Afterword: The Past, Present and Future of Sociotechnical Systems Theory


Afterword: The Past, Present and Future of Sociotechnical Systems Theory Ken EasonIt is a rare privilege to have been the inspiration behind the production of this collection of papers and I warmly thank all of the contributors, especially Patrick Waterson, for reminding me of so many debates and giving me so much to reflect upon. I was especially pleased to find such a strong theme running through these papers, a theme that has been an obsession for me for over 40 years: sociotechnical systems theory. Throughout my career I have been concerned with systems approaches in ergonomics because they enable us to recognize that people at work often engage in tasks as part of a complex system and this has profound effects on them and their task performance. Of all the systems approaches that are available I have found sociotechnical systems theory the most powerful way of explaining systems behaviour and the most useful in designing new systems. My aim in these pages is to use the insights that the authors in this volume have provided to reflect on what has been important to me about sociotechnical systems theory, on where this approach is in the present day and what contribution it might make in the future.

Sociotechnical systems studies 1970-1990

I was very fortunate in the 1970s to work with Lisl Klein and Harold Bridger who were at that time stalwarts of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London, widely acknowledged to have been responsible for the development of sociotechnical sys- tems theory. The theory was developed to explain the human and organisational ramifications of the introduction of mechanization into coal mining, weaving and other industries. By the 1970s it was computer technology in all its forms that was beginning to have a major impact on work systems and when we started the HUSAT (Human Sciences and Advanced Technology) Research Group at Loughborough University, so graphically described by Tom Stewart and Leela Damodaran (Waterson, Stewart and Dam- odaran, this volume), it was natural for me to apply sociotechnical systems concepts in order to understand the impact of this new technology on people at work. At that time the main issue was that this technology was being used via ‘remote terminals’ linked to mainframe computers by ‘naïve users’, i.e. people who were not computer professionals, and these new users had to adapt to the unfriendly, rigid and literal ways in which computers operated. This started a major programme of work to render these devices easy to use for their new users leading to the ‘user friendly’ graph- ical interfaces used by most of the population today. My preoccu- pation, however, was that within each organisation there were different kinds of users whose work roles and tasks require specific service from the computer system. As a consequence we were soon writing papers about the needs of different kinds of computer user and my contribution to an early issue of this journal was a paper on ‘the manager as a computer user’. Sociotechnical systems theory, because of its emphasis upon the way technical and human resources are deployed to serve the needs of a collective task, was particularly well suited to examining how effectively the task needs of each user were served by computer systems and in most cases we found they were very badly served with the result that many systems were either rejected or ‘worked around’.

Science Direct Link

Ken Eason, Afterword: The past, present and future of sociotechnical systems theory, In Applied Ergonomics, Volume 45, Issue 2, Part A, 2014, Pages 213-220, ISSN 0003-6870,

Sustainable Development Indicators: The Tyranny of Methodology Revisited


One of the Rich Pictures which Emerged from the Slovakian Workshop on Sustainable Development Simon Bell

One of the Rich Pictures which Emerged from the Slovakian Workshop on Sustainable Development.

Indicators are increasingly dominating our lives; whether we are aware of it or not. They have been popular tools for sustainable development policy makers, planners and managers, largely because they do the hard work of condensing complexity into single values that can be more easily digested and acted upon. But much power rests with those who select the indicators deemed to be important. This paper explores some of these issues at what is now regarded by some as the new frontier in “indicatorology‟; their use and influence. The authors argue that a new tyranny of methodology may be at play.

Background: Tyranny from 1994-2010

The raison d‟etre for this article is to return to a paper from 1994 and explore our current state with regards to what was then described as a “Tyranny of Methodology‟ and which has been referred to variously in the journal Public Administration and Development and elsewhere as tyrannic approaches. The 1994 paper (Bell, 1994) observed that, in much the same way as conventional Empires are often experienced as tyrannical, projecting dominant mindsets and approaches onto subjugated (powerless) populations, so the products of western intellectualism can also be seen in terms of tyranny, oppressing local population and enforcing subtle forms of domination. Other journals have recently explored a similar area – that of multiple knowledge and the potential role for certain forms of technocratic dominance in development discourses. Ironically, forms of intended or unintended dominance are seen as being evident even for methods which are regarded by their proponents as “participatory‟ – and intended to be “liberating‟ and “empowering‟ for peoples of the developing world.

