The story of socio-technical design: reflections on its successes, failures and potential


  • Enid Mumford


Abstract.  This paper traces the history of socio-technical design, emphasizing the set of values it embraces, the people espousing its theory and the organizations that practise it. Its role in the implementation of computer systems and its impact in a number of different countries are stressed. It also shows its relationship with action research, as a humanistic set of principles aimed at increasing human knowledge while improving practice in work situations. Its evolution in the 1960s and 1970s evidencing improved working practices and joint agreements between workers and management are contrasted with the much harsher economic climate of the 1980s and 1990s when such principled practices, with one or two notable exceptions, gave way to lean production, downsizing and cost cutting in a global economy, partly reflecting the impact of information and communications technology. Different future scenarios are discussed where socio-technical principles might return in a different guise to humanize the potential impact of technology in a world of work where consistent organizational and economic change are the norm.