What are Socio-Technical Systems?
A socio-technical system (STS) is one that considers requirements spanning hardware, software, personal, and community aspects. It applies an understanding of the social structures, roles and rights (the social sciences) to inform the design of systems that involve communities of people and technology. Examples of STSs include emails, blogs, and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The basis of STSs is general systems theory, which describes what the disciplines of science have in common—i.e., that they all refer to systems: sociologists see social systems, psychologists cognitive systems, computer scientists information systems, and engineers hardware systems. In general systems theory, no discipline has a monopoly on science—all are valid.
These disciplinary perspectives on computing allow us to view computing through distinct levels and trace its evolution. Computing began at the mechanical level (hardware devices), evolved an information level (devices + software), then acquired a human level (IT + human-computer interaction), and finally a community level (STSs). A community works through people using technology, as people work through software using hardware. Consequently, social requirements are now an important part of computing design.
While sociologists study the social level alone as if it were apart from physicality, and technologists study technology as if it were not part of society, socio-technology is a distinct field of inquiry on how personal and social requirements can be met by IT system design. As such, STSs seek to merge people and technology, viewing the integration of computers into societal systems as the next evolutionary step of humanity. An STS approach to design raises the cost of development but results in complex systems, like social networks, that have far more performance potential. Exploring a design problem by rising to an STS mindset can reveal further dimensions of a design’s use potential and inspire development.