2016 Recommended reading

 The following articles are offered as useful preparatory reading and as key input resources to the deliberations and activities of the 2016 STS Design Roundtable.

Please pick and choose as you please–there are some real gems in this collection.


References as background to the pre-Meeting ½ day Workshop on “An Appreciative Review of Socio-Technical Systems Thinking”.

Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems – Fred Emery

This generalized model is the outcome of the original Tavistock studies undertaken in coal mining and textile manufacturing during the 1950’s that gave rise to the concept of “socio-technical systems”. It provides a frame of reference directing attention to a specific group of questions, such as how a work organization manages its relation to its external environment; how each “component part” of the “technical” and the “work relationship structure” contributes to enterprise performance; and how the parts are interrelated with respect to internal coordination and control.

Paying particular attention to the evolution of the STS Design paradigm in North America over 20 years up until the early 1980’s, Pasmore reviews key STS concepts and features applied across over 130 experiments. An assessment is made of which features are associated with critical outcome dimensions such as productivity, costs, quality, and work satisfaction.
Redesigning Sociotechnical Systems Design: Concepts and Methods for the 1990s – Calvin Pava

A new set of STS design concepts and methods are proposed for work systems characterized by nonlinear conversion processes. The author describes a case application, and emerging opportunities for extending STS design to an additional six novel, future target applications.

North American Design of Nonroutine Work Systems (1980s—1990s) – Douglas Austrom and Carolyn Ordowich

This chapter (from a new book on STS Design) explores the broader context and changing nature of work that prompted Pava’s approach to design for nonroutine work. The article updates the core concepts of nonroutine work design and highlights the legacy of Pava’s approach–sociotechnical systems thinking built on a foundation of self-regulation. Contrary to the threat that increasing computerization could result in a new ‘technological imperative, Pava articulated a holistic organizational architecture wherein self-regulation is extended to every control level.

From Complex Organizations with Simple Jobs to Simple Organizations with Complex Jobs– L. Ulbo de Sitter, J. Friso den Hertog, and Ben Dankbaar

The Dutch variant of STS Design is described in detail here, with its key concepts of Controllability, Production Structure and Control Structure, and Design Sequence Rules with the aim of developing a systemic approach to work design that supports improvements in both the quality of work life and the quality of the organization, i.e. its ability to deal with a complex and continuously changing environment.

Open Systems Tehory and the Two-Stage Model of Active Adaptation – Don de Guerre

Open systems theory (OST), developed primarily by Fred Emery in Australia, is a socioecological systems theory that includes sociotechnical systems. The unit of analysis and design is always the “system in environment”. Design is about how to create a more stable environment populated by true active, adaptive learning organizations that are good for people, the economy, and the planet.

References as background to our Guest Speakers:  Professor Ann Majchrzak, and Professor Edgar Schein

Technology Affordances and Constraints in Management Information Systems – Ann Majchrzak (and Lynne Markus) Professor of Digital Innovation, USC School of Business

This is a valuable perspective on the integration of technology, organization, and people. The concept of ‘technology affordance’ refers to what an individual or organization can do with a technology or information system, while ‘technology constraint’ refers to ways in which an individual or organization can be held back from accomplishing a particular goal when using a technology or system. Affordances and constraints are distinct from technology features—they are ‘relational concepts’ in terms of potential dynamic interactions between people and technology, and can enhance understanding of the uses and consequences of information systems and technology.

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking instead of Telling – Edgar H. Schein Professor Emeritus, Sloan School of Management, M.I.T.

This excerpt includes the Introduction and Chapter One of a new book by a renowned author, academic, and organizational consultant. In a complex and interdependent world, more and more tasks require everyone to do their part, which requires good communication that requires building a trusting relationship that requires ‘Humble Inquiry’. Chapter One defines and explains this fine art of communication that is deceptively simple but challenging because it runs counter to powerful aspects of our culture in work and society.

