Getting New Technologies Together: Studies in Making Sociotechnical Order

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Research should also address how worker activities in the local work system can influence the socio-organisational context, such as safety culture and climate. For instance, how can an organisation provide local job control to workers so that they can manage system disturbances in a safe manner? Principles for the design of work systems derived from STS theory can be related to complexity theory Morin Specifically, research, design and assessment of sociotechnical systems may benefit from the growing body of insights generated from the study of complex systems within domains as diverse as computer science, biology, economics, physics and chemistry.

We suggest that sociotechnical systems are a type of complex adaptive system , and that analysis from that perspective could significantly enhance our understanding of how sociotechnical systems function and how they might be made to function better. Complex adaptive systems are defined as classes of complex systems whose structural and dynamic characteristics adaptively adjust in response to internal and external perturbations Miller and Page Other than attention by Vicente , Carayon , Walker et al.


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As Pavard and Dugdale note, there are several attributes of complex adaptive systems that are also characteristic of complex sociotechnical systems. Among these are. Complex systems are fundamentally non-deterministic, as it is not possible to perfectly predict the behaviour of such systems based solely on knowledge of characteristics of its components.

Limited functional decomposability. By definition, complex systems are dynamic. The same is true of sociotechnical systems. Complexity theory asserts that attempts at analytic decomposition of such systems into constituent components cannot capture their dynamic, behavioural aspects because so much of the latter relies on interactions between system components as well as system—environment interactions. Emergence and self-organisation.

Complex systems are characterised by properties and attributes that cannot be precisely localised within the structure or function of components. It is commonly noted in the sociotechnical literature that safety is an emergent property of sociotechnical system activity; yet, the factors and principles underlying the emergence of safety within such systems need to be further understood. Because of the conceptual overlap between sociotechnical systems and the broader class of complex adaptive systems, we should further explore these connections.

1. Introduction

Within complexity theory, order and disorder are necessarily related and system evolution is largely based on this potential conflict. The goal of a system may be to impose order, but this goal is never fully achieved, not even in systems apparently in balance with their environment. One approach to complexity in sociotechnical systems is to define attributes or characteristics of system complexity Vicente ; Carayon ; Walker et al. These complexity attributes include those noted above, as well as dynamism, uncertainty and dynamic disturbance.

One empirical question is whether sociotechnical systems are becoming more complex. Therefore, if one defines complexity in terms of cycle time then the issue is not in doubt. We need new methods and approaches to address the ways through which dynamic patterns of interconnectedness occur and to describe the strength of interactions in the network or system. In particular, we need new methods to show how STS evolve over different timescales of action.

We also need to be able to specify formal boundary conditions. Dynamic reticulations appear to lend themselves to modelling and simulation techniques, but there are inherent pitfalls in using representational reductions models in the hope of simplifying analysis when complexity itself is a central property of the phenomenon of interest. In summary, if we are to embrace the sociotechnical advances for safety improvement, we need to improve, evolve and arguably generate a revolution in our evaluative and analytic techniques.


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  • Searching for causal links among a limited set of possible relationships was an important endeavour, e. To a degree, when systems are small, finite and clearly bounded, these approaches retain their utility. Indeed, we have learned much through their use, including some of the most well-known and effective methods in HFE such as Signal Detection Theory. We should not decry nor abandon reductionist techniques to pursue STS approaches, especially when they can be helpful depending on the context of the question to answer.

    However, these reductionist approaches have been criticised in recent years. Innovations in non-linear dynamics have shown that even small and what previously had been conceived of as negligible influences can burgeon in non-linear ways to exert enormous and unanticipated impacts.

    Sociotechnical system

    Such emergence itself is non-linear and thus extremely hard to predict, even in engineered systems where the nominal initial conditions can be well understood. But even as we have engaged in this effort, systems themselves do not stand still. If complexity can be demarcated by the number of interacting elements, modern systems have increased their level of complexity at exponential rates. Nor can mere increased computational power alone contend with such developments since calculating faster, but on the wrong problem, actually takes us farther away, rather than nearer to, our goal of understanding.

    The current state of knowledge with respect to STS theory and application to workplace safety is underdeveloped. However, many are in the conceptual stage or have been applied in a limited number of studies. Additional research is needed to enhance the scientific validation of the STS theoretical base for workplace safety. For instance, this research could compare and contrast, in a systematic manner, various levels and forms of worker participation and their impact on workplace safety.

    From a systems design perspective, STS approaches need to further enhance their predictive utility Davis et al. Systems today are evolving ever more quickly and uncovering new dimensions of STS that challenge the science to catch up and keep pace. For decades, we have developed and used physical, cognitive and psychosocial HFE methodologies to improve work systems, quality of working life and workplace safety. However, each well-meaning rule, regulation, advisory, design innovation or operational equation has met with only limited success as institutional, organisational, governmental and national barriers, beyond our apparent control or influence, have served to blunt, modulate, dissolve or simply ignore the product of our science.

