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Amelsvoort, P. (2000). Introduction.

En The design of work and organisation:the modern sociotechnical systems aproach, an overview of the Dutch Sociotechnical Systems Theory ( pp . 9 - 14 ). Vlijmen : ST-GROEP. (C36005)


lntrodu ction

In the colourful landscape of theories on manageme nt and organisatio n, the STS approach occupies a special position. Not only can this approach look back on a long tradition of theoretical developme nt and practical experience; it also aims to bring about an improveme nt in the organisatio n, together with increased involvemen t by employees, and imptoved labour relations. By simultaneo usly improving these result areas, the sociotechni cal approach differs from modem manage~ent approaches , such as Lean Prodtiction , Shop Floor Manageme nt, BPR (Business Process Redesign), TQM (Total Quality Managemen t), etc., which focus on the quality of the organisatio n, and in particular productivity , and neglect the quality of working life The origin of the STS theory dates back to shortly after the Second World War. A number of researchers discovered that technical-e conomic aspects could not be entirely taken out of the social context of organisatio ns. Equally, the social aspects can never be viewed without the technical-e conomic factors. At the time, this idea was revolutiona ry; after all, designing production systems was the task of technical engineers, whilst solving social problems in the organisatio n was the field of work of psychologis ts, sociologists , etc. The results of these studies were then disseminat ed and confrrmed all over the world. Elements of the STS theory, for example the autonomou s team concept, the decentralis ation of responsibil ities and authorities , the streamlinin g of processes into whole group tasks, etc. recur today in numerous modem approaches such as TQM, Empowerm ent, Learning Organisation, etc. In the various continents, sociotechni cal theory has devel9


oped in different ways (for an intercontinental comparison, see Van Eijnatten, 1993). In Scandinavia, for example, the main focus is In the various continents, sociotechnical theory has developed in different ways (for an intercontinental comparison, see Van Eijnatten, 1993). In Scandinavia, for example, the main focus is placed on a democratic dialogue between employers and employees, in order to come up with common points of departure for organisation renewal. In Australia and America, the main focus is on participation in the design process. In the Dutch variant a sociotechnical framework for the analysis and design of organisations has been further developed (De Sitter, 1981; Groep Sociotechniek, 1986; Kuipers & Van Amelsvoort, 1990; De Sitter, 1994). Over the last fty years, therefore, STS theory has developed from an approach for job design (micro leve!) into a school of thought in management science, with sound theoretical foundations, and broad practica! applications, which offers a rramework for analysing (explaining), designing and changing (points of application) organisations {macro level), in an integrated manner. To emphasise the development of the school of thought conceming the STS approach, the current situation is described by the term modem sociotechical systems (MST) (see chapter 2). The MST theory can be defmed as:
The study of the functioning of organisations, in relation to

their environmental context, which is detennined by the mutual interrelations between organisation design, in tenns of structure and systems (technical instrumentation) and social variables (attributes ofpeople and their mutual relationships).
According to this defmition of modero STS thinking, the following characteristics are relevant. l. The design of organisation is seen as a strategic issue. Clarifying, designing and changing organisations takes place in relation to the environmental conditions and strategic choices. The strategic choices impose demands on


the organisation as well as directing the desired organisation (see chapter 3); 2. In relation to strategic positioning, the organisation design is a determining factor for achieving results in the fields of quality of the organisation, quality of working life aTul quality of working relations. This result areas are defmed as follows: Quality of the organisation: the ability to cope with strict extemal demands, the customer's demand for variation (product mix), and uncertainty about both shortterm and long-term planning.

Figure 1.1 The regu.lation cycle

Quality of working life: the involvement of people as a result of creating meaningful work with the possibilities to regulate their own work processes and to increase the level of participation. Regulation of the work process is seen as the cycle of: a. setting the standards, objectives and norms; b. observing the present situation of the process, input and output;


c. comparing the present situation with the desired situati on (standards, norms and objectives); d. intervening in the process and environment to get the process on track. Regulation capacity is the possibility to execute these 4 activities.

Quality of working relations: the way employees work together in terms of mutual respect, openness, and fairness, and also the way in which partnership is built between the management on the one hand and the works' council and unions on the other.



quality of the organisation quality of working life qualityof working relations


strategic choices

... ...

organisation design

... ...

Figure 1.2 The result areas for sociotechnical systems desgn

3. A term central to organisation design is complexity. The (invisible) mechanism of complex organisations on the result areas is discussed in chapter 4;

The increasing complexity of organisations, as a result of the combination of increasing externa! uncertainty and variation with the intemal division of labor, has e:ffects on the quality of the organisation, the quality of working life, and the quality of working relations. With12


out aiming to provide extensive explanation, some of the major implications of complex organisations under externa! pressure, in each of these areas are listed below.
Quality of the organisation long and unpredictable throughput times; slow response time; slow and blind decision-making; expensive co-ordination and control mechanisms; preoccupation with decision-making rules, procedures and polides, which are based on exceptions and away the necessary regulation capacity; blindness for new opportunities and capacities: protection against change; ineffective renewal and improvement actions from staff and support experts. Quality of worldng Ufe apathetic workforce; high job demands and no regulation capacity: stress; no involvement, alienation; no stimuli for growth and learning. Quality of working relations risk and responsibility avoiding mechanism, focused on shortterm improvement; pointing fingers, narrow-mindedness; stabilizing mechanism, little urge for renewal; no learning possibilities; managers behaving like pollee o:fficers, focused on command and control; industrial relations based on mistrust, loss of energy in conflicts and concentration on conditions of employment.

4. The organisation is seen asan integrated, coherent whole of both social and variables (chapter 5). The social and technical variables are interconnected in such a way that both must be set into motion, simultaneously. In STS theory, the organisation design is seen asan impor13


tant point of action. The process of designing is important in order to achieve sufficiently rapid changes in the social variables. Chapter 6 then deal with the suggested solutions and principies for modem organisation design. Chapter 7 elaborates important considerations, which serve as a basis for the approach to the process of change.