Participation and Socio-Technical Systems

By Eli Berniker PhD

Participation is a major root in Socio-Technical Systems (STS) origins and practice. STS began when a group of coal miners, autonomously, met in a pub, decided to reorganize their work, and demanded that they get “a common pay chit.” This was a naturally occurring organizational experiment originating with them without consultants, managers, or researchers. The context was the mechanization of coal mining with conveyors and the implementation of work fragmentation and incentive pay for particular tasks. This was good “scientific management.” It did not work because coal mines did not have predictable work content and much work was expended on non-incentive tasks. Cornish mining competence goes back over a thousand years. The miners simply adapted that experience to organize their operation of the mechanized mine face and were very successful. In effect, they acted as a large cooperative subcontractor earning a common pay chit for the coal they delivered. We only know about the “experiment” because researchers got wind of it and gained permission to observe.

Participation Defined

Participation may be defined as group acts of sensemaking and/or decision making, separable from the typical hierarchical arrangements dictated by organization structures. Autonomous participation lives on in what is called the “informal organization” and around ubiquitous coffee machines. Facilitated participation has roots in the group process studies of Kurt Lewin and has been the central activity in Organization Development consultancy. Facilitated participation has organizational sanction with the limitations that such sanction requires.

Participation, usually facilitated, is an important principle in STS design practice for two reasons. It is understood as a central value and as a critical design principle. The distinction is significant.
Participation as a value defines a relationship to the people whose work is being designed. There is a long tradition of treating people who work as being less than human. Hannah Arendt noted the distinction in many languages between work and labor. Labor was associated with slavery, necessity, and unfreedom. Adam Smith noted that the division of labor removed from workers “the exercise” of “invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties” whose absence makes workers “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” F.W Taylor saw laboring work as more suitable for a “gorilla” or a “cart horse” than an intelligent human being. He describes a pig iron handler as “so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox.” Before World War I, it was common to advertise for “hands,” not people. The Division of Labor was explicitly a process imitated by manufacturers to control behaviors of laborers and liberate employers from dependence on their skills.

Participation as an STS Value

Participation, as an STS value, requires that people be actively engaged in inventing their own work lives. It expects workers to be agents in designing their future work organization as was the case with those coal miners in Durham, England. Participation might be understood as having workers as Origins, i.e. central actors in their own narratives rather than Pawns subject to imposed designs by others. Facilitation, under this value, becomes functional support rather than “empowerment.” Participation, as an STS value, recognizes human agency rather than granting it.

Alternatively, participation is a design principle. The Durham coal mine experiment provides a vivid example. Herbst studied the movements of the miners as work progressed in the coal getting cycle. As conditions changed along the mine face, the miners exhibited “task continuity.” No one told them what to do. They knew enough to undertake whatever next tasks were needed. In other words, the miners as a “team” readily redeployed themselves in terms of the contingent conditions of the mine face. Being very experienced miners and respected coworkers, they adapted their work very effectively. Operationally, that is a very valuable capacity. We cannot expect to replicate the long collective mining experience of Cornish miners.

Ask workers why they are executing a particular task in a particular way. Often the only answer is that is how they were told to do it. A group of workers so uninformed about their own roles and tasks is unable to redeploy when necessary. They can only follow orders. The fragmentation of work based on Taylor’s separation of thinking from doing is maladaptive since it reserves all adaptive functions for management.

Participative Design of Work

A condition for reorganizing a group’s efforts on the fly in the face of emergent conditions and demands is to have them participate in the design of their initial work organization. Fully understanding the assumptions that lead to the definition and allocation of their work roles and tasks empowers them to revise those deployments as needed. That capability only comes from participative design. That assertion can be readily tested.

Participative design develops remarkable adaptive capacities in work teams. That capacity grows with experience as problems are addressed and solved and learning is shared. Imposed designs cannot match that capacity since they must assume limited capacities, safety factors with respect to capacities, and the separation of learning from work.

In STS organization design, participation as both a value and as a design principle is conceptually separable but not functionally so. A focus on the value without empowering participants in a process of design becomes manipulation. A process of design without valuing participants is simply co-opting them. Our rich involvement in hierarchical organizations often blinds us to the conditions for effective meaningful participation.

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