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

Introduction:

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, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2013.09.017.