system are costly and therefore tend to take a huge bite on the company’s revenue. This is quite risky since there is no surety whether the system will be successful. Additionally, the costs of maintenance of such a system especially when an unfamiliar bug (virus) hits may be higher than the returns.


As the key technical decision maker in this company that intends to adopt the organizational IT system, I would first of all purchase the required equipment necessary for setting up the system. These include computer systems and wireless networks as well as other necessary equipment. In addition, it would be wise to purchase other equipment required for the change of organizational processes that will be brought about by the adoption of the IT system.

Secondly, I would perform an extensive analysis to determine the effects of introducing such a system into the existing organizational systems. This analysis will give important information that will guide the system in addressing stakeholders’ needs. It will also guide in the replacement of obsolete systems with new ones that will support the effective functioning of the IT system. Furthermore, this analysis would look into organizational issues that are important in ensuring the success of the IT system. Such issues include performance and functional capabilities of different departments of the organization that can be used to strengthen the outcomes of the adoption of an IT system.

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Thirdly, as the chief technical decision maker I would invest in training of the staff in order to familiarize them with the new system. The training would be given to all employees regardless of their positions. Through this training, the risks of data loss and security concerns would be reduced since there would be enough manpower to deal with such problems. Moreover, I would hire experts in the information technology field who would impart the necessary skills to my staff.

It is also important to carry out sensitization and awareness campaigns on the new system. This will be aimed at providing important information to all stakeholders so that they play their part in steering the system towards success. Additionally, the advantages and disadvantages of introducing the IT system will be discussed during these campaigns. This will in turn empower the stakeholders to make informed choices about the system. These campaigns will further help in identifying stakeholders’ needs that would be addressed by the new system.

Lastly, after the actual implementation, I would come up with a monitoring and evaluation program to follow up on the progress of the system. This program would be periodically revised so as to remain relevant to the prevailing conditions. It is through the monitoring and evaluation of the performance of the new system that new developments can be done with the efforts of improving its efficiency. It is also right to say that for any project to be successful, a monitoring and evaluation program should be available.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Organizations are systems that encompass socio-cultural, environmental as well as technical aspects. It is therefore right to say that an organization is a socio-technical system whose technical, environmental and social factors mutually interact to improve organizational performance and function ability.  For a company to achieve its desired goals there must be a balanced interaction between the three factors. Characteristics of a socio-technical system are that it is composed of interdependent factors; the process of achieving goals is not fixed; it operates both in internal and external environments; and that its performance is dependent on the interaction of the three components. Moreover, there are different approaches that are used in developing socio-technical systems and include soft systems methodology; cognitive work analysis; Socio-technical method; Ethnographic workplace analysis; Contextual design; Cognitive systems engineering; and Human centered design.  The development of a socio-technical system in the engineering sector and more so in information technology follows the chronological steps of procurement, analysis, construction and operation. However, there are certain risks that are associated with the adoption of an IT system in an organization. These risks include loss of data, data security as well as high operational and maintenance costs.

To improve the performance of a socio-technical system such as an IT system, there are several recommendations that can be implemented. The first recommendation is to sensitize and create awareness among all the stakeholders through the incorporation of socio-technical systems information in training and discussion forums. New channels of information transfer should also be created so as to enable the sharing of knowledge and experiences between organizations. Another recommendation is that organizations should adopt an integrated human centered approach in the development of a socio-technical system. This will ensure that human needs are put into consideration when implementing such systems so that they will be sustainable. Moreover, it is recommended that key technical decision makers should implement organizational learning programs that are not only educative but also economical. These programs should be integrated in the socio-technical systems such that they remain effective in educating all stakeholders on the different issues of organizational processes and their alteration by adoption of new systems. Finally, the implementation of socio-technical systems should be done with a global view so that it accommodates different socio-cultural backgrounds. Research should therefore be conducted in organizational processes worldwide so as to assess how globalization can be integrated in the adoption of a new system in an organization.

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