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A Brief Introduction to Sociotechnical Systems

A Brief Introduction to Sociotechnical Systems
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Author(s): Brian Whitworth (Massey University Auckland, New Zealand)
Copyright: 2009
Pages: 7
Source title: Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Second Edition
Source Author(s)/Editor(s): Mehdi Khosrow-Pour, D.B.A. (Information Resources Management Association, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch066


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The term sociotechnical was introduced by the Tavistock Institute in the 1950’s for manufacturing cases where the needs of technology confronted those of local communities, for example, longwall mining in English coalmines (see Social needs were opposed to the reductionism of Taylorism, which broke down jobs on say a car assembly line into most ef- ficient elements. Social and technical were seen as separate side-by-side systems which needed to interact positively, for example, a village near a nuclear plant is a social system (with social needs) besides a technical system (with technical needs). The sociotechnical view later developed into a call for ethical computer use by supporters like Mumford (Porra & Hirscheim, 2007). In the modern holistic view the sociotechnical system (STS) is the whole system, not one of two side-by-side systems. To illustrate the contrast, consider a simple case: A pilot plus a plane are two side-by-side systems with different needs, one mechanical (plane) and one human (pilot). Human Computer Interaction (HCI) suggests these systems should interact positively to succeed. However plane plus pilot can also be seen as a single system, with human and mechanical levels. On the mechanical level, the pilot’s body is as physical as the plane, for example, the body of the plane and the body of the pilot both have weight, volume, and so forth. However the pilot adds a human thought level that sits above the plane’s mechanical level, allowing the “pilot + plane” system to strategize and analyze. The sociotechnical concept that will be developed changes the priorities, for example, if a social system sits next to a technical one it is usually secondary, and ethics an afterthought to mechanics, but when a social system sits above a technical one it guides the entire system, that is, the primary factor in system performance.

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