Sociotechnical Systems Theory

What Is Sociotechnical Systems Theory?

Being addressed as the company officer, many words describe you. You are a supervisor, a leader, and a manager. Certainly you are expected to effectively manage the department’s resources. To be effective as a manager, you should understand what management is and the basic management concepts used in modern organizations.

The sociotechnical system approach was originally based on work conducted by Trist and Bamforth (1951) that focused on the use of autonomous groups to accomplish work.

The perspective of sociotechnical systems theory suggested that forms of work are composed of people interacting with each other and a technical system to produce products or services.

Following this conceptualization, this sociotechnical interaction had a reciprocal and dynamic influence on the operation and appropriateness of the technology as well as on the behavior of the people who operate it.

Given the interdependence between human and technical systems, socio-technical systems theory suggested that productivity and satisfaction could be maximized via joint optimization. In other words, optimal job functioning would occur only if the social and technical systems were designed to fit each other (Trist, 1981).

The advantage for applying the sociotechnical systems theory to understanding job characteristics lies in the fact that it considers both the social environment of the job (i.e., interaction between workers) and the knowledge required to perform the job (i.e., the technical aspect of the job).

In fact, an extension of this theory by Cummings (1978) suggested that even with a single job, the various job tasks need to be well differentiated by clarifying different knowledge characteristics that are required to perform the job.

Cummings further pointed out that the social environment for performing the job largely determines whether the technology side of the job functioning can go smoothly.

Based on these notions, we analyze knowledge and social aspects of jobs and inspects how they may influence workers’ mid and late careers.

knowledge characteristics of Jobs

Specifically, knowledge characteristics reflect the kinds of broad technical demands (e.g., abilities, skills, and declarative and procedural knowledge: Morgeson & Campion, 2003) that are placed on an individual as a function of what is done on the job. We pay attention to four kinds of such knowledge characteristics here.

1.   Job Complexity

Job complexity refers to the extent to which the tasks on a job are complex and difficult to perform (Campion, 1988). Although originally conceptualized as an aspect of mechanistic job design, Edwards, Scully, and Brek (2000) found that complexity is a distinct factor.

Because work that involves complex tasks requires the use of numerous high-level skills and is more mentally demanding and challenging, it is likely to have positive motivational outcomes for workers performing it (See Job Complexity to learn more).

2.   Information Processing

The amount of information processing needed at work reflects the degree to which a job requires attending to and processing data or other information. Some jobs require higher levels of monitoring and active information to process than others, such as air traffic controller (Wall & Jackson, 1995).

Similar to job complexity, high levels of information processing requirement may be motivating, as successfully accomplishing them signals possession of higher levels of job-related abilities and skills.

However, workers in mid and late careers may be at a disadvantage when facing high levels of information processing requirements, because usually their cognitive abilities are not at developmental peak any more due to the normal aging process (Learn more here).

3.   Problem Solving

Problem solving reflects the degree to which a job requires unique ideas or solutions and reflects the more active cognitive processing requirements of a job (Jackson, Wall, Martin, & Davids, 1993).

Problem solving involves generating unique or innovative ideas or solutions, diagnosing and solving nonroutine problems, and preventing or recovering from errors.

As such, it is conceptually related to the creativity demands of work and is a natural extension to the information demands of a job (Shalley, Gilson, & Bum, 2000).

On the one hand, workers in their mid and late career may have accumulated sufficient experience and knowledge that could guide them quickly to solutions for problems encountered in their jobs.

On the other hand, if problem solving imposes high demands of information processing, then this type of job will be more challenging for older workers than their counterparts who are in early career stages.

Older workers’ success in these types of jobs is likely to depend on the extent to which their experience can compensate for the need for information processing. In other words, if older workers could quickly locate several prominent solutions based on their experience, then the need to go through all possible solutions becomes less relevant.

4.   Specialization

Specialization reflects the extent to which a job involves performing specialized tasks or possessing specialized knowledge and skill. This notion of specialization Opens in new window was first identified by Campion (1988).

