Sociotechnical Systems (STS) Theory

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  • 0:02 Sociotechincal Systems
  • 1:14 Eric Trist & STS Theory
  • 2:37 Major STS Concepts
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
How do the social and technical aspects of a workplace function together? In this lesson, we'll talk about the theory of sociotechnical systems (STS), including organizational theorist Eric Trist's contribution.

Sociotechnical Systems

What is the relationship between workers and technology within an organization? In other words, how do humans and technology work together to form a cohesive system? In this lesson, we'll talk about the idea of sociotechnical systems theory, which explores these very questions.

Sociotechnical theory (STS) theory is all about how the social and technical aspects of a workplace fit together. The goal is to optimize both of these so that an organization can run as smoothly as possible. Basically, STS theory is an approach to the way that work organizations are designed.

STS theory emphasizes the strategic consideration of both the social and the technical aspects of an organization, thinking of these two features as intertwined. Ideally, organizations want to achieve what is known as joint optimization. This means that rather than simply inputting people into existing technical systems, work places should be designed in such a way that both people and technology coexist in harmony.

Okay, let's talk a little more about this theory.

Eric Trist & STS Theory

One of the earliest and most important statements on sociotechnical systems and the workplace comes from the English organizational theorist Eric Trist. Born in 1909, Trist was one of the leading figures in the study of organizational behavior.

He conducted a study of the coal mining industry in Britain to try and understand how the social and technical aspects of coal mining worked together as the industry was changing. As new mining technology was being developed, the industry needed to adapt.

The technical change also brought about a social change in the mines. Workers were grouped into shifts and they all performed the same task in this shift, workers were placed far apart, making it difficult to talk to each other, and shifts were supervised by only one manager, despite a large number of workers in each shift.

The idea here was that this would increase productivity. But what Trist found was workers were bored doing the same task for an entire shift. They preferred doing a number of different tasks. So the lesson here was that the technical perspective, or redesigning the structure of work, did not consider the social aspect, or the workers and their needs.

As a result, Trist developed some important lessons for organizations based on this study.

Major STS Concepts

First, the idea of responsible autonomy is key. Responsible autonomy is an approach where management gives employees more control over their own work. Imagine you're an employee in a workplace. What do you want your relationship with management to be like? Do you wan them to always be micromanaging you or not giving you much creative freedom or flexibility? Probably not!

The idea here is that giving employees more freedom in the workplace will generate a greater commitment to the firm. Now, it doesn't necessarily mean employees will show greater compliance overall, but it has been shown to be effective in generating commitment to one's work.

A second key is adaptability, which in this case is the way that organizations respond to change. In order to be successful, organizations need to be flexible and able to respond to changes in the external environment. This also means that internal managers and workers should be flexible. For example, tasks and work schedules shouldn't be rigid. The process within a sociotechnical system should be open to adjustment.

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