A key element of the 1994 paper was contained in the definition of the tyranny of methodology:

“ tyranny – ‘exercise of power over subjects and others with a rigour not authorised by law or justice” (Websters New International Dictionary)

In the 1994 paper this definition was extended to the area of applied intellect in method:

“Tyranny defies both law and justice in its impact upon its subject. The key factor here is the idea that methods ….. are often not justified by context (without adaptation). They are imposed in an arbitrary fashion without regard to what would be just or lawful. They are exercised with immense power over a population who have little capacity to either reject or modify them.”

Open University PDF Link

Bell, S. and Morse, S. 2011. Sustainable Development Indicators: The Tyranny of Methodology Revisited. Consilience. 6, 1, pp. 222 – 239.

Brexit, Trump, Climate Change? They All Have something in Common. Weaponised Fear.

I have been studying fear for the last few years. My particular interest is in big, super-scary, existential fear, ‘our-way-of-life-is-doomed-and-nothing-to-be-done’ kind of fear. Themes from the likely effect of Donald Trump winning the US Presidency to the impact of climate change have provided me with much pause for thought. In my work on fear analysis I have come up with some interesting and overarching observations about how fear is manifest, applied and articulated. I also have been interested to see how fear is amplified and intensified, sometimes without any direct intention to do so on the part of the persons or persons doing the amplification and intensification.

Before I go too far, I do need to say a little in explanation.
I am an academic and I am particularly interested in systems approaches. By systems I mean mental model which help me to understand the world in terms of how things are wired up and connected. The world is very complex and it can be very, very confusing. In a sense everything is wired up to everything else and this can lead to a lot of confusion and indeed fear.
A systems approach can help us to gain insights into specific complexity and I am very interested in the complexity around fear.
Let’s take an example of complexity and fear: Brexit.
I should say at the outset that I am not in favour of Britain leaving Europe (for all kinds of reasons) and I have been looking at the discussions and arguments around Brexit and how they impact on me. They certainly make me feel fearful.
To deal with fear I have developed two systems models to help me. First I want to identify the fear process – to do that I have the scary (but accurate) sounding: ‘Paradigm of Fear’. Secondly I want to understand my response to fear. To do this I use a far more boringly labeled model called the ‘Fear response system’. How does the first part of this, the Paradigm bit, work? I will take a look at it and then see how I apply it to Brexit.
The Paradigm of Fear is actually a fairly simple circular model involving a fear weapon being aimed at a target, resulting in an emotion which can become a state which then encourages more weapons and more targeting etc. Here is a picture of it.
The paradigm works in a wicked way – by which I do not mean it is evil in nature but that it has some clever and tricky ways of tripping us up.
For example, Brexit. I am aware of a huge campaign of fear around Brexit. This is mainly aimed at people who fear immigrants – this is the primary weapon. The fear of large, possibly malignly intended groups of ‘others’ has been with us since long before Genghis Khan and I guess it will be with us for a lot longer. The weapon of un-contained numbers of ‘others’ coming to the UK is ramped up with no reference to existing or possible control mechanisms, benefits of immigration or the moral cases for aiding the destitute stranger. The immigrant is weaponised in stark and scary ways.

The target? Well that is you and me and everyone else but I think that the main target is those who feel that their lives or the lives of their children and friends are going to be severely impacted by these alien others taking their life chances. If the targeting is successful, then an emotion of fear is developed and if this in turn is allowed free range then it becomes a built-in state of fear. Here is the wicked part. When a state of fear is emergent – then the weapon can be refined, amplified and applied again and again to devastating effect. A real daisy-cutter of a fear bomb. Fear response in this case leads to a greater proclivity to a fear response. The cycle becomes reinforcing and amplification of fear almost runs on rails. A little more pushing and it is almost unstoppable. Look at the impact of the anti-Jewish campaign in Germany in the 1930s. It did not end well.
Of course the fear weapon can be used by all sides in a struggle. If we swop immigration for economic collapse, then we have a major theme in the Remain campaign. All sides use fear. What to do? Well, we can’t stop people using fear as a way to make us jump around.
What we can do is refuse to be stampeded on instinct. To try to understand the dog whistle, to understand how we are being manipulated by it and figure out for ourselves the rights and wrongs of the case. Systems approaches help.

