Thesis 1: Work System Models Must be Expanded and Adapted to the Particularities of Digital Work

Work system models “apply to the design of optimal working conditions with regard to human well-being, safety and health, including the development of existing skills and the acquisition of new ones, while taking into account technological and economic effectiveness and efficiency” (ISO 2016). They therefore have direct relevance to the design of workplace factors that have undergone digital transformation. However, the models must also be adapted, in terms of content and structure, to the change dynamics which are typical for digital transformation.

Most of the models currently in widespread use are composed of similar basic elements that are arranged differently. Based on ISO 6385:2016, the central elements of a work system are:

  • • Worker: “person performing one or more activities to achieve a goal within a work system”.
  • • Work task: “activity or set of activities required of the worker to achieve an intended outcome”. A job is “the organization and sequence in time and space of an individual’s work task or the combination of all human performance by one worker within a work system”.
  • • Work equipment: “tools, including hardware and software, machines, vehicles, devices, furniture, installations and other components used in the work system”.
  • • Work environment: “physical, chemical, biological, organizational, social and cultural factors surrounding a worker” (including the workspace).
  • • Work process: “sequence in time and space of the interaction of workers, work equipment, materials, energy and information within a work system”; work organization stands for work systems interacting to produce a specific output.

In addition, work system models generally address the exchange of input and output of the work system with their environment.

Based on an understanding of the organization according to systems theory, two model types can be distinguished. (1) A simple closed-loop control model. The basis of this first-order cybernetics is “the idea of monitoring a system, or its targeted control analogous to straight-line cause-and-effect relationships” (Simon 2009, 19). (2) A sociotechnical model, that additionally considers the dynamic interactions between technical and tangible subsystems and social subsystems (Ulich 2013).

Both approaches fall short as a basis for the task of designing work that has undergone digital transformation, as they do not adequately address three important aspects. First, the models do not take appropriate account of the change dynamics. They are based on the assumption that the work system can be organized or corrected once and for all, and can then be run or controlled indefinitely according to defined rules. The nature of the influence of digital transformation, however, is constant and disruptive, which means that there is a permanent need to adapt.

Second, the conceptualization of leadership is based on a traditional understanding of leadership - if it is explicitly taken into account in the organizations at all. In other words, it is assumed that the leader and the experts supporting the leader have all the knowledge and implementation competence necessary in order to design the work system. In a context of constant dynamic change, however, the necessary knowledge of optimal work design is a product of a process of dialog with the active involvement of workers (primacy of participation). Here, the function of leadership is to create a space for participation and thereby establish the best possible conditions for work design.

Third, the models take account of the influence of the corporate culture marginally at most, for example, as an aspect of the work environment. Yet the particular culture of the organization has a crucial bearing on how the technical and social system elements interact and plays a fundamental role in the development of a sustainable culture of prevention in safety and health at work.

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