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Socio-Technical Theory and Work Systems in the Information Age

Book chapter entitled ‘Socio-technical theory and work systems in the information age’

This chapter of the book set the traditional focus of socio-technical systems theory on primary work systems in modern context where information and communication technology (ICT) has a major influence in the way work is undertaken. The chapter begins with a summary of the original work of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and critically reviews the major concepts to emerge from these studies. This is followed by a review of recent studies of the impact of ICT on work systems and how socio-technical systems are used to interpret these findings. Finally, concepts and methods of designing and implementing customisable and generic ICT systems in organisations. The authors call for a recognition and evaluation of socio-techcial systems as never completed but evolving over time; placing an emphasis on the emergent behaviour resulting from the use of new technical systems.

“Technology presumes there’s just one right way to do things and there never is.”

– Robert M. Pirsig

Socio-technical theory design networking systems

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EASON K. AND ABDELNOUR-NOCERA J. Socio-technical theory and work systems in the information age. In Whitworth B. and de Moor A. (eds) ‘Handbook of research on socio-technical design and social networking systems’ Information Science Reference, Hershey New York 65-77

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The Double Task

The Double Task Approach originated by Harold Bridger

Harold Bridger Lisl Klein Ken Eason Tavistock Institute Bayswater Institute

The double task approach was developed by Harold Bridger at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in the 1950s. Harold’s starting point was that we are all driven to complete our primary task: the currently most pressing one, the deadline to meet, the customer’s order to fulfill, the problem to be solved. But if we are continually obsessed by the current task we can miss the bigger picture: are we tackling the right task, are we going about the best way, why are we not all working together on this?

Harold was fond of saying that, every so often, we need to ‘suspend business’: to stop work on the first task and switch our attention to the second task, that of reviewing the what, why and how of situation we find ourselves in. This switch is a move from a ‘doing’ mode to a ‘learning’ mode, a move to reflecting, gathering evidence and testing assumptions. It can be a challenging process and Harold was particularly concerned to create safe places, space and time for the reviewing processes to be effective. The need for a double task approach is pervasive in work organisations. It exists at all levels of human activity and there are methods to support it at all levels.

  1. Individual counselling We all need opportunities to sit back and ask ourselves deeper questions about our working lives. Sometimes this is about thinking through what has been happening and reviewing it in a cool, rational way. At other times it may be more a case, as Harold said, of ‘listening to your gut’: asking ‘why am I feeling anxious’ and ‘why doesn’t this feel right’. This process can be greatly helped by a skilled counselor who is not judgmental but helps you to explore, to articulate half-conscious thoughts and examine the implications of possible courses of action.
  2. Group dynamics We spend much of our working lives in groups and often groups appear dysfunctional, its members ‘not all pulling in the same direction’. ‘Suspending business’ so that group members can review how they are working together can be very important in helping everyone become more aware of group processes and can be revealing for each person as they receive feedback on their own contributions to the group.
  3. Organisational learning Harold was an organisational consultant and recognized that each organisation had its own double task: to get the day’s work done and to plan how to cope in the longer term with a changing world. It is dysfunctional if the majority of the employees only do task one and a small group have all the responsibility for task two. Harold saw a need for everybody to be involved in task two and there are now many action research and action learning methods that provide mechanisms for everybody to review the consequences of their action plans and, as a result, create a learning organisation continually adjusting to new demands and opportunities.

Commentaries on Harold Bridger and the Double Task

‘ To oversimplify somewhat, what Bridger had in mind was the engaging in an activity – task one – (e.g. a boardroom discussion), and ‘suspending business’ and reviewing the underlying psychodynamics and other processes – task two – affecting the discussion. Thus learning cycles of doing and reviewing can help the orgnisation to function at an increasingly sophisticated, and one might say, more mature level in the work that it does. By so doing we might say that the organisation develops reflective practitioners who, together, create the learning organisation.

In Wilfred Bion’s terms this working in a double task manner helps the group stay in work mode rather than in basic assumption mode. In the work mode the group focuses intently on its task and remains in close touch with reality. Whereas in the basic assumption mode, the group gives way to primitive processes which make it function as if its primary purpose is to reduce the group’s anxieties and avoid pain or emotions that further work might bring. This is not to say that Bridger’s task one is the same as Bion’s work group or that task two is simply basic assumption mode. Rather the common element is that irrational forces below the surface of group functioning can undermine the group’s work. Reviewing and exploring both aspects of group functioning is a means of achieving sophisticated and effective group
work.

Derek Raffaelli (2008) Working the other way In D. Graves (editor) Sense in Social Science: A collection of essays in honour of Dr. Lisl Klein  Graves, Broughton 109 – 122

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