Simon Bell is Professor of Innovation and Methodology at the Open University. His book: The Formations of Terror is due for publication with Cambridge Scholars early in 2017.

Prof. Simon Bell at the Open University

Formations of Terror

Bell, S. (2017). Brexit, Trump, Climate Change? They all have something in common. Weaponised fear. Open University Research Archive.

An Analysis of the Factors Influencing the Use of Indicators in the European Union

Indicators and indices (I&I) have been popular among a section of the policy and science communities for some years and are often promoted as a vehicle to help make sustainable development a reality. One of the claimed strengths of I&I is their ability to present complex data and trends to policy-makers. It is assumed that I&I can help to make policy and, indeed, management more transparently evidence based; yet this assumption has rarely been tested. This paper describes the results of a research project designed to address this assumption. Three main conclusions were arrived at:

  1. I&I are not static measures that are created and remain constant but instead they change with time as a result of a “natural selection” process;
  2. there is value in a move away from the dominance of a limited number of I&I in policy towards a more diverse set of I&I, but there are many obstacles to achieving this; and
  3. the evidence-based rationality of which I&I are meant to be a constituent does not exist. I&I are but one source of influence among many. Indeed, what is meant by “success” with regard to a policy influence of I&I is debatable.


The notion of basing intervention upon a body of evidence which predicts changes that would arise from that intervention has been around for some years. The logic is clear. Given that any intervention will require a “spend” of resource and could have a substantial impact (positive and negative) upon groups within a community, it seems reasonable to know what should be done in order to have the best chance of achieving the desired goals (European Commission 2008). This requires knowledge from research and prior experience and also the requirement to test out a planned intervention on a trial basis before scaling up. After all, the alternative is to imply that interventions should not be evidence based, and this is clearly against the current tide of thinking in public adminis- tration. The logic suggests that evidence-based policy should help with problems such as the following (Sorrell 2007):

  • conflict and confusion over key issues among policy-makers,
  • over-reliance on individual studies which may not have a wider applicability,
  • inadequate accumulation and synthesis of research results and
  • wide-ranging but inconclusive literature reviews that pay insufficient attention to methodological quality. Thus, it can be difficult for policy-makers to separate out the wheat from the chaff.

Taylor and Francis Online Link

Bell, S. and Morse, S. (2011). An analysis of the factors influencing the use of indicators in the European Union Local Environment. 16, 3, pp. 281 – 302.

Surfing the Third Wave: Experiential Reflections on New Working Practices

This paper deals with issues and presents changes in practices relating to the new working as realized in the developing e-working world. The paper begins by reviewing my own experience. This is expressed as anecdote from my diary. Following this, the down- side of e-work is argued to be characterized by atomization and fragmentation and is depicted under four headings: being an e-worker, engaging with work as an e-worker, contextualizing experience as an e-worker, and managing self and work as an e-worker. This section is followed by a brief review of how this downside has been achieved. The paper then goes on to discuss two models for developing the e-work process be- yond the current debacle. The first model is one based on conventional practices and is concentrated on relieving the pressure. This conventional approach is also referred to as the “provision for . . .” model. The model deals with providing technologies and inducements and meeting expenses of e-workers as fragmented elements of the work- force. It is a patchwork quilt of piecemeal planning. The second model, arising from the research behind the paper, involves thinking again—Where might we be? The process develops an “invitation to join . . .” model, focusing on relationships. The paper goes on to describe a process for developing a systemic approach to e-work and non-e-work for large organizations and a means for applying the systemic development of e-work in full, and not just gesture. The paper concludes with an overview of the key learning points emergent from the research to date. Concerning the style of the paper, it is set out in the form of a Kolb learning cycle—this is the overarching methodology applied to the enquiry as a whole.

