The Sociotechnical School of Thought: Explained

The sociotechnical school developed in England from the 1950s at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, established in 1947.

Its main representatives are Emery, Trist, and Rice. The institute aimed to bring together scientists from diverse backgrounds to study groups and organizations.

The institute still exists, organizing training, promoting research, and engaging in consultancy. Abraham (2013) provides a synthesis of its contribution to modern management.

Sociotechnical analysis is rooted in psychology, work sociology, and engineering. It emphasizes small groups, influenced by the human relations school, and the interdependence between technical and human factors in work, characteristic of a systemic approach.

Principles of the Sociotechnical School

This school proposes a new organizational approach that combines systemic contributions and those of the human relations school. The organization is seen as an open sociotechnical system.

The organization is influenced by its environment. The sociotechnical school highlights the importance of work group composition while emphasizing the role of technology.

Additionally, social and technical elements interact. The study of small groups cannot be limited to member characteristics alone, as technology sets a framework. While technology is constraining, it does not mandate a unique organizational mode.

There is no one best way, challenging not only Taylorian principles regarding Scientific Management but also structural contingency theorists’ conclusions on the predominance of technology.

Organization performance depends on the joint optimization of the technical and social systems. Several studies underpin these principles.

Foundational Works of the Sociotechnical School: Trist, Bamforth, and Rice

Trist and Bamforth’s Research

Trist and Bamforth (1956) were the first to emphasize interactions between social and technical aspects. They experimented in a coal mine, studying coal extraction. They showed that mechanizing work alone did not increase productivity, and the same technique could lead to different work organizations.

Before mechanization, work organization involved small self-selecting groups of miners. Each team was responsible for its work, and members were paid equally based on group productivity, fostering strong internal cohesion.

With the introduction of machine-based extraction and mechanized coal transport, a new work organization emerged, introducing division within and between teams. This method broke the miners’ versatility, separating individual payment from collective performance.

The strong social integration in small teams disappeared, leading to declining productivity, rivalries, conflicts, and increased absenteeism in certain personnel categories.

Researchers found other mines that did not adopt this new Taylorian work organization after mechanization. In these mines, teams continued to self-select, practice versatility, and self-organize. There was no division of labor between teams; each team executed successive tasks, redistributing members for different operations and reorganizing at each task change.

Comparing work organization in these different mines post-mechanization, researchers observed increased productivity only when teams self-organized and retained autonomy in task distribution.

Subsequent experiments with varying degrees of team autonomy consistently showed that autonomous teams had higher productivity, better morale, and lower absenteeism.

This emphasized the importance of autonomous groups and the possibility of different work organizations with the same technology. To enhance productivity, optimizing both the technical and social systems is essential.

Rice’s Study

Trist and Bamforth’s experiment gave birth to the sociotechnical school. Later, Rice (1958) also demonstrated interactions between social and technical elements. He studied a textile factory in India during the introduction of automated looms.

Despite replacing manual looms and introducing division of labor, productivity effects were limited. However, relations between workers and management seemed positive.

The experiment led to a change in work organization by granting more autonomy to a group (instead of increasing task specification and supervision).

Thus, a group of employees became responsible for a set of tasks with a certain degree of qualification sharing. In this case, the new organization had positive effects on quality and productivity.

This experiment once again illustrated the existence of different work organizations despite using the same technology, emphasizing the importance of work group autonomy. These foundational studies highlight the central role of action research in the sociotechnical school.

Contributions and Extensions of the Sociotechnical School

The sociotechnical school’s main contribution is its approach to understanding the enterprise as a sociotechnical system. Work organization and outcomes depend on both social and technical aspects interacting reciprocally. While technology sets limits on possible organization types, there is still a range of choices between different organization types.

Various socio-productive combinations can underlie different organizational methods. This challenges Taylorian principles advocating for Scientific Management and one best way, as well as contingency theory (technology’s role).

Compared to human relations school theorists, this approach has the advantage of considering technical constraints. Technical and social constraints react to each other.

Organization efficiency depends on the joint optimization of technical and social dimensions. Sociotechnical analysis is thus a comprehensive and systemic approach to the enterprise. Criticism may arise due to the absence of a standardized method or recommendations, but the interventionist nature of this approach does not lend itself to such.

Sociotechnical analysis focuses on the needs of workers, akin to the human relations school, but goes further by emphasizing employee participation in the enterprise.

Granting autonomy to employees allows spontaneous organization into groups, considering both individual needs and production imperatives. The concept of industrial democracy is nascent here.

This school greatly influenced the promotion of autonomous and semi-autonomous work groups, as well as the movement to improve the quality of work life.

The Tavistock Institute of London’s work initiated numerous industrial experiments in semi-autonomous group work organization from the 1970s, often termed New Forms of Work Organization (NFOT).

These teams consist of employee groups without hierarchical supervisors, tasked with producing all or part of a product, with responsibility for organizing and distributing work among themselves.

The most significant example is the birth of the Swedish model of work organization in the Volvo company, contrasting with the American Fordist model.

In conclusion, sociotechnical theory shows that, for a given technology, there can be multiple possible production organizations, not just one as advocated by Taylor and Ford. This school of thought also emphasizes greater expression and participation of employees in the enterprise than envisaged by Mayo and the human relations movement.

Conclusion

Born in the mid-20th century, sociotechnical analysis still resonates strongly.

Sociotechnical analysis has been primarily associated with the formation of autonomous work groups, and this work organization model faced limitations.

However, the contributions of this analysis go beyond. Should we speak of the end of sociotechnical analysis? Even though it developed in an industrial context and businesses have changed significantly, some note that its principles are still relevant today and speak of its resurgence (Eason, 2008).

Its theoretical framework is increasingly mobilized in research on new information and communication technologies. It continues to be a reference in organizational change and development.

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