IJSS Vol 3 No. 1

Vol 3 No.1 Jan – June 2016

Editorial Preface

In keeping with the policy of the International Journal of Systems and Society, I am pleased to introduce the guest editors for this edition. Christine Welch, who was the guest editor of Volume 1, No. 2 and Peter Bednar, new to IJSS, have provided us with this collection of eight papers. All papers relate in some way to the social technical approach pioneered by Enid [1]Mumford and Don Henshall [1979] in a 21st-century setting. The Sociotechnical approach developed by Professor Mumford was one of a number of important ideas in which systems thinking was applied in some form to ‘real world’ problems in the latter part of the 20th century. Other important contributions to applied Systems thinking in this era include Stafford Beer, C. West Churchman, Russ Ackoff and Peter Checkland. Although there were differences of opinion about the nature of Systems they all shared the belief of applying the ideas and learning from the practice – for without the [2] practice Systems thinking becomes little more than a collection of anecdotes, of limited value; theory without practice is infertile and practice without theory is aimless.

In this edition Welch and Bednar have provided us with a collection of papers of mainly related to the use of systems ideas in information systems of which five explore the ideas in the ‘field’ – i.e. learn from the practice rather than add to the theory based solely on what they have learnt from time spent in the library.  The guest editors provide us with a detailed editorial so there is little point in repeating that here so I will limit myself to drawing your attention to aspects in these papers that I found of interest. For example, Barn and Barn draw our attention to the changes that modern communication systems have had and continue to have, on society. In their paper, they report on a refinement of the value sensitive action-reflection model used in co-design, first introduced by Yoo et al, that recognises the tension between values and resilience. They report on their activities of using this approach for a project aimed at developing mobile apps for promoting better engagement among young people in conflict with the law and their caseworkers in the UK youth justice system. The Waring et al paper reports upon the development of an analytical framework which they used in a longitudinal, ethnographic study within a UK university. The lessons learnt from the study they suggest may help to avoid some of the problems experienced due to the lack of recognition of the important role of power and improvisation in what may be misrepresented as planned strategic and deliberate organizational change. Weilbach and Matthee, Machdel undertake a socio-technical analysis of the change caused by an e-textbook implementation in a secondary school in South Africa. To undertake their research, which was an action research study, they collected data which was analysed using the Punctuated Socio-Technical Change (PSIC) model. The outcome of their research revealed the ST-model used within the PSIC model failed to address the vertical gaps between levels in sufficient detail the authors plan future research in which they will apply ANT which they suggest might help to overcome this shortcoming.

Lindekilde and Bjørn also adopted a method of action research over a period of 21 months, working within a global engineering company. Over the course of two action cycles the techniques were improved to help people reflect upon current practices. Their paper adds the sociotechnical approach arguing that while discursive interventions challenging people’s perceptions are important, the embodied experience of the activities are essential to be able to transform people’s perceptions on presence and improve the global collaboration. Edwards and Horton explore the adoption and diffusion of ‘transformational’ information technologies in three UK universities through the use of a longitudinal case study. Their research involved UK universities adoption of the Managed Learning Environment (MLE). In the paper, they explore the influence of ideology on the socio-technical process of adoption, in particular, the interplay of ideological and contextual understandings. Their findings, they contend, contribute to better understanding trajectories of socio technical development

It is good to know that these ideas are still being applied and lessons learnt from their application adding our understanding.

We hope that you enjoy this edition

Frank Stowell

Special Issue: Sociotechnical Approaches to Organizational Learning and Change

Guest Editors:

Peter M Bednar, School of Computing, University of Portsmouth, UK and

Dr Christine Welch, UK Systems Society, Portsmouth, UK

Guest Editorial

Enid Mumford’s socio-technical approach to work design is now many decades old. However, in the 21st Century, a new focus on organizational excellence has brought a resurgence of interest in approaches that consider social and technical aspects of organizational systems holistically. Many researchers have turned their attention to a fresh examination of this productive field.

Mumford’s discussion in one of her last articles (2006) raised a number of important issues. She pointed out that an Open Systems perspective is needed if the benefits of socio-technical methods are to be realised. Interconnections with the wider system within which any particular work system is sited must be taken into account. Any organization subsists from moment to moment as an emergent property of the interactions among the people who are its members, creating systems that are not just open but dynamic. Considered in the context of networked organizations, dynamic complexity is not merely expanded but radically altered. The role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in a networked society is not simply to create connections between individuals and organizations, but to support transformations in ora ganizational life as it is lived.

This Special Issue of the International Journal of Systems & Society includes contributions that highlight the benefits and effectiveness of adopting a socio-technical perspective to deal with this dynamic.

