An overview of some links – sociotechnical systems


Sociotechnical systems (STS) in organizational development is an approach to complex organizational work design that recognizes the interaction between people and technology in workplaces. The term also refers to the interaction between society’s complex infrastructures and human behaviour. In this sense, society itself, and most of its substructures, are complex sociotechnical systems. The term sociotechnical systems was coined by Eric Trist, Ken Bamforth and Fred Emery, in the World War II era, based on their work with workers in English coal mines at the Tavistock Institute in London.

Sociotechnical systems pertains to theory regarding the social aspects of people and society and technical aspects of organizational structure and processes. Here, technical does not necessarily imply material technology. The focus is on procedures and related knowledge, i.e. it refers to the ancient Greek term techne. “Technical” is a term used to refer to structure and a broader sense of technicalities. Sociotechnical refers to the interrelatedness of social and technical aspects of an organization or the society as a whole.[2]Sociotechnical theory therefore is about joint optimization, with a shared emphasis on achievement of both excellence in technical performance and quality in people’s work lives. Sociotechnical theory, as distinct from sociotechnical systems, proposes a number of different ways of achieving joint optimisation. They are usually based on designing different kinds of organisation, ones in which the relationships between socio and technical elements lead to the emergence of productivity and wellbeing.

Sociotechnical system – Wikipedia 

Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems:

Socio-Technical Centre at the University of Leeds:

International conference on sociotechnical systems:

Socio-technical systems: From design methods to systems engineering

Gordon BaxterIan Sommerville Interacting with Computers, Volume 23, Issue 1, January 2011, Pages 4 -17 07 August 2010

It is widely acknowledged that adopting a socio-technical approach to system development leads to systems that are more acceptable to end users and deliver better value to stakeholders. Despite this, such approaches are not widely practised. We analyse the reasons for this, highlighting some of the problems with the better known socio-technical design methods. Based on this analysis we propose a new pragmatic framework for socio-technical systems engineering (STSE) which builds on the (largely independent) research of groups investigating work design, information systems, computer-supported cooperative work, and cognitive systems engineering. STSE bridges the traditional gap between organisational change and system development using two main types of activity: sensitisation and awareness; and constructive engagement. From the framework, we identify an initial set of interdisciplinary research problems that address how to apply socio-technical approaches in a cost-effective way, and how to facilitate the integration of STSE with existing systems and software engineering approaches.


A Review of Sociotechnical Systems Theory: A Classic Concept for New Command and Control Paradigms

November 2008

Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science 9(6):479-499

DOI: 10.1080/14639220701635470Guy H Walker

Neville A Stanton

Paul Matthew Salmon

Daniel P Jenkins

Command and control is the management infrastructure for any large, complex, dynamic resource system (Harris, C.J. and White, I., 1987. Advances in command, control and communication systems. London: Peregrinus). Traditional military command and control is increasingly challenged by a host of modern problems, namely, environmental complexity, dynamism, new technology and competition that is able to exploit the weaknesses of an organisational paradigm that has been dominant since the industrial revolution. The conceptual response to these challenges is a new type of command and control organisation called Network Enabled Capability (NEC). Although developed independently, NEC exhibits a high degree of overlap with concepts derived from sociotechnical systems theory, a fact that this paper aims to explore more fully. Uniquely, what sociotechnical theory brings to NEC research is a successful 50 year legacy in the application of open systems principles to commercial organisations. This track record is something that NEC research currently lacks. The paper reviews the twin concepts of NEC and sociotechnical systems theory, the underlying motivation behind the adoption of open systems thinking, a review of classic sociotechnical studies and the current state of the art. It is argued that ‘classic’ sociotechnical systems theory has much to offer ‘new’ command and control paradigms. The principles of sociotechnical systems theory align it exceptionally well with the challenges of modern organisational design. It is also reflective of a wider paradigm shift in ergonomics theory away from ‘industrial age’ modes of thought to systems-based ‘information age’ thinking.


Socio-technical theory:

Sociotechnical systems.

Cooper, RobertFoster, Michael


Cooper, R., & Foster, M. (1971). Sociotechnical systems. American Psychologist, 26(5), 467–474.


