Socio-technical systems is an approach to the study and design of complex organizations and technologies that recognizes the interaction between people and technology as a defining factor in the overall system’s makeup and functioning.1 This is both on the micro-level of how an individual interacts with a particular technology in a linear fashion – where we are interested in interface design and user experience – but also on the macro-level, referring to the complex nonlinear interactions between society’s infrastructure and its socio-cultural domains. The ultimate functioning of almost all technologies will involve the interaction between people and technology. Whether we are talking about a wheelbarrow, a car or a subway station, the end throughput to the whole process requires these two elements to function together. And socio-technical systems build upon systems theory to look at how the whole thing works together in effecting a joint outcome.
To give some examples of this, think about the current state of genetic engineering. Scientists and engineers may spend decades researching and developing the technologies but if society decides it will not adopt it for ethical and environmental concerns, then the whole exercise is somewhat futile, which is exactly what has happened in the European Union. Or to take another example, web developers in Silicon valley may build software with all sorts of bells and whistles expecting everyone to be tech savvy, but if a large percentage of these users are in fact elderly and unaccustomed to the interface then again the actual throughput to the whole system will be significantly reduced. And this is what we are interested in with the domain of sociotechnical systems, the actual throughput to the whole system, not just its technical dimension.
Our traditional design engineering practice is based upon the use of reductionism, which involves the breaking down of complex systems into components and focusing on optimizing these components in isolation. The social world of people and the technical world of technology run on very different principles. And often the first stage in this process of breaking a system down is the division between people and technology. So let’s first think about how these two domains differ in their nature.
Firstly, to talk about the technical domain, the technical domain is conceived of and designed by a relatively small number of scientists and engineers who actually understand how things work and importantly are responsible for making things work. Most of society has very limited understanding of this and largely takes these technologies for granted. As we have previously discussed, technology is the product of a process of rationalization through which we come to a well-defined and logical sequence of steps for efficiently solving a particular problem, and then embody this in some physical object or work process. Behind every large organization today there is a mass of logical processes being performed by our systems of technology. From this perspective, humans look like they go around with their heads in the clouds wondering who to marry or what color shoes to buy without a clue for what is really going on.
Logic is not something that typically comes natural to human beings. Your average person is driven by a mass of physiological, emotional and ideological needs and desires. Logically analyzing something requires a certain amount of energy and focus that most people will typically avoid unless specifically required. We use all sorts of heuristics and shortcuts to maintain a certain flow to our lives. In the US only 15% of graduates are in the technical STEM areas of math, science, engineering and technology. In short, most people aren’t engineers or computer geeks. They just want to get on with pursuing their interests. The last thing they want to do is have to read and follow each step in the instruction manual. Not only do people actively try to avoid the use of logic, they often actually feel threatened by it. From the perspective of most people faced with these vast systems of logic that support us, they appear empty and mechanical. They threaten our sense of meaning, values, identity and make us feel powerless in a world of incomprehensive complexity, where we long for some form of unity and simplicity.
Sociotechnical system are characterized by a core dichotomy between the qualitative and continuous nature to people and the quantitative, discrete nature to technology. This divide between the fundamental nature to humans and technology and the friction it creates permeates all areas of our systems of organization, from the design of user interfaces and health care systems to people’s uneasy feeling about robotics. One way of understanding and giving structure to this dichotomy is through the DIKW framework that we previously touched upon. The DIKW framework that describes the hierarchical structure to information increasingly captures the divide between technology that operates in the level of data and information on the one hand, and people that in advanced economies are increasingly required to perform knowledge work.
When we over-emphasize the technical domain we may end up with a very technical efficient system but it will also be alienating, leaving people feeling disenfranchised and ultimately result in disengagement. Inversely, when we give precedence to the social domain we can get a lack of technical efficiency, incapacity to automate basic processes, and lack of technological capabilities. Developing integrated socio-technical systems requires a balance of both, and importantly the integration between them through interfaces that are able to translate the language of one domain into another.
Interfaces like the dashboard on our car, the signs in an airport, or the graphical user interface on your computer, are the contact points between the two systems that have to communicate in order to effect the joint outcome. Interfaces are the way of communicating to people the set of procedures required for operating the technology. They reflect the underlying logical and algorithms through which the technology functions but are expected to do so in a fashion the makes sense to the end-user. On the social side they use symbols, metaphors and stories that people instinctively relate to. The point of an interface is to translate the language and functionality of the system into the language of the end user and vise versa.
But technology is typically designed in domains specific to engineering. A building may be composed of a hydraulic system, electrical system, heating and so on. It is also the same on the macro scale with different companies operating airports, subways and motorways. The services revolution is about networking these technologies and domains into a process that end users interact with through digital interfaces, and this is increasingly the structure to our complex engineered systems – from end-user to digital app, to service process, to physical technology, a multi-tiered system that works to integrate the functioning of people with our physical technologies and reflects the hierarchy of information.
The domain of socio-technical systems is not just about how people interact with pre existing technologies but also about how organizations adapt to, and evolve with, new technologies. Ever since the advent of the industrial revolution, social organizations have been subjected to increasing technological change that requires us to adapt to new systems and new ways of working on a regular basis. There are a number of aspects to this change process that need to be considered in order to achieve a desired outcome, such as identifying and setting the system’s objectives that require us to take into consideration the perspective of multiple stakeholders, the training of the operators, the integration of this subsystem or process into the whole system and the stabilization of this new pattern of working. And of course, there are many points along the way where inertia and power dynamics can distort or even reverse the whole process.
People do not always behave rationally, particularly when the technology or new process touches upon aspects of culture that involve a sense of identity and narrative. Some technologies get adopted while others go by the wayside not because of their technical efficiency but simply because they fit or didn’t fit with that society’s beliefs, values and identity. As our earlier example with genetically modified crops illustrated, technologies like GMO bring with them a whole set of ethical and moral considerations that a society or group of people may not have found any solutions to yet, and thus they will either have to reject it or adopt it without being able to integrate it into their value system, which will likely create further problems down the line. And this is currently the state with many new technologies such as biotech, nanotech, artificial intelligence and cognitive technologies, all of which our society doesn’t have the philosophical framework through which to fully contextualize them and their ethical consideration. Added to this, the way a system was designed to be used and how it is really used may well differ significantly and reduce its overall realized functionality. Think about urban development in a city like Rio de Janeiro where informal shantytowns have sprouted up around the city with little regard for the intentions of the urban planners.
The industrial age was one of standardization and mechanization. In order to reduce the complexity of the interaction between people and technology, people were simply expected to fit in with abstract mechanistic procedures, processes and systems of organization, as exemplified by the industrial age model of education and factory work. But this industrial economy is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as manufacturing and basic information processing have become commoditized. Post-industrial service and information economies require a new set of skills and human capital based around innovation, entrepreneurship, education and knowledge, none of which really happens without the engagement of the subjective and qualitative dimension to people. This requires us to go beyond the technocratic paradigm of industrialism and recognize the importance of the social dimension within our engineered environment. To build this next generation of complex sociotechnical systems in turn, requires engineering based upon diverse skill sets and cross-domain competencies in both technical domains, social science and humanities. It requires inter-domain engineering teams. Again this is another vector that greatly increases the complexity of our engineered environment through an increase in the nonlinear-networked interactions between the social and technical domains.