Open University Link

Bell, S. 2002. Surfing the Third Wave: Experiential Reflections on New Working Practices. Systemic Practice and Action Research. 15, 1, pp. 67 – 82

Smart Cities and M3: Rapid Research, Meaningful Metrics and Co-Design


Smart Cities and M3: Rapid Research, Meaningful Metrics and Co-Design Simon Bell
The research described in this paper is undertaken under the banner of the smart city, a concept that captures the way urban spaces are re-made by the incursion of new technology. Much of smart is centred on converting everyday activities into data, and using this data to generate knowledge mediated by technology. Ordinary citizens, those that may have their lives impacted by the technology, usually are not properly involved in the ‘smartification’ process. Their perceptions, concerns and expectations should inform the conception and development of smart technologies at the same extent. How to engage general public with smart cities research is the central challenge for the Making Metrics Meaningful (MMM) project. Applying a rapid participatory method, ‘Imagine’ over a five-month period (March – July) the research sought to gain insights from the general public into novel forms of information system innovation. This brief paper describes the nature of the accelerated research undertaken and explores some of the themes which emerged in the analysis. Generic themes, beyond the remit of an explicit transport focus, are developed and pointers towards further research directions are discussed. Participatory methods, including engaging with self- selected transport users actively through both picture creation and programmatically specific musical ‘signatures’ as well as group discussion, were found to be effective in eliciting users’ own concerns, needs and ideas for novel information systems.

Springer Link

Bel, S., Benatti, F., Edwards, N. R., Laney, R., Morse, D. R., Piccolo, L. and Zanetti, O. (2017) Smart Cities and M3: Rapid Research, Meaningful Metrics and Co-Design. Systemic Practice and Action Research. DOI 10.1007/s11213-017-9415-x

Groups and Facilitators within Problem Structuring Processes


Groups and facilitators within problem structuring processes Simon Bell
In problem structuring methods, facilitators often ask of themselves questions such as: what makes a ‘good’ problem structuring group (PSG) and indeed what does ‘good’ mean? How can group dynamics be improved and does it matter in terms of the quality of the problem structuring that that group engages in? On the surface these questions seem to be straightforward. Indeed, those who have helped facilitate many participatory workshops will think they intuitively know the answers to these questions; they can, from their professional practice, ‘feel’ which PSGs are doing well and producing novel insights and those which are functioning less well and perhaps generating something that is less imaginative and more routine as a consequence. The intuitive, practice-learned insight will depend upon a rich array of visual signals that become more obvious with experience. This paper asks whether there is value in being much more open and analytical about these questions and answers. If so, then how can we make the unwritten processes and outcomes of PSGs written? Indeed, open to whom? Finally, how much of any insights learned by facilitators should be shared with those engaged in workshops?

Springer Link

Bell, S. and Morse, S. 2013. Groups and facilitators within problem structuring processes. Journal of the Operational Research Society. 64, pp. 959 -972

Groups and Indicators in Post-Industrial Society


Groups and Indicators in Post-Industrial Society Simon BellIndicators define our world. We are constantly measured and assessed. Perhaps the most important indicator in current use is Gross Domestic Product or GDP. It is the measure of a nation’s success and can be key to its ability to borrow money and appear internationally credible. This paper is set against the current debate ‘Beyond GDP’ begun in November 2007 with the conference hosted by the European Commission, European Parliament, Club of Rome, OECD and WWF. The initiative, with its five actions, recognizes weaknesses in the ways in which indicators of all kinds are collected and presented, and attempts to improve the indicator world, but is the answer to effective information for policy formulation hidden in the articulation of indicators? Maybe indicator use is a function of the ways in which stakeholders are engaged in their use? Our conjecture is that indicator use is little understood and that this use dynamic can be better understood.
In this paper, the authors write from the perspective of their work undertaken in the European Union funded Framework 7 project ‘Policy Influence of Indicators’ (POINT; con- tract no 217207), which began in 2008. A major element of the project involved a number of group workshops designed to elicit viewpoints regarding the use of indicators (including sustainable development indicators) in sustainable development policy at EU and member- state levels.
The paper outlines some emergent hypotheses and hints at how group approaches to indicators can be foreseen and some challenges for indicator use policy for the future.

Wiley Online Link

Bell, S. and Morse, S. 2014. Groups and Indicators in Post-Industrial Society. Sustainable Development. 22, pp. 145 – 157.