References as possible Input to the Roundtable Meeting Deliberations A & B on the Digital World in relation to work and work design.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, and how to respond – Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum; January 2016

The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now, a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third—when physical and biological assets equipped with sensors give an information system the ability to capture, communicate, and process data. ”Industry 4.0” is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

Digital America: A Tale of the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Mores’: Executive Summary – McKinsey Global Institute

Digital innovation is happening at a supercharged but uneven pace across the US economy. The real value lies in combining digital assets and capabilities with ingenuity. Meanwhile, digitization is highly disruptive, breaking apart value chains, with network effects that have hyperscale advantages, polarizing the labor market, redefining many occupations, spurring open collaboration, while deepening customer insights and engagement. The race is on—digitization involves continuous experimentation and adaptation.

Big Data and Organization Design – Journal of Organization Design: Volume 3, No. 1 (2014)

‘Big Data’ is a term for data sets that are so large and complex that they are difficult to capture, manage, and process with current data-management tools. This special journal issue begins with an article by Jay Galbraith on shifts in the internal distribution of power and the increasing speed of decision-making brought on by big data. In a second article, Berner et al. propose that big data requires a transformation from command-and- control hierarchies to post-bureaucratic organizational structures. In a third article, Grossman and Siegel discuss how analytics capability is distributed with an analytics governance structure within an organization

A Socio-Technical Perspective on Computerization – Mark Govers and Pim Sudmeier

In an age when IT requires attention from STS practitioners because IT creates the architecture in which most organizations and humans now operate, this article explains the standardization thinking that is often overstretched in enterprise IT systems, describes its effects, and explores ‘archipelago’ thinking as an STS alternative.


It is indisputable that ICT innovations have enabled mutual coordination between organizational parts and the creation of networks in a way that would have been impossible before.  Although there might be fewer and fewer technological limitations in creating such networks, there is in fact an organizational problem associated with such networks as a result of their not fully developed character and the hidden interconnections between parts of the network. This vulnerability will surface increasingly as environments become increasingly turbulent. In case of ICT and network-forms, that means that sociotechnical theorizing should focus on developing an understanding of the organizational dynamics of “network-forms”.

References as possible Input to the Roundtable Meeting Deliberation C on inspiring Examples (and distinctive features) of integrated development of IT and Organizations.

Minimalist Design in Complex Adaptive Systems: A Case Study in a Consumer Co-Op   – Dave Roitman

This case applied a complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach to the implementation of “omnichannel” software in a consumer co-op with over 3 million members and several dozen stores. The software objective was to enable members/customers to purchase products easily regardless of the device(s) they used. The IT change occurred simultaneously with process improvements in product design, marketing, and operations that yielded significantly more autonomy and collaboration within the organization and overall effectiveness of the “omnichannel” project.

Satellite Healthcare: Case Study in Digital Strategy & STS Design –Stu Winby and Dean Hovey

Satellite Healthcare, with 80 dialysis centers across the United States is working towards an ambitious goal of doubling the number of patients that can rely safely and effectively upon home-based care. This article from the Silicon Valley Business Journal provides a brief description of the socio-technical approach being piloted to equip patients with new wearable technology tools along with a service delivery process and new organization of healthcare that has methodically mapped the patient experience as a journey to improved quality of life.

Businesses today are looking for ways to make better use of operational and transactional data to inform business decisions.  Not only does IBM sell the value of data analytics to its customers through cognitive and analytic services, but IBM also is increasing its use of data to run its internal business operations.  This case reports on one such attempt that began as a technology driven intervention and evolved to employ a more sociotechnical design approach.

 Radical Innovation without Collocation: A Case Study at Boeing-Rocketdyne – A. Malhotra, A. Majchrzak, R. Carman, V. Lott. 

This paper describes how a virtual team of scientists and engineers from diverse organizations widely separated geographically collaborated successfully on the design of a radically new rocket engine. Simply replicating product design the way it is done in-person didn’t work. It required a different way of conceptualizing their work, and no less than 40 modifications to the virtual workspace created for this project. Eventually, the team had a sociotechnically aligned virtual work process that produced a new rocket engine, with vastly lower manufacturing costs, 10 times faster to market than prior designs, and with a useful life expanded by a factor of three.

