Socio-technical systems

[F. E. Emery]( and [E. L. Trist](, 'Socio-technical systems', in C. W. Churchman and M. Verhulst (eds.) _Management Science, Models and Techniques_, vol. 2, Pergamon, 1960, pp. 83-97. [[on Google Books](] [reprinted in _[Social Encournters](, 1973, Michael Argyle, ed] Snippets of text (from the beginning, maybe the middle, and the end) appear below, to give a sense of the content for the chapter. For more depth, the original source is cited, above. ---

The appropriateness of the concept of 'open system' can be settled, however, only by examining in some detail what is involved in an enterprise achieving a steady state. The continued existence of any enterprise presupposes some regular commerce in products or services with other enterprises, institutions and persons in its external social environment. If it is going to be useful to speak of steady states in an enterprise, they must be states in which this commerce is going on. The conditions for regularizing this commerce lie both within and without the enterprise. On the one hand, this presupposes that an enterprise has at its immediate disposal the necessary material supports for its activitiesa workplace, materials, tools and machines - and a work force able and willing to make the necessary modifications in the material 'throughput' or provide the requisite services. It must also be able, efficiently, to utilize its material supports and to organize the actions of its human agents in a rational and predictable manner. On the other hand, the regularity of commerce with the environment may be influenced by a broad range of independent external changes affecting markets for products and inputs of labour, materials and technology. [pp 282-283] [....]

This element of choice and the mutual influence of technology and the social system may both be illustrated from our studies, made over several years, of work organization in British deep- seam coal mining. The following data are adapted from Trist and Murray (20). [p. 285] [...]

The conventional system combines a complex formal structure with simple work roles : the composite system combines a simple formal structure with complex work roles. [....] [p. 285] [....]

In this case the composite systems consistently showed a superiority over the conventional in terms of production and costs. [p. 286] [....]

Considering enterprises as 'open socio-technical systems' helps to provide a more realistic picture of how they are both influenced by and able to act back on their environment. It points in particular to the various ways in which enterprises are enabled by their structural and functional characteristics ('system constants') to cope with the 'lacks' and 'gluts' in their available environment. Unlike mechanical and other inanimate systems they possess the property of 'equifinality'; they may achieve a steady state from differing initial conditions and in differing ways (3). Thus in coping by internal changes they are not limited to simple quantitative change and increased uniformity but may, and usually do, elaborate new structures and take on new functions. The cumulative effect of coping mainly by _internal_ elaboration and differentiation is generally to make the system independent of an increasing range of the predictable fluctuations in its supplies and outlets. At the same time, however, this process ties down in specific ways more and more of its capital, skill and energies and renders it less able to cope with newly emergent and unpredicted changes that challenge the primary ends of the enterprise. [....] [p. 293] [....]

In selecting the primary task of an enterprise, it needs to be borne in mind that the relations with the environment may vary with: (a) the productive efforts of the enterprise in meeting environmental requirements, (b) changes in the environment that may be induced by the enterprise and (c) changes independently taking place in the environment. These will be of differing importance for different enterprises and for the same enterprises at different times. [....] Managerial control will be further enhanced if the primary task, at whatever level it is selected, is such as to enable the enterprise to achieve vis-a-vis its competitors, a _distinctive competence_. [p. 294]