Reviews the theoretical and empirical work of social scientists in developing sociotechnical systems over the past 20 yr. At the tavistock institute of human relations in london. The sociotechnical system requires that any production system involve the technology (machinery, plant layout, raw materials) and work-relationship structure that relates the human operators to the technology and to each other. The implications of sociotechnical theory for task organization and organizational choice are discussed. The value of sociotechnical systems for various aspects of the man-machine relationship is also noted. A schematic diagram of a sociotechnical approach to a typical industrial production system is included. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)


Afterword: The Past, Present and Future of Sociotechnical Systems Theory

7th November 2017/in Publications /


Afterword: The Past, Present and Future of Sociotechnical Systems Theory Ken Eason

It is a rare privilege to have been the inspiration behind the production of this collection of papers and I warmly thank all of the contributors, especially Patrick Waterson, for reminding me of so many debates and giving me so much to reflect upon. I was especially pleased to find such a strong theme running through these papers, a theme that has been an obsession for me for over 40 years: sociotechnical systems theory. Throughout my career I have been concerned with systems approaches in ergonomics because they enable us to recognize that people at work often engage in tasks as part of a complex system and this has profound effects on them and their task performance. Of all the systems approaches that are available I have found sociotechnical systems theory the most powerful way of explaining systems behaviour and the most useful in designing new systems. My aim in these pages is to use the insights that the authors in this volume have provided to reflect on what has been important to me about sociotechnical systems theory, on where this approach is in the present day and what contribution it might make in the future.

Sociotechnical systems studies 1970-1990

I was very fortunate in the 1970s to work with Lisl Klein and Harold Bridger who were at that time stalwarts of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, widely acknowledged to have been responsible for the development of sociotechnical sys- tems theory. The theory was developed to explain the human and organisational ramifications of the introduction of mechanization into coal mining, weaving and other industries. By the 1970s it was computer technology in all its forms that was beginning to have a major impact on work systems and when we started the HUSAT (Human Sciences and Advanced Technology) Research Group at Loughborough University, so graphically described by Tom Stewart and Leela Damodaran (Waterson, Stewart and Dam- odaran, this volume), it was natural for me to apply sociotechnical systems concepts in order to understand the impact of this new technology on people at work. At that time the main issue was that this technology was being used via ‘remote terminals’ linked to mainframe computers by ‘naïve users’, i.e. people who were not computer professionals, and these new users had to adapt to the unfriendly, rigid and literal ways in which computers operated. This started a major programme of work to render these devices easy to use for their new users leading to the ‘user friendly’ graph- ical interfaces used by most of the population today. My preoccu- pation, however, was that within each organisation there were different kinds of users whose work roles and tasks require specific service from the computer system. As a consequence we were soon writing papers about the needs of different kinds of computer user and my contribution to an early issue of this journal was a paper on ‘the manager as a computer user’. Sociotechnical systems theory, because of its emphasis upon the way technical and human resources are deployed to serve the needs of a collective task, was particularly well suited to examining how effectively the task needs of each user were served by computer systems and in most cases we found they were very badly served with the result that many systems were either rejected or ‘worked around’.

Science Direct Link

Ken EasonAfterword: The past, present and future of sociotechnical systems theory, In Applied Ergonomics, Volume 45, Issue 2, Part A, 2014, Pages 213-220, ISSN 0003-6870, SystemsSociotechnical Systems TheorySystems Thinking


Innovating for improved healthcare: Sociotechnical and innovation systems perspectives and lessons from the NHS 

Sonja MarjanovicMarlene AltenhoferLucy HockingJoanna ChatawayTom LingScience and Public Policy, Volume 47, Issue 2, April 2020, Pages 283–297, 04 February 2020


Healthcare systems with limited resources face rising demand pressures. Healthcare decision-makers increasingly recognise the potential of innovation to help respond to this challenge and to support high-quality care. However, comprehensive and actionable evidence on how to realise this potential is lacking. We adopt sociotechnical systems and innovation systems theoretical perspectives to examine conditions that can support and sustain innovating healthcare systems. We use primary data focussing on England (with 670 contributions over time) and triangulate findings against globally-relevant literature. We discuss the complexity of factors influencing an innovating healthcare system’s ability to support the development and uptake of innovations and share practical learning about changes in policy, culture, and behaviour that could support system improvement. Three themes are examined in detail: skills, capabilities, and leadership; motivations and accountabilities; and collaboration and coordination. We also contribute to advancing applications of sociotechnical systems thinking to major societal transformation challenges.


Sociotechnical systems theory in the 21st Century: another half-filled glass?


In the paper, Ken argues that socio-technical systems theory has a number of crucial contributions that are currently missing in the accounts in the field. He notes that many researchers on the issue have often mismatched between the prevailing work culture and the prescriptive propositions that underpin the novel technology system. Prescriptive assumptions in the socio-technical system perspective give insights into the reasons for the emergent codes of behavior that have everything to do with the reality of the work to be done. Ken notes that the emergent behaviors at work-places may be as a result of people trying to cope with the knock-on effects of the novel systems in their work processes. He gives an example of medical staff that may find pleasure in recording information regarding administration, but have fears recording their tentative clinical conclusions for the worries of who may access the information (Eason, 2013, p. 9).

Eason, K. (2013, May 4). Sociotechnical systems theory in the 21st Century: another half-filled glass? Retrieved February 12, 2014, from Sense in Social Science: