Interpretations of Socio-Technical Systems: Two Stories and the Narrative of An Organisation


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Presentation given by Frances Abraham and David Drabble at the 2012 STS Roundtable Conference.

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  • Using texts mostly from the Eric Trist’s Anthology on the topic, m y first introduction to work and organization design was through some of the main texts written by social scientists and those working with a systems psychodynamics approach at The Tavistock Institute. Lisl Klein text These pioneers seemed to me to have developed a concern in their work for meaninglessness in manual work and saw the reason in the pre-occupation with the technical aspects of work over the social, resulting in a psychological split between the two.
  • In a bid to be introduced to a more recent practice deriving from STS, and after encouragement by Frances Abraham a long-time employee of the Institute, I was trained by Vanguard, at a workshop on Process Mapping. Yet my subsequent experiences with process mapping left me confused on the nature of STS, on which view was authentic, and how exactly my introduction to STS, through reading texts written decades ago, influenced my opinion on the topic. For instance, is STS more psycho-dynamically informed than Vanguard methods? Does it even make sense to distinguish between them on this level?
  • Design against demand . Right first time . Single piece flow . Minimising handovers/steps . Individuals are responsible for their own work . For those of you familiar with Emery’s 9 step approach you can see what the similarities and differences are Step 1 Mapping purpose: Decide upon the purpose of the system from the customer’s perspective. Step 2 Mapping demand: Decide what is the “demand” of the customers. » Value demand : demand, where customers pull value from the organisation » Failure demand : demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer Step 3 Mapping capability of response: How successful the system is in meeting demand. Step 4: Creating a process map Step 5: Check on other conditions which may affect the process. Step 6: Alter the thinking around the task at a wider level in order to decide upon what changes need to be made to a system.
  • Abstract writing on a comparison of STS and Process mapping led to showing my ignorance on the topic Preparation for this conference, a seminar by Jean Neumann deepening knowledge And discussing TIHR archives and the development of STS (and the other anthologies) showed me how starting points, even if they are anthologies, can influence strongly what you think of as STS.
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  • Interpretations of Socio-Technical Systems: Two Stories and the Narrative of An Organisation

    1. 1. Interpretations of Socio-TechnicalSystems:two stories and the narrative of anorganisationFrances Abraham and David Drabble
    2. 2. David – Beginning late 2000s, with a new Director who attemptedto bring together evaluation and consultancyFiddy – Beginning late 1970s with Jebson’s, worked with STS for35 yearsOur encountersInterpretations of Socio-Technical Systems
    3. 3. First encounterDiscussing TIHR with my Masters supervisor before accepting roleInterpretations of Socio-Technical Systems
    4. 4. Second encounterRunning a reading group, encouraged to learn about Socio-Technical systems“The very term "socio-technical," used to characterize work systems,implies that there has been a process of splitting which needs to berectified. Splitting is a process of psychic economy whereby people tend tosimplify a complex situation by attributing all its X characteristics to one ofa pair and all its Y characteristics to the other. The goodies are all-goodand wear white hats, and the baddies are all-bad and wear black hats andpossibly also black moustaches. Splitting means that one is most unlikelyto be presented with a black moustache under a white hat.”Lisl Klein, 1989, ‘On the Collaboration Between Social Scientists andEngineers: Dynamics and Models’Interpretations of Socio-Technical Systems
    5. 5. Third encounterInterpretations of Socio-Technical SystemsProcess mapping follows the work of Russ Akoff and whole systemsthinking.Training at Vanguard on process mapping – a memorable eventEncouraged to do so at a LM meeting with FiddyPurpose of process mapping:Configure systems so they are doing their coreactivity in the best possible way for thecustomerMinimize the amount of (unnecessary) supportfor that activity.
    6. 6. Vanguard method for processchecking1. What is the purpose of the system (in customer terms)?2. Demand: what matters to the customers3. Capability of response4. Flow: value work + waste5. System conditions6. ThinkingCUSTOMERSPoints of interactionInterpretations of Socio-Technical SystemsDesign against demand. Right first time. Single piece flow. Minimisinghandovers/steps. Individuals are responsible for their own work.
    7. 7. Encounter …4?STS Roundtable preparationAbstract writing and discovering different ways ofunderstanding STSAttending first STS conferenceGetting into the archaeology of STSInterpretations of Socio-Technical Systems
    8. 8. My story of Jebsens UKThe company: a bulk carrier, UK subsidiary of Norwegian company (noUK ports used)The presenting problem: ships stuck in ports around the world due tolack of crew: problem of recruitment?Diagnostic stage: 2 sequential lines of enquiry:• Analysis of recruitment, numbers involved etc, is there a problemthere? Yes and No• What happens to staff once through the door: enquiry through ship-based studies revealed a range of issues: lack of community onlong (9 month voyages) through segmented social life and spaces:AR and Culture change• Getting to know Emery’s 9 step model through Michael FosterInterpretations of Socio-Technical Systems
    9. 9. Action research to improveshipboard life: main features• Steering Group of Jebsens SMT, NUS, MNAOA, action researchers(PQ, ES, FA)• Large scale simulation of issues leading to• Piloting a shipboard community: ship’s company (selected by CEO)+ SG conference start-up• Developing ownership through the fleet• Redesigning back-office functions• Re-designing ships’ social spaces• Whole systems conference for industryInterpretations of Socio-Technical Systems
    10. 10. Definitions and issues for practiceSocio-technical systems design: takes work processes as its startingpoint, maps how work crosses organizational and departmentalboundaries, expects to design/redesign boundaries around thesocial and technical requirements of work processes eg teamworking – can be used as an expert practice, can get stuck at thelower levels, can be captured by TayloristsAction research: deploys a cycle of planning, taking action, collectingdata about that action to support: can emphasize research or canemphasize actionParticipatory action research: involves the actors in the enquiryparticipating as enquirers, can lose intended focus, dissipate intoterms and conditionsInterpretations of Socio-Technical Systems
    11. 11. Near EnvironmentFar EnvironmentInput OutputConversion orTransformationFeedback Loop‘Open Systems’ Model as BasicTool for STS DesignInterpretations of Socio-Technical Systems
    12. 12. My notions of STS Approach:STS and the psycho-social(based on Miller & Rice, via Michael Foster)• Three types of organisation are required for conversion ortransformation of input to output– Perform and manage primary task– Meet sentient needs of belonging and identity– Regulate the balance between task and sentient needs• STS boundaries are drawn at points of discontinuity (interfaces)– Within the boundaries are continuities• Operating, managing, controlling, servicing the primary task• This is a first order differentiation– In relation to the first order, there is a second orderdifferentiation• Operating, managing, controlling, servicing those who are infirst order– A manager can only be held accountable for what happenswithin the boundaries of their differentiated part of theorganisation
    13. 13. QuestionsDoes a concern for the psycho-social bring humanity to designingwork?What other approaches do that?How do your starting points shape your understanding of STS andhow has that changed through your experience of it?Interpretations of Socio-Technical Systems