Specifically, as opposed to the breadth of activities and skills inherent in task and skill variety Opens in new window, specialization reflects a depth of knowledge and skill in a particular area.

Compared to younger counterparts who are in early career stages, older workers in mid and late careers typically enjoy knowledge advantages in dealing with highly specialized jobs.

In addition, to maintain satisfactory performance on highly specialized jobs, a life-long learning Opens in new window orientation is a must. As such, older workers who are open to learning and new experiences are most suitable for these type of jobs.

Social characteristics of Jobs

Before we delve at length into the discussion of social characteristics of jobs, it is important to recognize that these characteristics are rooted from the social information processing model of Salancik and Pfeffer (1978).

Specifically, this model argues that social information processing embedded in one’s job plays an important role in shaping the person’s job experience. For example, Weiss and Shaw (1979) conducted a study in the lab setting to demonstrate that social information could impact task perceptions and task satisfaction.

O’Reilly and Caldwell (1979) also showed that social cues were important for affective outcome in the workplace. To date, findings in the literature support this model, and suggest that

  1. task perceptions and attitudes are influenced by social information;
  2. workers do actively compare their jobs and situations to those of others;
  3. the influence of social information appears to be strongest for attitudes, whereas objective task characteristics impact both attitudes and behavior.

With these findings in mind, we discuss three kinds of social characteristics of jobs.

1.   Social Support

Social support reflects the degree to which a job provides opportunities for advice and assistance from others (Morgeson & Humphrey, 2006).

Coworker and supervisor support as well as friendship opportunities at work are examples of the social support characteristic. Although not traditionally studied in job design contexts, researches from other domains suggest that social support is critical for well-being, particularly for jobs that are stressful or lack many motivational work characteristics.

According to the Socioemotional Selectivity (SES) theory, older workers in their mid and late career stages often put more values on regulating their emotions to be positive and pursuing emotionally gratifying relationships with others.

Therefore, whether a job environment offers easily accessed social support may be particularly important for their job and career related evaluations and decisions. If they are not satisfied with the social support they receive from their job environment, they are probably going to be more reactive than their younger counterparts.

2.   Interdependence

Interdependence reflects the degree to which the job depends on others and others depend on it to complete the work (Kiggundu, 1981). As such, interdependence reflects the “connectedness” of jobs to each other.

Integral to this definition are two distinct forms of interdependence:

  1. the extent to which work flows from one job to other jobs (initiated interdependence), and
  2. the extent to which a job is affected by work from other jobs (received interdependence).

Both forms of interdependence carry implications for the extent to which the job can be accomplished under sole control of a worker. The higher the initiated and received interdependence, the less likely a person can accomplish the job without interacting with other parties at work.

Following the socioemotional selectivity theory, it is conceivable that older workers who are in their mid and late career stages are more likely to enjoy the social contact at work for the reason of positive emotional gain.

3.   Interaction Outside the Organization

Interaction outside the organization reflects the extent to which the job requires employees to interact and communicate with individuals external to the organization. This interaction could take place with suppliers, customers, or any other external entity.

The “dealing with others” construct (Sims et al., 1976) is similar, although we focus solely on interactions with individuals beyond the organziation’s boundaries.

Following the socioemotional selectivity theory, we would probably expect that social contact is generally preferred by older workers as they are more emotionally oriented, but, after considering the nature of interaction outside the organization, we actually derive an opposite prediction.

Specifically, when older workers interact with organization outsiders, they are likely dealing with people who they are not very familiar with and the nature of the interaction is probably more evaluative and job-specific.

As such, this interaction may evoke stressful feelings such as uncertainty and anxiety, but not positive emotional experiences.Consequently, we expect that older workers will be less satisfied with jobs that require high levels of interaction outside the organization.

On the other hand, younger workers who are in their early career stages may view interaction with individuals external to the organization as opportunities to develop new social relationships that may facilitate their future career development (Carstensen, 1991). As such, they may be more satisfied with jobs that require more interaction outside the organization.