Socio-technical system theory creates a framework to analyze how components interrelate to affect organizational outcomes while in relation to a relevant external environment (Emery, 1959). STS theory uses subordinate concepts and propositions to describe and explain the behavior of organizations and their members (Emery, 1959) while providing critical insights into the relationships among people, technology, and outcomes (Griffith & Dougherty, 2001). These relationships can also be seen in exchange relationships, such as when interpersonal ties form between firms during supplier selection processes (Huang, Gattiker, & Schwarz, 2008), or when logistics managers face resistance to implementing electronic log-book systems (Cantor, Corsi, & Grimm, 2009), or when psychological reactions to time pressures hurt technical knowledge flows (Thomas et al., 2011). Viewing supply management problems through an STS lens creates a foundation to explain how people and processes interact across organizations to influence better outcomes.
Subsystem Definitions and Assumptions
Socio-technical system theory encompasses three general subsystems1: technical, social, and environmental (Barko & Pasmore, 1986; Carayon, 2006; Pasmore et al., 1982; Seiler, 1967). The technical system “consists of the tools, techniques, artifacts, methods, configurations, procedures, and knowledge used by organizational employees to acquire inputs, transform inputs into outputs, and provide output or services to clients or customers” (Pasmore, 1988, p. 55). The technical component creates a structure within which organizational members must operate (Emery, 1959). Organizations add value through technical systems. Because supply chain management methods — such as process integration, lean systems, enterprise resource planning, and supplier development — are designed to improve performance, they too are part of the technical system. The partial unification of this subsystem between buying and supplying firms is what encompasses SI (Das et al., 2006; Vijayasarathy, 2010).
The social system “is comprised of the people who work in the organization and all that is human about their presence” (Pasmore, 1988, p. 25), such as attitudes, beliefs, relations, cultures, norms, politics, behaviors, and emotions. Individuals and groups achieve ends through social systems, sometimes at the expense of the organization (Rice, 1958). People rely on interpersonal contact for self-identity; groups use social rewards and punishments to regulate members (Seiler, 1967). Supply chains also have social systems, with formal and informal networks that cross firm boundaries and influence behavior (Carter, Ellram, & Tate, 2007). Individuals and groups in a supply chain may therefore act for their own purposes, regardless of supply chain requirements.
The environmental system envelops the social and technical systems. Because socio-technical processes are nested and multilevel (Moray, 2000), the focal STS defines the relevant environment. Our study focuses on the buyer–supplier dyad, which is comprised of a buying firm STS and a supplying firm STS. Beyond these firms' bounds are entities not directly controlled by ownership or fiat (Ellis, Shockley, & Henry, 2011). These entities are part of the environmental system, which includes the relevant governmental, economic, industrial, transportation, and cultural firm contexts (Pasmore, 1988). As such, those contextual forces surrounding the buyer–supplier dyad constitute the environmental systems of relevance. Because a focal STS adapts and affects its environment, an STS is considered an open rather than a closed system (Emery, 1959). Managers must pursue strategies, select resources, and implement technologies aligned with environmental stressors (Rasmussen, 2000). For example, public safety concerns can instigate the implementation of new technical reporting processes (Carter et al., 2007) or new social sustainability expectations (Tate, Ellram, & Kirchoff, 2010), all of which influence upstream and downstream supply chain practices.
Socio-technical systems emerge where social, technical, and environmental systems interact to create organizational outcomes (see Figure 1). All organizations are STSs (Cooper & Foster, 1971), as are many aspects of a supply chain (Choi & Liker, 2002). As Pasmore states, “whenever there are people, working together in a system with technology, in an environment that provides resources the system needs, there is the possibility of adapting STS thinking” (1988 p. 155). STS theory is not focused on social or technical system self-interaction (Emery, 1959), such as how enterprise resource planning systems impact six-sigma efforts (Nauhria, Wadhwa, & Pandey, 2009), or how groups impact employee satisfaction (Robinson & O'Leary-Kelly, 1998). Instead, STS theory describes how results emerge from interactions among social, technical, and environmental systems. This macro-level perspective suggests systemic causes for SI problems, creating new opportunities for understanding and addressing behavioral constraints to SI.
Pasmore et al. (1982) lay out assumptions made within STS theory (shown in Table 1) that can be grouped into descriptive assumptions (system complementarities, variance diffusion, boundary location, design incongruence, and organizational choice) and prescriptive assumptions (open systems, quality of work life, and joint optimization). Descriptive assumptions depict how STS subsystems interact and how managers have a role in maintaining an STS. The prescriptive assumptions emphasize that successful STSs require adaptation and consideration of the human condition. Although the definitions, boundaries, and assumptions traditionally refer to a single organization, as buying and supplying firms unify that they should find these concepts helpful in managing SI (Clegg, 2000). For instance, the design incongruence assumption suggests that supply management activities should adapt to changing cultures and economic conditions (Carter, Maltz, Maltz, Goh, & Yan, 2010).
