The following are both academic papers on STS and case studies that will be helpful in understanding successful application of STS organization and workplace design.

There is also a repository of papers, case studies and presentations produced under a grant from the VOSS (Virtual Organizations as Sociotechnical Systems) program of the National Science Foundation, by members of the STS Roundtable called “A Sociotechnical Systems Study of Virtual R&D Organizations”

Theory and Research Papers:

Most of the foundation documents for for ‘classical’ British/North American socio-technical systems theory as well as the Australian ‘participative design’ framework  can be found at this TRIST TAVISTOCK ANTHOLOGY.

pdf-iconAll documents are in format .pdf


The following are additional seminal writings, many published more recently.

1. The Evolution of Socio-Technical Systems

Eric Trist

One of the originators of ‘classical’ socio-technical systems thinking traces the development of key concepts and principles for 3 levels of analysis–the primary work system, the whole organization in relation to its changing environment, and the macro-social perspective of networks.

2. From Mechanistic to Socio Technical Systems Thinking

Russell Ackoff

The first industrial revolution was about ‘muscle’, the application of energy to transform matter. The post-industrial revolution is based on a whole new technology which is a substitute for ‘mind’, the manipulation of symbols in communications and automation, based upon a transformation in our concept of the nature of reality, from the Machine Age to the Systems Age.

3. ETHICS: The Past, Present and Future of Socio-Technical Systems Design

Shona Leitch and Matthew Warren

With the rapid introduction of computers in the 1960’s, Enid Mumford concluded that the development of information systems is not a purely technical issue, but an organizational issue, and based upon Mumford’s socio-technical perspective, she developed and applied in numerous cases (such as with Digital Equipment Corporation) a participative method known as ETHICS: “Effective Technical & Human Implementation of Computer-based Systems”.

4. The Dutch IOR Approach to Organization Design: An Alternative to Business Process Re-Engineering?

Frans M. van Eijnatten and Ad H. van der Zwaan

The Dutch approach to STS Design (or “Integral Organizational Renewal”), both in its design theory and its intervention processes is reviewed and compared with its American, Scandinavian, and Australian counterparts of Modern STSD. All share the ideal of participative democracy, and though many concepts appear incompatible, the approaches manifest a single sociotechnical paradigm.

5. 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.

6. Whole-System Architecture: A Model for Building the Lean Organization  

Lawrence M. Miller

Although the Toyota Production System (or lean management) has become one of today’s standards for organizations, the implementation of ‘lean’ has proven to be problematic, which has inspired this model of how to create that transformation in the entire system of an organization, its architecture and culture.


7. Redesigning Soiotechnical Systems Design: Concepts and Methods for the 1990’s

Calvin Pava

To overcome the deficiencies of traditional STS design for much knowledge work and nonlinear work systems (with multiple, nonsequential conversion flows) that rely heavily on unprogrammed (nonroutine) tasks, Pava proposed a new set of concepts and methods–focusing on ‘deliberations’ and ‘discretionary coalitions’ as the key units of analysis, while retaining many of the fundamental STS precepts like minimal critical specification, open systems, and participative design.

8. Socio-Technical Systems – From design methods to systems engineering

Gordon Baxter and Ian Sommerville.

As computers have become more pervasive in workplaces, and as computers shape and constrain work practices, what is required is a pragmatic approach based on the introduction of socio-technical considerations into software procurement and development processes—a new field of socio-technical systems engineering.

9. Accelerating the Design of High-Performance Organizations

William O. Lytle

As many organizations are demanding a faster cycle time for planned, large-scale change, with assured success of implementation, and a process to involve employees in creating their own future, this paper outlines 3 proven options for accelerating the design process and the conditions under which the use of each is appropriate—the modified traditional systems approach, the cascading macro-design approach, and the sequenced multiple-conference approach.

