The Role of the Individual in Sociotechnical Design

Tuesday morning I'm representing the sociotechnical view on a panel focused on virtual work. This panel is part of the 2009 Academy of Management meetings in Chicago and will be attended by both novice and expert virtual work researchers. The goal of the panel is to help the group think about important next steps for research and practice. My goal is to raise the issue of individual responsibility in work design. To prepare for this session I went back to early sociotechnical discussions of work design. In 1951 Trist and Bamforth used the "longwall method of coal-getting" as a backdrop to call for the joint optimization of social (structure & people) and technical (task and technology) systems in work. They call for "those in authority" to take task and social structures into account. In 1977 Bostrom and Heinen (here and here presented a clear sociotechnical approach to the design and implementation of information systems. They speak of the role of the "steering committee" in the integration of social and technical systems for work. In 2008 Chen and Nath note that "Organizations need to understand" the interrelated roles of the social and technical systems. These approaches highlight the role management plays in work design. In my presentation I'm going to highlight the role the individual can play in work design. My colleagues and I acknowledged the role of the individual in our paper Information Technology and the Changing Fabric of Organization - but in Tuesday's talk I'm going to make the individual the focus. This is a chance to bring my perspective of "all of us as systems designers" into a formal research setting. My past blog discussions have touched on ideas of owning your own tools, the extent to which individuals have the systems savvy to see both organizational and technical opportunities, how individuals can get more from learning by understanding their own learning styles. The point is that many of us have much more control over our own work design (thanks to increased flexibility in both technologies and work practices), yet little sociotechnical work design research has looked at how individuals can be sociotechnical designers for their own work. (Parker, Wall, & Cordery, 2001, note that work design models should include how individuals might mold the job, but do not point to particular research findings.) As managers we are responsible for providing our employees with the skills to do their jobs. I'm going to argue Tuesday that, especially in the world of virtual work, managers are responsible for providing employees with the skills to design their jobs as well. Anyone care to start the discussion a couple days early?

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