Table 1. Assumptions of Socio-Technical Systems Theorya
| Descriptive assumptions |
|System complementaritiesb||Technical and social characteristics reinforce and/or deter each other.|
|Variance diffusionc||Unplanned deviations from technical standards promulgate into the socio-technical system, creating disturbances and negative outcomes.|
|Boundary location||Necessary disconnects exist within organizations and between their environments, causing problems with control, coordination and knowledge and requiring managers to span these boundaries.|
|Design incongruenced||Organizational designs eventually become inappropriate within a changing environmental context.|
|Organizational choice||Organizations can be designed in different ways to achieve the same ends, and knowledgeable choice exists at all levels of the organization.|
| Prescriptive assumptions |
|Open systems||Organizational survival requires adaptive transactions with a continually changing external environment.|
|Quality of work life||Organizations must consider human needs in the design of work, beyond the organizational benefits of joint optimization.|
|Joint optimization||Organizations function optimally only when both the technical and social subsystems are designed to fit the demands of each other and the external environment.|
To further understand how the elements of a STS influence each other, Emery (1959), Seiler (1967), Pava (1986), Pasmore (1988), and Fox (1995) provide detailed features for the social, technical, and environmental systems within the STS perspective. These features provide building blocks for STS-based propositions and enable SI researchers to identify pertinent STS processes. We organize the features into distinct categories within each system to retain STS theory's uniqueness and generalizability while improving parsimony and comprehensibility in relation to SI (Wacker, 1998).
As shown in Table 2, we consolidate the technical features into four technical system concepts that have social implications. First are technical centralities (T1) that represent the dominance and importance of technical process characteristics (Emery, 1959). Features related to this concept are (1) the levels of automation that determine relative worker contribution and (2) the variation in importance of process steps that determines an employee's role significance. Second are technical requisites (T2) that represent the surrounding criteria for technical functioning (Pava, 1986). Features related to this concept are (1) the task conditions (e.g., physical, psychosocial, knowledge) from which workers infer their worth and (2) the support dependencies from which the value of role relations emerge (Emery, 1959). Third are technical proximities (T3) that represent the closeness that technical activities have with each other and the environment (Fox, 1995). Features related to this concept are (1) spatiotemporal distributions that influence interpersonal contact and information exchange and (2) environmental contacts that influence boundary-spanning activities. Last are the technical flows (T4) that represent the stream of value-accumulating artifacts (e.g., products and ideas) (Fox, 1995). Related features are (1) input variations that influence stress in the workforce and (2) technical sequencing that influences worker skills and knowledge exchange.
Table 2. Technical System Featuresa
|Feature||Description of Feature and Impact on Social System|
|T1: Technical centralities|| |
Automation: The use of devices (e.g., mechanical, electronic) for automatic decisions and effort; this determines the relative contribution of people.
Operational impact: The criticality, focus, and skill demands of activities vary; this influences the significance of certain work roles.
|T2: Technical requisites|| |
Condition: The situational task demands in the work setting (e.g., physical and psychosocial) or in the artifacts (e.g., products and ideas); these can be over/under stimulating and distracting; workers infer what is valuable by these conditions.
Support dependence: The degree to which processes need other functions (e.g., maintenance, engineering) to maintain proper conditions; this influences the value of role relations.b
|T3: Technical proximities|| |
Spatiotemporal distributions: The layout among and time between workers, machines, and process steps; these influence coordination and communication requirements, interpersonal contact, and information exchange.
Environmental contact: The importance of inbound and outbound linkages with the external environment; this creates demands for boundary-spanning management and coordination.b
|T4: Technical flows|| |
Input variance: The variation from upstream inputs; this continually stresses labor/skill requirements, straining individuals, workgroups, and management.
Sequencing: The way unit operations (value adding activities) are grouped into production phases; this influences demands for labor skills, shared information and knowledge, and coordination.
The features of a social system from STS theory that have implications for the technical system are consolidated into the four concepts shown in Table 3. First are social positions (S1) that represent the locations within the organization's social structure (Pasmore, 1988). Features related to this concept are (1) the status landscape and (2) social networks, both of which informally challenge formal relations, controls, and knowledge. Second are social values (S2) that represent the cultural attitudes within the organization (Pasmore, 1988; Seiler, 1967). Features related to this concept are the (1) collective predispositions and (2) social needs, both of which influence how members behave, what is important, and how decisions are made regardless of technical needs. Third are social associations (S3) that represent the composite of functional memberships in organizations (Seiler, 1967). Features related to this concept are (1) social roles and (2) affiliations, which give employees purpose (Kuhn 1976) and influence levels of cooperation and control (Fox, 1995). Last are social experiences (S4) that represent the understandings that result from social interactions (Fox, 1995; Weick, 1995). Features related to this concept are sentiments (Seiler, 1967) and social endowments, both of which are key influences on the efficacy of choices made in the work place.