    Sources of these constraints and barriers lie at levels of analyses beyond traditionally framed boundaries and, thus, the purview of HFE and safety professionals. With the growing interest in sociotechnical systems, we can now address these wider-scale issues. An example of this important work is that by Reason , on human error, who established the relative futility of constraining our science to micro-level studies when our stated and ultimate purpose is to affect the wider system.

    But, apparently minor actions at one level and one sub-system can percolate across the system to negate and even reverse much stronger, clearer and rational implementations at another time and place. In order to pursue the proposed sociotechnical systems approach to workplace safety, we need more innovative and dynamic analytic methods that consider individual and momentary variation Hancock, Hancock, and Warm For instance, we need a much more dynamic visualisation of our data fields where results can be represented by pictures in motion.

    Only then will a meaningful conceptualisation of sociotechnical systems in evolution be readily available to inform and support workplace safety. The next significant step in improving workplace safety lies in looking beyond traditional approaches and exploring the potential of sociotechnical systems to address the fundamental challenges associated with new technologies, emerging industries and the ever-changing workforce Dekker, Hancock, and Wilkin ; Holden et al.

    This evolution will focus attention on latent or emerging risks as opposed to reacting to injuries after-the-fact. A number of relevant, yet disparate, theories and approaches can be drawn upon to understand worker safety within sociotechnical systems. Here, the focus of the theories and approaches is shifted to safety, though it is recognised that safety is an emergent property of the system and, as such, not separable from other system attributes and goals. Nevertheless, we anticipate that by deploying systems thinking to work systems, a step change can be achieved with the major public health issue of workplace safety.

    We argue in this respect that there is an urgent need to to develop a unified sociotechnical systems approach to workplace safety. Appreciation is also extended to Margaret Rothwell for her editorial assistance. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Published online Apr 2. Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Email: ude.

    Getting New Technologies Together: Studies in Making Sociotechnical Order - Google Books

    Received Aug 25; Accepted Jan This article has been cited by other articles in PMC. Abstract Traditional efforts to deal with the enormous problem of workplace safety have proved insufficient, as they have tended to neglect the broader sociotechnical environment that surrounds workers. Keywords: sociotechnical system, workplace safety, complexity, system levels, system interactions.

    Introduction Interest in the sociotechnical systems approach to workplace safety reflects a growing belief that many dimensions of safety are emergent properties of such systems. Evolution towards a sociotechnical systems approach for workplace safety 2. Major limitations in current approaches to workplace safety We describe two fundamental problems with the current research paradigm in workplace safety: 1 narrow identification of an injury event as a local failure in a system and 2 limited focus on exposure of the individual worker to workplace hazards.

    Brief historical review of sociotechnical systems theory Sociotechnical Systems STS theory was initially developed by members of the Tavistock Institute in London, with the primary objective to improve the overall quality of working life for a review, see Mumford [ ]. A sociotechnical system has two inter-related sub-systems Mumford : the technology sub-system includes not only equipment, machines, tools and technology but also the work organisation; the social sub-system includes individuals and teams, and needs for coordination, control and boundary management. Table 1 STS approaches and implications for workplace safety adapted from Carayon Integrates system and workplace safety.

    Humans are components of the safety control structure, including legislators, regulators, managers, designers, operators, assemblers Systems and control theory The safety control structure, the physical design and the environment must be considered in designing work and investigating accidents. Open in a separate window. The role of workers in workplace safety 3. Prescribed versus actual work: implications for emerging workplace safety Approaches based on Scientific Management proposed by Taylor, and later developed by Ford, sought to prescribe work in the greatest possible level of detail in order to increase system predictability for production planning and control.

    Safety versus other goals: a sociotechnical viewpoint Understanding the role of the worker in a sociotechnical system must include consideration of organisational and psychosocial factors in the workplace to complement our traditional physical and cognitive HFE approaches Smith and Sainfort ; Carayon Developing a sociotechnical systems approach to workplace safety Complex work systems can be characterised by high uncertainty, multiple interacting elements and dynamic change Vicente ; Carayon Levels of sociotechnical systems and implications for workplace safety Rasmussen was the first to start moving away from the standard engineering chain-of-events model of accidents, which is based on reliability theory and component reliability.

    Figure 1. Development of a sociotechnical systems model for workplace safety The STAMP model clearly outlines the relationship between system operations and system design or development. Figure 2. Complexity in sociotechnical systems Principles for the design of work systems derived from STS theory can be related to complexity theory Morin Among these are Non-determinism. Conclusion The next significant step in improving workplace safety lies in looking beyond traditional approaches and exploring the potential of sociotechnical systems to address the fundamental challenges associated with new technologies, emerging industries and the ever-changing workforce Dekker, Hancock, and Wilkin ; Holden et al.

    Footnotes 1. Disclosure statement No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors. References Avgoustis A. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley; Handbook of Human-Systems Integration.

    Sociotechnical system

    Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities. Human Factors of Complex Sociotechnical Systems. Applied Ergonomics. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction. Sociotechnical Issues in the Implementation of Imaging Technology.

    Introducing sociotechnical systems

    Behaviour and Information Technology. Work Organization and Ergonomics. The Principles of Sociotechnical Design.