Socio-Technical Design of Knowledge Work & IT – Bert Painter

A public insurance company and its unionized workforce successfully designed and implemented an organization-wide electronic document management system while redesigning jobs, organization structure, and business processes. This experience is an imperfect but powerful illustration of designing social and technical elements of knowledge work concurrently and interactively.

Developing a Viable Disability Care Ecosystem – Peter Aughton

This paper has been written for OST / STSD practitioners to help them plan and undertake workshops designed to create viable business ecosystems. The paper draws on previous ecosystem development projects and centres on a current venture that aims to develop a viable disability care ecosystem. An important fact highlighted in this paper is that complex business ecosystems are unmanageable without a state-of-the-art IT platform. In today’s connected World an IT platform must be able to deal with the changing nature of a business ecosystem, large levels of partner communication and cooperative efforts, and an ecosystem’s unpredictable environments.

References as possible Input to the Roundtable Meeting Deliberation D on new Framework(s) that support Systemic Work Design in a Digital World.

The Future of Sociotechnical Systems Theory and Practice: The Challenges for Information System Design – Eli Berniker; October 2015

The original linking of social and technical systems was a remarkable, but simplistic breakthrough in organizational thought. Now, we are challenged by the goal of “whole systems design”, elevating STS towards Socio, Psychological, Technical, Economic, Information, and Environmental Systems Design. However, each ‘system’ is a Point of View (PoV) that allows us to focus on a set of particular relevant questions at the cost of blurring other phenomena. Therefore, whole organization design is not simply a process—it requires a design organization, the “Design Table”, a collaborative forum with multiple disciplines engaged. Organization design, as Peter Drucker pointed out a half century ago, is a technology, not a science, and whole organization design is also an evolving art form.

Adaptive Work Systems: A Perspective on the Evolution of Socio-Technical Systems – Stu Winby

In a new form of economic production, referred to as ‘social production’ that is now particularly apparent in the Silicon Valley, work is increasingly more decentralized, more network-focused, and more market-driven. Better suited to this new context is an ‘adaptive work system’ model that incorporates the principles of innovation, network sciences, and socio-technical systems theory with some new emerging design precepts.

Notes on Work System Concepts –  Steven Alter

The ‘work system’ framework, life-cycle model, and ‘work system’ method are a way to describe an IT-reliant work system in an organization, placing IT concerns within a business perspective. The concepts were created for use by business professionals, and can be used jointly by business and IT professionals in analyzing, designing, and evaluating overall improvements from potential investments in software.

Repositioning Technology in Modern Sociotechnical Systems Design – S.Pless, Y. Vereycken, E. Dessers, G. Van Hootegem

The Modern Sociotechnical System Theory (MST) of the Lowlands developed a design sequence for (re)designing organizations. The position of technology in the current MST design sequence is secondary and only comes into play after two previous steps of designing the production structure, and then, the control structure (i.e. coordination). This paper argues that this positioning of (digital) technology in the design sequence is appropriate only for transformation-supporting technology. Transformation-changing technology though, should be considered sooner in the MST design sequence. This is illustrated with an example of 3D printing in construction. Finally,  this paper initiates a debate on the position and meaning of technology in organizational design.

The STS Digtial Framework for Cross Disciplinary Designing: How Digital Technology and STS Principles Support Systemic Work Design--B. Mohr, R. Ordowich, R. Smith

What’s going on in the digital world that is inviting us to “design at the intersection” of Organization design, ICT design, and Facilities design? Digital Technology provides an efficient, accessible means to collaborate. Technology creates opportunities for connectivity, organization of information, and coordination. Digital automation helps reduce the tedious tasks supporting collaboration. Can these same technologies enable a shift from “siloes of betterment” to a more systemic approach leading to design at the intersection? The authors think so, and explain ‘why’ and ‘how’.

Highlights of the STS Roundtable Webinar.June.2016

Summary of the Webinar on Designing Organizations with Information Systems in mind, facilitated by Jean Fuller and Eli Berniker in June 2016 

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Co-Founder of the Global STS Design Network