10. Sociotechnical Systems Design for Adaptive Enterprises

D. Austrom, Guerre, H. Maupin, C. McGee, B. Mohr, J. Norton, C. Ordowich

As political, social, technological, economic and ecological change accelerates, STS design must focus simultaneously on multiple levels of system complexity—the firm, networks, and ecosystem.

Furthermore, we need to think differently about ‘design’ that is ‘emergent’ (no longer planned), ‘ambidextrous’ (managing the tension between innovation and optimization), and no longer about creating end-products in the form of specific structures but rather about ‘leading effective (and ongoing) designing’.


Case Studies

  1. Socio-Technical Design of Knowledge Work & IT

A Case Study – 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.

2. Accelerating-Healthcare-Transformation-through-Adaptive-Work-System-Design-Fairview-Case

Fairview Case: Terry Martinson, Stu Winby, Chris Worley

Within a few months, using an ‘Adaptive Work System’ model as a core platform for work innovation, 40 clinics with more than 400 providers scattered over a 300 square mile area designed, optimized, and diffused a wide variety of health care innovations. Physicians and staff  developed completely new ways of working together, that won Fairview Clinics certification and national recognition under the Minnesota model of Healthcare Home and the federal model of Accountable Care Organizations.

3. Buurtzorg-Personal-Care

A Case of Highly Professional Self-Managing Healthcare Teams – Wim Sprenger

Frustrated by the poor quality and ineffectiveness of formal care services in the Netherlands, Buurtzorg (Neighbourhood Care) has grown as an alternative organization of over 6000 employees— 95% women—in over 600 self-managing teams of 5-12 nursing and specialized care professionals, each team serving patients and elderly people in a specific neighbourhood. The business model and performance of Buurtzog has proven to be more efficient than traditional care providers, and at the same time, Buurtzorg has been awarded ‘Best Employer’ in the Netherlands for consecutive years.

4. Enriching Production—Perspectives on Volvo’s Uddevalla Plant as an Alternative to Lean

Ake Sandberg, Editor

Volvo’s Uddevalla car assembly plant abandoned the assembly line, and replaced it with groups of skilled workers producing components, supported by advanced computer technology. Although very productive, the plant was closed after only four years. Nevertheless, out of the experience of this plant, and with international comparative studies, a concept has grown of “enriching production”— production that is enriching to work and workers, and to investors and owners.

5. Multidisciplinary Teamwork in Health Care

Justin Bitter, Elizabeth van Veen Berkx, Hein G. Gooszen, and Pierre van Amelsvoort.

Healthcare professionals in operating rooms (ORs) at a University Medical Center in The Netherlands have demonstrated the ability of cross-functional teams to identify and correct bottlenecks in their own performance. Through socio-technical systems design processes, teams improved significantly their collaboration and use of control mechanisms in delivery of patient care in operating theatres.

6. New Plant Revolution Revisited  

Edward E. Lawler III

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a few American companies (Proctor & Gamble, Cummins Engine, General Foods, etc.) began building a new kind of manufacturing facility that emphasized a high level of participative management and flatter organizational design. Two decades later, this article outlines specific practices of the new plant model and points out the degree to which these practices have spread to other organizational settings.

7. The Conference Method Of Redesign

Alan Wilgus

This article describes a large-group, participative methodology for redesign of organizations.  Reviewing the application in two similar manufacturing facilities, the author asserts that the Conference Method, compared to traditional socio-technical or re-engineering efforts, saves time and  money, while increasing commitment to change and the quality of design.

8. Lean Implementation in Home Health Care

Sharon Goodwin and Lawrence M. Miller

One of Canada’s largest and oldest home and community-based health care services required a major redesign of its care delivery process. Leadership of the company engaged employees in a change process that employed a ‘whole system’ version of lean methodology. Results reported by funding agencies demonstrate dramatic improvement in patient satisfaction and the satisfaction of service providers, with substantial productivity and staff scheduling improvements in the delivery of service.


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Co-Founder of the Global STS Design Network