Using sociotechnical systems theory to help manage change

A lot of my thinking is informed by the sociotechnical systems theory perspective, including organisational theorists such as Karl Weick. I’ve used a simply model from Weick’s earlier work of ‘sociotechnical fit’ to understand the impact of a system change on people and systems.

In this model you break the change into two system aspects – the social and the technical. Then break each aspect into the job, work group and organisational view. By analysing the change from each of these components you can look for mismatch between the changes in the social and technical aspects. Obviously there is a little be more to understanding and applying the definitions of these components, but hopefully you get the basic idea.

For example, in one project I identified through this process that while most of the change was at an organisational level (across both the social and technical aspects), it presented the following opportunity and challenge at other levels:

  • At the workgroup level, it introduced the opportunity to improve the relationship between one business group and another through role clarity.
  • But at a job level, while one stakeholder’s job would be enriched by the new process (more knowledge work because of reduced effort to manage transactions), another previously unrecognised ancillary stakeholder group would need to learn new skills that might not directly enrich their roles (at least without further investigation to understand the pros and cons of the change).

I like the way a relatively simply model like this can help to reveal unforeseen issues by helping us to explore the different perspectives of a system change. Of course, the more complex the change, the more  important it is to inject a diverse range of viewpoints into a model like this to make sure nothing is missed (i.e. you don’t know what you don’t know).