What does “system” mean in the socio-technical land?

One of my interests is in socio-technical systems. However, when I discuss it, namely with IT folks, the word “system” implies that it is an IT system. Well, I believe that it is more than that, and I will try to convey my ideas in this blog post.

Define socio-technical system

The definition was coined by Eric Trist, Ken Bamforth and Fred Emery during the II World War. They study the coal mine workers during that period and the relationship of people (and by their extent the society) and the technical aspects within an organisation. There is a pleasing Wikipedia article about it.

What I observe in the IT industry, is that we have a tendency to look at ourselves as unique, and often tend to reinvent the wheel. In regards to the social aspects, there is work from other disciplines, such as anthropology or sociology, where we can be inspired to design our organisations. The world is digital, but this digital era is created, supported, and consumed by people.

What does “system” mean (for IT folks)?

Before going into the nuts and bolts of the term “system”, I want to clarify what (usually) it means within the IT community. Whenever the word “system” pops, people link to an IT system. The CRM system, the order system, the ticketing system. In my opinion, we are not looking to the bigger picture, nor taking advantage of the insights and knowledge that other disciplines offer to us. As such, I genuinely believe that although we have meaningful conversations about how and what we build (in IT terms), we miss the ecosystem around us. Thus, it is paramount to zoom out and look to the “system” as a whole, where different forces are at play.

What does “system” means to me?

Getting to the point of this post (I know, a lengthy introduction), the “system” is the combination of people, processes and technology. These three aspects are paramount in the social-technical system, and we should pay attention to the relationships between them. It is easy to overlook the social aspect, focusing only on the technical one. Also, when problems arise, it is common to enforce processes to fix a symptom, but we don’t take into account the cause.

Why did I write this post

We need a new generation of leaders. And in this generation, we need two critical traits: (1) ability to give structure and (2) ability to create a safe place. Combining these traits with the ability to recognise the different patterns in a socio-technical system, it is sturdy and will help organisations to be successful. We are on the verge of new organisational design, so-called Teal organisations. These organisations are learning ecosystems, where the decision making power is distributed and closer to the information.

At the same time, we emerged in the digital world, and I believe that we need to change the focus on trying to align business and IT, to product engineering thinking. We are leveraging technology to create better products and services, rather than trying to mimic analogue processes.

I intend to write smaller posts on this subject. I plan to navigate from the practices that are emerging, trying to pinpoint the heuristics and patterns that can help us to create the new type of organisations!

Originally published at https://www.joaorosa.io on June 25, 2020.

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