Better Outcomes for People with Learning Disabilities – Transforming Care

Better Outcomes for People With Learning Disabilities Transforming Care Using Communication Technology Adam Hoare

 A project exploring the use of communication technology in support of person-centred care for people with learning disabilities

A collaboration with people, their families, carers, practitioners, technologists, academics and charities in pursuit of new models of care that utilise communication technology. Taking a practice-led approach to the development of the technology and considering the evidence required to demonstrate outcomes. The goal-to produce a transferable approach to evolving practice in cooperation with technology as a continuous learning process.

This was a £1m project funded by the Small Business Research Initiative in health administered by InnovateUK and Health Enterprise East.

SBRI Health

The project brought together a wide range of stakeholders in the support and care of people with learning disabilities to see how technology could form part of a person-centred approach to care provision.

Project Partners

Project Lead: Red Embedded Systems Ltd – provides v-connect, a video communications service.

The v-connect service

Technology Partner: Rescon Ltd – provides Lincus, a data capture, storage and analytics tool.

Rescon Technologies

Care Provider: Hft – a charity supporting people with learning disabilities and their families.


Commissioner of Social Services: Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council – a local authority covering 310,000 people in the West Midlands.

Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council

Health Commissioner: Sandwell and West Birmingham CCG – Sandwell and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group is a membership organisation involving 100 GP practices serving around 547,400 patients across the Sandwell and West Birmingham area.

Sandwell and West Birmingham CCG

Service Development and Transformation: Changing Our Lives – a charity working with disabled people of all ages and backgrounds to deliver solutions to each particular need, and strive to achieve positive, individual-focused outcomes around rights, health and social inclusion.

Changing Our Lives

National Disabilities Charity: The DLF at Shaw Trust – The DLF brings together comprehensive knowledge of assistive technology with expertise of practitioners to provide information, advice, training and business tools. Working within the Shaw Trust, one of the largest, national third sector providers of welfare to work and social care programmes, the DLF can draw on the direct experience of people with learning disabilities and their community supporters.

Disability Living Foundation at Shaw Trust

Evaluation and Action Research Partner: The Bayswater Institute seeks to help organisations integrate human and social considerations with economic, structural and technical ones in the design and development of organisations and work.

Bayswater Institute

This project followed several years of developing communication technology in collaboration with practice and developing an approach to evaluation and evidence generation that would support its continued sustainable use. An example publication:

A Socio-technical approach to Evidence Generation in the Use of Video Conferencing in Care Delivery

Expert Support

Janet Cobb – an independent health consultant with considerable experience in learning disabilities.

David Atkinson – an independent consultant nurse and co-developer of the Health Equalities Framework.

Better Outcomes for People with Learning Disabilities – Transforming Care Project Overview

BOLD-TC Project Overview (PDF Link)

DOI 10.13140/RG.2.2.29687.52647

Towards an Understanding of How Policy Making Groups Use Indicators


Towards an Understanding of How Policy Making Groups Use Indicators Simon BellGroupthink is a known weakness leading to a number of problems relating primarily to false senses of consensus. But, positive group ‘wisdom’ is an ideal which many aspire to make happen but few manage to achieve in practice. The mystery of the group comes at a number of levels and raises various issues. What is the relative importance of how groups assemble? How they are motivated? The value of inducement? How can group work be assessed and how is a ‘good’ group identified? How is positive and not negative group working achieved? How is group working linked to what the group achieves? In the area of policy use of indicators the function of the group becomes more critical. In an age of transparency in decision making and calls for more evidence-based policy, the importance of good group work is becoming vital if the project is to succeed. Based on research undertaken around the European Union between 2009 and 2010 this paper explores some of these questions by providing a series of ‘rich pictures’ of indicator use, the meanings ascribed to the pictures by the group members and some insights regarding the dynamics of the groups that rest behind them and how this may have influenced the stories told by the pictures. We argue that in many ways the pictures represent a window to the understanding of the groups use of indicators.

Science Direct Link

Bell, S. and Morse, S. 2013. Towards an understanding of how policy making groups use indicators. Ecological Indicators. 35. pp. 13 – 23.