Sociotechnical Systems Theory

Sociotechnical systems theory emerged in the 1950s from a programme of research undertaken at the Tavistock Institute, London, UK, which focussed on the disruptive impacts of new technologies on human work (Eason 2008, Trist and Bamforth 1951). Primarily a work design theory, sociotechnical systems theory is heavily underpinned by systems theory and contains principles related to participative democracy and humanistic values. This engenders a focus on both the performance of the work system and the experience and well-being of the people performing the work (Clegg 2000). A key contribution of sociotechnical systems theory is the provision of various values and principles to support the design of sociotechnical systems that align with open systems principles (e.g. Cherns 1976, Clegg 2000, Davis 1982, Walker et al. 2009b).

Being underpinned by systems theory, sociotechnical systems theory shares the notion that it comprises both social and technical elements co-engaged in the pursuit of shared goals. The interaction of these social and technical aspects creates emergent properties and the conditions for either successful or unsuccessful system performance (Walker et al. 2009b). Accordingly, joint optimisation - as opposed to the optimisation of solely the social or technical aspects - is required for safe and efficient system performance (Badham et al. 2006).

Based on many applications in work design, there is strong evidence that applying sociotechnical systems theory values and principles can have a series of benefits. For example, a meta-analysis of 134 studies involving applications of sociotechnical systems theory found that almost 90% reported improvements in safety and productivity and >90% reported improvements in workers’ attitudes and quality of outputs (Pasmore et al. 1982). Until now, the approach has been applied overwhelmingly to the introduction of new technologies (such as computer systems) within organisations (Davis et al. 2014). Proponents of the sociotechnical approach have called for its expansion to the entire work system, including the design of physical working environments (Davis et al. 2011), as well as to broader societal issues that span multiple organisations such as security, sustainability, health-care provision and urban planning (Davis et al. 2014). Prior to the work described in this book, to our knowledge sociotechnical systems theory had not been applied to the design of surface transportation systems.

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