Participation in work system design from grass roots level is an important socio-technical principle that is not always realised in practice. However, limitations to participation may be damaging to the usefulness of any designed system, because the contextually-dependent knowledge of unique individuals will be lost in the design process. It has been suggested that the primary source of sustainable competitive advantage for a business is the ‘know-how’ of its employees (Prusak, 1996). It follows that their willing engagement in co-creating work systems will facilitate success. This can be demonstrated, for example, in a contemporary approach to the design of both industrial and service systems known as Lean, which emphasises flexibility, flow and elimination of waste(s) through full participation of engaged actors in the system, bringing to bear their unique professional understandings to identify opportunities for continuous improvement. Whenever innovation is contemplated, individuals must be empowered to join in co-creation of their organizational systems. Failure to recognize this may be a primary reason why many fashionable techniques of the past thirty years have continued to disappoint, such as TQM, BPR.

The contributions in this issue is exploring how business and industrial systems are indivisibly socio-technical in their very nature. The issue comprises 11 papers, including an invited paper from eminent scholar Dr Eli Berniker, member of the Fulbright Specialist Roster at the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, who sets out challenges for the future. The issue also includes a review of a book by Edgar Morin a French Philosopher and Sociologist. The review of the book “On Complexity”, is written by Humberto Mariotti, who is himself a pioneer in the creation of Complexity Management as an academic discipline.

The remaining nine papers have been subject to a rigorous selection process, involving double-blind peer review by up to five academics in the field. Overall, 28 relevant and complete papers were submitted for review, nine of which were finally selected for inclusion in this special issue. The contributors are drawn from different parts of the world, from South America to Scandinavia and also a range of fields of academic inquiry. The papers here cover a wide range of topics, all closely tied to the themes of organizational transformation and socio-technical design. However, it is possible to identify some common ideas that permeate these differing contributions. First, there are issues of power, ideology and trust within organizational contexts, including the incidence of conflict. This political dimension has undoubtedly been the key to success or failure in numerous organizational transformation initiatives; and yet it is this feature that is rendered invisible in those approaches to design that focus primarily on technical matters, or indeed those that privilege management perspectives over those of other stakeholders. Secondly, an emphasis on collaboration, co-evolution and co-design is recurrent in a number of papers, although arising from different issues and challenges. Thirdly, and unsurprisingly, several authors focus attention on work practices and work systems, examining the interaction of human and technical factors in issues such as resilience, equilibrium and fulfilment of user expectations.

The paper by Barn and Barn deals directly with a perceived tension within design processes between incorporating stakeholder values and achieving system resilience. Values may include, for instance, desire for privacy, security and personal autonomy. However, these must be balanced with other desirable factors such as availability and reliability in a context of multiple threats and risks. The authors refer to examples in which trust by stakeholders is crucial to a successful implementation and relate these challenges to principles set out in Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety (Ashby, 1991). They point out that values are likely to vary with different stakeholder contexts and over the life of any system. Drawing on the literature of Value-sensitive Design (VSD), they then go on to explore a case study of a system designed to support vulnerable young people, making a proposition that, by addressing value sensitive concerns in the design process, resilience as an outcome is more likely. Cabitza, Simone and Storli take up similar issues by addressing empowerment of end-users of designed artefacts in order to enhance resilience – defined as flexibility and adaptability and achieved through openness and underspecification. These authors make use of the concepts of ‘seams’, ‘scars’ and ‘sutures’ in order to show how such a perspective on design might be achieved (see Weiser, 1994; Chalmers, 2003). ‘Seams’ are affordances created by designers of artefacts for end-users to intervene and ‘tinker’, in order to adapt interface or functionality to their contextual purposes. ‘Scars’, on the other hand, are indicators that such tinkering has occurred in the past by previous users, and that further adaptation is possible. Finally, ‘sutures’ are mechanisms that connect IT artefacts together in order to support data exchange for interoperability. The importance of these proposals for the authors lies in empowering end-users, minimizing the interventions of professional planners and designers who might introduce misunderstandings, bias and delays, and giving system ownership to users in order to support the introduction of change.

Edwards and Horton point to a phenomenon in which proposed deployments of new technologies are promoted through ‘Utopian visions’. They explore how ideological framing is used by powerful stakeholder groups, both internal and external, to exert influence over organisational understandings and decision making. The authors point out that the influence of ideologies on dynamics of socio-technical relational processes in organisations has been under researched within the field of technology acceptance. The paper cites examples showing how Technology Action Framing has been used to shape organizational discourse on ideologically-positive lines, even when the lived experience of stakeholders might suggest a negative response. In particular, the authors trace the historic trajectory of the introduction of Mobile Learning Environments in Higher Education Institutions, exploring the impact of shifting and conflicting understandings on implementation. The paper by Paul discusses Business Analysis as a sub-discipline, pointing out that its inherent socio-technical perspective. The author notes that it has received only limited recognition among IS researchers. Paul gives an account of an inquiry into the techniques and approaches applied by Business Analysts, through a number of interviews with senior professionals. This role can be likened to that of an investigator and involves exploring all aspects of organizational work systems, including technical, business and social dimensions. Paul highlights activities, techniques and skills that appear to contribute to successful IS analysis. The political nature of this work emerges clearly, as the author identifies key enabling factors. Interviewees, drawn from professionals with more than 10 years’ experience in the field, suggested that organizational attitude is crucial. Credibility of Business Analysis was suggested to vary considerably among organizations; some were fully-supportive of a holistic investigation, while others showed a bias towards establishing technical, IT requirements only. It was pointed out that moves towards the use of standard methods, such as SSADM, tended to exacerbate such bias.

