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Albert Chems Principles of Socio-Technical Design1’2 The art of organization design is simultaneously esoteric and poorly devel­ oped. Most existing organizations were not bom but “just growed.” Many bear the recognizable stigmata of the operations of various well-known consultancy groups. There is, of course, no lack of available models, and no one seeking to set up an organization need reinvent the wheel. But organization design is generally an outcome, not an input. The input in manufacturing organizations is provided by the engineers, both those who design machines and equipment and those who design work methods and layout— the industrial engineers. Increasingly, operations researchers, systems analysts, the designers of com­ puterized information systems, and the providers of “ management services” of all kinds are having their say. In non-manufacturing work organizations, it is the latter who are most influential. And all of them, whether they recognize it or not, bring assumptions about people into their operations and their design. Most simply put, these assumptions can generally be described as Taylorist or System X — people are unpredictable; if they are not stopped by the system design, they will screw things up; it would be best to eliminate them com­ pletely but, since this is not possible, we must anticipate all the eventualities and then program them into the machines. The outcome is the familiar pattern of hierarchies of supervision and control to make sure that people do what is required of them, and departments of specialists to inject the “expert” knowl­ edge that may be required by the complexities o f manufacturing, marketing and allied processes but is equally often required to make the elaborate control, measurement and information systems work. We have found in our own work, in both teaching and consulting, that engineers readily perceive that they are involved in organization design and that what they are designing is a socio-technical system built around much knowledge and thought on the technical, and little on the social, side of the system. There is, of course, the danger that the term socio-technical system very rapidly becomes a shibboleth, the mere pronouncing of which distin­ 1Slightly revised from a paper in Human Relations, 29:783-92, 1976. 2I am indebted to Louis E. Davis, on whose work in designing new organizations I have drawn heavily in this article, which arises out of the courses we have given together at U C LA and elsewhere. Principles of Socio-Technical Design 3 15 guishes the cognoscenti from the ignorant and uninitiated. But recognizing that a production system requires a social system to integrate the activities of the people who operate, maintain and renew it; account for it and keep it fed with the resources it requires and dispose of the products does nothing by itself to improve the design. And while discussion of the characteristics of social systems is helpful, that still leaves us with the problem that there are many ways of achieving their essential objectives. We teach engineers that any social system must, if it is to survive, perform the function of Parsons’s (1951) four subsystems. As we present them, these functions are: • attainment of the goals of the organization; • adaptation to the environment; • integration of the activities of the people in the organization, including the resolution of conflict, whether task-based, organization-based or interpersonally -based; • providing for the continued occupation of the essential roles through recruitment and socialization. The advantage of this analysis is that it tells designers that if they do not take these absolute requirements of a social system into account, they will find that they will be met in some way or other, quite probably in ways that will do as much to thwart as to facilitate the functions for which the designers plan. But it still leaves wide open the question of how to design a social system or, more fundamental, how much a social system should be designed. That there is a choice in such matters can be as much a revelation to the engineer as the fact that there is a choice of technology to achieve production objectives is to the social scientist. How, then, do you design a socio-technical system? Can we communicate any principles of socio-technical design? The first thing to be said is that a lot depends upon your objectives. A ll organizations are socio-technical systems; that is no more than a definition, a tautology. But the phrase was first used with, and...


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