Socio-technical Systems Design: Addressing Growing Complexity in the 21st Century

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Today’s widely-used techno-centric approaches are seen to meet technical requirements and increase efficiency (Baxter, 2011, Eason, 2001). Yet despite their popularity as economic drivers they often neglect the complex relationships arising from human-automation interactions (Baxter & Sommerville, 2010) and thus fail to create resilience (Hollnagel, Woods & Leveson, 2007). As far back as 1949, Paul Fitts challenged techno-centric approaches, instead proposing human-centred designs (HCD) as an alternative means to cope with rising complexity (Woods, 1988, Rasmussen & Lind, 1981). By underpinning socio-technical designs and inspiring co-active design principles, HCD is still endorsed today.
The 70-year legacy of techno-centric and HCD approaches remains a key building block in aerospace design. In the 21st century this legacy needs to be recognised as such, in order to find new solutions that address the challenges posed by emerging risks arising from increasingly complex designs.
Baxter & Sommerville (2010) stress that although the value of socio-technical designs is widely recognised, they are rarely used. Socio-technical designs seek to optimise complex organisational systems by recognising social and environmental factors to create user-appropriate technologies. For example, recognising the ways in which different stakeholders work can lead to more efficient and effective designs of user interfaces (Baxter & Sommerville, 2010). Stakeholders could build resilience in their domain by learning from both failures and successful outcomes. The knowledge gained can be passed on to stakeholders in other domains (Baxter & Sommerville, 2010) as patterns of co-operative interaction (Martin & Sommerville, 2004). Ultimately, effective design takes into account each stakeholder view in order to create more effective organisational support (Baxter & Sommerville, 2010). Without this, the respective cultures and language used within traditional disciplines can weaken communication (Baxter & Sommerville, 2010).

As a case study for the perspectives addressed by Baxter & Sommerville, this paper uses analysis of a 2014 automation workshop involving industry stakeholders (regulators, air traffic controllers, engineers and pilots) and an ethnographic study of Civil Aviation Authority meetings. Using Grounded Theory (GT), themes were generated and illustrated to indicate possible relationships, associations and inter-connections. The resulting hypothesis stated that current work practices in the CAA/NATS, and the broader aerospace community, should focus on enhancing human communication, cooperation and interaction.

These themes and their associations signpost some of the steps needed to improve stakeholder tasks and responsibilities and so enhance social work interactions. For example, the inter-change of information between stakeholders is key to understanding complexity – yet for this to happen stakeholders should benefit from cross-domain technical theory so they can better understand one another. Furthermore, awareness of the Efficiency-Thoroughness-Trade-off (ETTO) principle could be increased across the organisation so that inherent conflicts in organisational goals can be acknowledged. This could strengthen collective insights into conflicting goals such as those between senior managers looking to increase efficiency, and operators at the front line of the business focusing on thoroughness. Steps such as gaining greater knowledge and transparency can enhance social work interactions in an effort to reach common organisational views and goals relating to socio-technical designs.

Date & time

7-8 June 2016

NCTL Learning and Conference Centre, Nottingham

What is a Complex System?

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