Waring, Wainwright and Skoumpopoulou deal with perhaps the most politically-charged of IS initiatives – the integrated Enterprise System – adopting a critical stance. They point out that these complex, integrated systems clearly demand examination through a sociotechnical lens, and yet note that there is a dearth of research in this area. It is suggested that ES adoption is often related to redistribution of power and alteration of political structures within organizations, bringing about associated change in policies, strategic opportunities and threats. Work-based improvisation often follows the introduction of these large-scale, pre-specified systems and this may, in turn, create new and unanticipated power relations, managerial roles and structures. The authors make use of the ‘circuits of power’ framework (Clegg, 1989; Silva, 2007) and relate this to an improvisational model of change, examining how anticipated change is affected by unintended change opportunities, to produce an emergent result.

Two further papers deal with the more formal political dimension. Pereira, Macadar and Testa focus on the potential of Information & Communication Technologies to improve the lives of individuals and their communities. They take up a human development agenda (RDH, 2009), which highlights the expansion of real freedoms, considering what is important to people in communities in order to open up more choices and support achievement of happiness and fulfilment. The authors present a sociotechnical, conceptual model to promote understanding of governments’ implementation of ICT, using a capability approach to analyse its impact in human development. Weilbach and Matthee also use a sociotechnical model to examine a particular instance of change within an educational context in South Africa. Using action research, the authors sought to gain an understanding of the change in a particular school, relating to the introduction of an e-textbook platform to replace printed books, and to make suggestions on how to manage the change. Use of the model revealed that the equilibrium of the socio-technical components of the work system was severely disrupted during the implementation. Teachers perceived that they and their pupils had received insufficient support and that the system was poorly adapted to the tasks of teaching and learning. The researchers suggested some stabilising interventions within the socio-technical work system, but have identified a need for further investigation using a variety of techniques.

Lindekilde and Bjørn have focused on one of the challenges to collaborative working, posed by the global nature of business organizations and networks. They make use of the concept of presence (Schultze, 2010) in order to explore the way individuals within a particular organizational setting thought about their interactions with colleagues around the globe. Using action research, they engaged organizational actors in reflection in order to identify ways to improve their work. Using a socio-technical approach, they argue that embodied experiences are more effective than discursive intervention alone in transforming the quality of global collaboration. Bednar, Welch and Milner discuss collaboration through benchmarking. They first give an example of non-competitive benchmarking where hospital staff collaborated with inter-alia formula 1 pit-teams as a vehicle for reflection upon the design of critical hand-over processes in theatre. They go on to discuss templates based in current socio-technical practice to be used as part of a toolkit for reflective, contextual, socio-technical analysis.

The last word comes from Eli Berniker whose invited paper suggests that no single discipline can achieve practical competence in whole systems design; and indeed such complexity is beyond the cognitive capacity of any known organization. He uses the metaphor of a Design Table and poses questions ”who is at the table?”, ”what do they bring to the table?” pointing out that multiple disciplines must be engaged at the Design Table together, each bringing the uncertainties and challenges that emerge at the boundary of their discipline. He reviews work contributed by such people as Mumford, Singer and Churchman and suggests that the Design Table can be seen as a collaborative forum. He concludes that we should understand whole organization design as a developing technology and evolving artform, rather than evoking inevitably incomplete methodologies.

Christine Welch and Peter Bednar


An Exploration of Resilience and Values in the Co-design of Sociotechnical Systems. Barn, B. and Barn. R.:

Seams And Sutures In It Artifacts: Sewing Up The Socio And The Technical Together Cabitza,F., Simone, C. and Storni,C.:

Exploring Ideology In The Adoption Of Socio-Technical Assemblages

Edwards, D., And Horton, K.;

Enterprise Systems Adoption: A Sociotechnical Perspective on the Role of Power and Improvisation

Waring,T., Wainwright, D. and Skoumpopoulou, D

A SocioTechnical Approach of eGovernment in Developing Countries: An Analysis of Human Development Outcomes

Pereira. G., Macadar. M., and Testa.M.

Understanding Change From A Socio-Technical Perspective: The Case Of An E-Textbook Implementation

Weilbach, L., and Matthee,M.

 Transforming perceptions of presence: Reporting from an action research project Lindekilde, R and Bjørn, P-

 Excellence in Practice through a Socio-Technical, Open Systems Approach to Process Analysis and Design.

Bednar,P., Welch, C., and Milner, C

Book Review: Humberto  Mariotti

On Complexity – a fundamental book, author, Edgar Morin;

The last word:

Eli Berniker,

The Future of Sociotechnical Systems Theory and Practice: The Challenges for Information System Design

[1] Mumford, E. and Henshall, D. (1979), A Participative Approach to Computer Systems Design, Associated Business Press, London.

[2] We do not find people becoming qualified in medicine by reading handbooks, these handbooks are considered helpful to the experienced, but useless to the layman (Aristotle, ‘Ethics’, p. 341).