Ramblings & ephemera

What is a socio-technical system?

From “Why a Socio-Technical System?“:

You have divined by now that a socio-technical system is a mixture of people and technology. It is, in fact, a much more complex mixture. Below, we outline many of the items that may be found in an STS. In the notes, we will make the case that many of the individual items of a socio-technical system are difficult to distinguish from each other because of their close inter-relationships.

Socio-technical systems include:

Hardware Mainframes, workstations, peripheral, connecting networks. This is the classic meaning of technology. It is hard to imagine a socio-technical system without some hardware component (though we welcome suggestions). In our above examples, the hardware is the microcomputers and their connecting wires, hubs, routers, etc.

Software Operating systems, utilities, application programs, specialized code. It is getting increasingly hard to tell the difference between software and hardware, but we expect that software is likely to be an integral part of any socio-technical system. Software (and by implication, hardware too) often incorporates social rules and organizational procedures as part of its design (e.g. optimize these parameters, ask for these data, store the data in these formats, etc.). Thus, software can serve as a stand-in for some of the factors listed below, and the incorporation of social rules into the technology can make these rules harder to see and harder to change. In the examples above, much of the software is likely to change from the emergency room to the elementary school. The software that does not change (e.g. the operating system) may have been designed more with one socio-technical system in mind (e.g. Unix was designed with an academic socio-technical system in mind). The re-use of this software in a different socio-technical system may cause problems of mismatch.

Physical surroundings. Buildings also influence and embody social rules, and their design can effect the ways that a technology is used. The manager’s office that is protected by a secretary’s office is one example; the large office suite with no walls is another. The physical environment of the military supplier and the elementary school are likely to be quite different, and some security issues may be handled by this physical environment rather than by the technology. Moving a technology that assumes one physical environment into a different environment one may cause mismatch problems.

People Individuals, groups, roles (support, training, management, line personnel, engineer, etc.), agencies. Note that we list here not just people (e.g. Mr. Jones) but roles (Mr. Jones, head of quality assurance), groups (Management staff in Quality Assurance) and agencies (The Department of Defense). In addition to his role as head of quality assurance, Mr. Jones may also have other roles (e.g. a teacher, a professional electrical engineer, etc.). The person in charge of the microcomputers in our example above may have very different roles in the different socio-technical systems, and these different roles will bring with them different responsibilities and ethical issues. Software and hardware designed assuming the kind of support one would find in a university environment may not match well with an elementary school or emergency room environment.

Procedures both official and actual, management models, reporting relationships, documentation requirements, data flow, rules & norms. Procedures describe the way things are done in an organization (or at least the official line regarding how they ought to be done). Both the official rules and their actual implementation are important in understanding a socio-technical system. In addition, there are norms about how things are done that allow organizations to work. These norms may not be specified (indeed, it might be counter-productive to specify them). But those who understand them know how to, for instance, make complaints, get a questionable part passed, and find answers to technical questions. Procedures are prime candidates to be encoded in software design.

Laws and regulations. These also are procedures like those above, but they carry special societal sanctions if the violators are caught. They might be laws regarding the protection of privacy, or regulations about the testing of chips in military use. These societal laws and regulations might be in conflict with internal procedures and rules. For instance, some companies have implicit expectations that employees will share (and probably copy) commercial software. Obviously these illegal expectations cannot be made explicit, but they can be made known.

Data and data structures. What data are collected, how they are archived, to whom they are made available, and the formats in which they are stored are all decisions that go into the design of a socio-technical system. Data archiving in an emergency room it will be quite different from that in an insurance company, and will be subject to different ethical issues too.

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