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veryard projects > system > sociotechnical
background key ideas material examples
Early studies of innovation and productivity were carried out by researchers at the Tavistock Institute - including Eric Trist, Ken Bamforth, Fred Emery, and others.

This work led to coining the word sociotechnical to refer to a systems perspective that pays attention to both  technical and social factors, and to the interaction between the technical and the social.

The “same” machinery can coexist with different social arrangements.
The costs, benefits and risks of the technology belong to the whole socio-technical system, not just the machine in isolation.
Some people like to think that all benefits can be attributed to the machine, and any implementation problems belong to the social system. 
> resistance

Some people like to attach the benefits of automation to the social system. 
> workforce productivity
Decomposing the SocioTechnical

History of the SocioTechnical (Tavistock Institute)

Student Notes (pdf)

Longwall Mining

Strawberry Picking

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Decomposing the SocioTechnical (Fractal)

veryard projects > system > sociotechnical > decomposition

From a sociotechnical perspective, a system is described in terms of both socially mediated relationships and technically mediated relationships.

Many people think of a socio-technical system as a composite system, containing some social subsystems and some technical subsystems. This is a simplification, which can sometimes be dangerously misleading.

All social systems are technically mediated. We get an increasing amount of our information about our social world through technical media: email, telephone, management information systems, television, Reuters newswire. These technologies screen information for us, screen information from us.

(For example, computers and televisions both provide information as services through a screen. The screen is both literal and metaphorical. It is a surface on which the data are presented, and also a filter that controls what the user sees. The screen is a two-sided device -- it both reveals information and hides information.)

And all technical systems are socially mediated. Technology is produced, distributed and managed by people within social structures, for socio-economic or political purposes. It is interpreted and used according to social intentions.

For some purposes, therefore, it is appropriate to treat all the subsystems, even the smallest components, of a socio-technical system as if they were themselves socio-technical. (This kind of decomposition is sometimes called fractal.)

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

History of the SocioTechnical (Tavistock Institute)

veryard projects > system > sociotechnical > history

In the years immediately after the Second World War, researchers at the Tavistock Institute carried out a number of studies of work organization.  This included a classic study of deep-seam coal mining, where they found two very different forms of organization, which they labelled "conventional" and "composite", both operated within the same seam and using identical technology.
The original research is described in a number of papers by Eric Trist, Ken Bamforth, Fred Emery, and others.
E. Coakes, R. Lloyd-Jones & D. Willis, The New Sociotech: Graffiti on the Longwall (Springer, 2000).
Barry Palmer, "The Tavistock paradigm: Inside, outside and beyond.", in R. Hinshelwood & M. Chiesa (eds) Institutions, Anxieties and Defence. PDF version available online
Civic Practices Network (
Bob Cole's notes (

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This page last updated on October 20th, 2004
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