Table 3. Social System Featuresa
|Feature||Description of Feature and Impact on Technical System|
|S1: Social positions|| |
Status landscape: The varying degrees of importance and leadership among people; these will challenge formally given authority regarding influence and sources of knowledge.
Social networks: The network of interpersonal relations distributes social knowledge and opportunities for helpfulness; this creates forms of reciprocity that challenge official knowledge and duties.
|S2: Social values|| |
Collective predispositions: The shared mental models, motivations, values, norms, self-identity, fairness, and psychological contracts; these each compete with what is important to organizational performance.
Social needs: The presence of personal worker goals and interdependencies; these threaten formally specified organizational goals depending upon their over- or under-specification.
|S3: Social associations|| |
Social rolesb: The nature of responsibilities (i.e., work roles) within the social organization; this impacts cooperative behavior, responsibility for variation in processes and outputs, territories and resource allocation.
Affiliations: The influence of informal group membership, accompanied by rewards and punishments; this creates forms of motivation and challenges formal workgroup control.
|S4: Social experiences|| |
Sentiments: The collective emotional role-experience of workers (i.e. inherent attractiveness, dependence perceptions, justice, subordination, self-worth, trust, and social isolation); this influences decision making and contradict assumed rationality.
Endowments: The basic talents, acquired skills, knowledge, expertise, and professional standards; these create technical dependencies, allow technical deficiencies, and introduce non-organizational standards in decisions.
Pasmore et al. (1982) describe the way the social and technical systems interact as multiordered, primary and secondary effects. Primary effects are those that can be seen in Tables 2 and 3 as the direct reciprocal influences among features. For instance, technical centralities (T1) influence the contribution and significance of workers, which influence the attention given to them and their influence in the firm — that is, their social position (S1) (Emery, 1959). In turn, social position affects who is the source of knowledge in a firm — that is, the technical flows (T4) (Seiler, 1967). These primary effects are fairly obvious to see, such as when employees realize that real-time data improve customer service (Klein, 2007). Secondary effects, however, are more difficult to understand because of the delays and complexities within the reciprocal STS influences (Pasmore et al., 1982). For instance, employees may not see that assuring real-time data requires higher levels of planning and communication, more software customization, and more trust between groups (Klein, 2007). Thus, a newly implemented technical system places a cascade of demands across multiple levels of an organization (Moray, 2000), obscuring the impact that a social or technical change can have on the STS.
Beyond the interrelations between social and technical systems, characteristics of the relevant environmental system interact with an STS as summarized in Table 4. First is equivocality (E1), which characterizes the nature of interactions between the STS and external subsystems. Features related to equivocality are (1) turbulence — the rate of change of external resources and demands (Pasmore, 1988), (2) complexity — the number of inter-relationships among external resources and demands (Pasmore, 1988), and (3) connectivity — the number and type of linkages with entities in the environment (Seiler, 1967). Turbulence and complexity influence STS-environment alignment and necessitate adaptations to support the survival of the STS. Through interactions and associated information flows, connectivity provides the means through which the STS gains awareness of the turbulence and complexity inherent within the environment. Second is opportunity (E2), which includes environmental features influencing the range of feasible STS designs that satisfy external demands. Features related to this concept are (1) resource alternatives — availability of technological, human, or organizational inputs to facilitate STS designs or adaptations (Pasmore, 1988) and (2) environmental mutability– the ability of the STS to modify the elements of the environment, influencing how constrained the STS is, and whether an internal versus an external focus is needed for survival (Pasmore, 1988).
Table 4. Environmental System Featuresa
|Feature||Description of Feature and Impact on STS|
|E1: Environmental equivocality|| |
Turbulence: Rate of change of external systems' resources and demands; environmental changes influence information requirements and understanding, and compromise STS-environmental alignment necessitating STS adaptations for continued survival.
Complexity: Number of and relationships among external systems' resources and demands; known, unknown, and conflicting interactions inhibit complete understanding of the current state and ability to accurately predict the future state of environment.
Connectivity: Extent that external systems permeate the boundaries of the STS; the number and variety of linkages with external systems influences the availability of information that enables the characterization of the environment.
|E2: Environmental opportunity|| |
Resource availability: Number and variety of inputs from external systems that an STS may act upon for survival; available alternatives influence the flexibility with which an STS can adapt to its environment.
Mutability: Ability of an STS to change external systems to support continued operations; the number and variety of external demands influence the ability of the STS to create an environment that is well-aligned with its goals, values, and overall well-being.
The above-mentioned STS concepts provide the basis for the SI propositions given in the next section.