Reconsidering the Socio-Technical Perspective under the Sway of Technological Individualization in Knowledge-Work Settings

Research output: Book / Anthology / Report / Ph.D. thesisPh.D. thesis


Planning and explaining socio-technical change and outcomes in the digital world of knowledge work has become increasingly difficult. Some of these difficulties arise because of the changing nature of work, innovative
technological development and usage as well as the highly competitive climate in which organizations constantly launch change to compete and survive.

A central issue in Information Systems (IS) Research is how to improve knowledge work in organizational structures enabled by information technology. In particular, IS research is concerned with understanding and explaining how to
design, plan and manage change in efficient information systems. A common belief is that a well-functioning IS arises from the carefully arranged relationship between distinct components constituting the IS. These components are information, people, processes, technology and structures.

A certain way of looking at or perceiving the IS and its components is the socio-technical perspective. The sociotechnical perspective highlights the interdependence and inextricable linkages between a social sub-system and a technical sub-system. The perspective holds certain assumptions around the relationship between the social and the technical; and how they in conjunction enable productive outcomes. Holding a socio-technical perspective, your focus as a researcher is on a group of users that shares the same work task, technology and conditions. This group will, over time, perform work in concerted ways and share the same perceptions of behavior and technology usage. Consequently, an assumption is that an efficient socio-technical system exists in an equilibrium, constituting structures and routines embedded in the organization. The perspective thus relies on a belief that a socio-technical system establishes institutional prescriptions and social norms around work. However, these assumptions on how to establish a socio-technical system that produces productive outcomes no longer holds. Globalization, digitalization and individualization are some of the forceful drivers in society that have a transformative impact on the workplace. Knowledge work in itself has become increasingly virtual, non-routine and autonomous, likewise has the organization become more digitized, decentralized and standardized. In this world of work, business and IS managers struggle to produce productive outcomes from their IT implementations. This thesis contributes to the development of a socio-technical change perspective that is viable and useful in the contemporary workplace.

We conducted three critical case studies, in which 48 knowledge professionals, working in global and virtual workplaces, participated. Our point of departure was a critical case study, where we zoomed in on the usage of social, mobile and cloud technologies (SMC technologies), in the form of Unified Communication and Collaboration (UCC) in support of non-routine cognitive work. UCC is an ensemble of communication and collaboration applications that are end-user malleable, voluntarily adopted and easy to use. Our findings showed that knowledge professionals in global and virtual settings respond and interact differently with SMC as opposed to their traditional portrayal in the socio-technical perspective. Especially when engaging with SMC technology. We observed that SMC affords possibilities for individuate practices, exerting a high degree of individual autonomy. We observed that the individual user makes self-oriented choices in regards to work practices based on affordances of individual productivity and new effective knowledge-sharing possibilities. We observed that SMC technology was surprisingly end-user malleable.

To explain why these outcomes occurred, we took a critical realist (CR) approach. CR denotes a view in which the real world consists of generative mechanisms, not solely empirical phenomena. A generative mechanism is a transempirical real existing entity that explains why observable events occur. This approach gave an opportunity to infer that the socio-technical perspective assumes that a socio-technical system in equilibrium is most likely an outcome caused by the mechanisms of technological institutionalization and technological socialization. However, we found individual, fastchanging outcomes from the use of SMC technology and surmised a possible forceful influence from technological individualization not included in the socio-technical perspective.

Thus, we now propose that a socio-technical perspective must also involve the productive outcomes caused by the mechanism of technological
individualization. Technological individualization can best be explained by the observable events: users take control of time, pace and information streams, no institutional prescriptions emerge from SMC technologies. New, individual and innovative practices with SMC technology emerge; and they evolve constantly.
Relations and organizational structures are re-arranged, and users organize fluently around personal virtual networks instead of fixed groups and physical locations. The behaviors are oriented towards individual productivity.

The new organizational structures emerging from the interactive relationship between individuals with end-user malleable technology do not rest in stable equilibrium, they are unstable formations of network structures. However, as
assumed in the original socio-technical perspective, the mechanisms of institutionalization and socialization are triggered simultaneously by more fixed enterprise systems that set in motion a much slower sequence of change, leading to deep structures and routines resting in quasi-stable equilibrium. Driven by the importance of access and control of real-time, high-quality data and information, the individual, in producing practical and productive outcomes, also engages in workflows, business processes and data input standards from fixed enterprise systems and platforms. We now suggest that the socio-technical change perspective must cover what we label an equilibrium paradox, emerging from the simultaneous existence of socio-technical structures in quasi-equilibrium and individual-technical-structures in unstable equilibrium. We refer to this as dual-structures.

We now suggest an elaboration of the concept of autonomy under the influence of technological individualization, in which autonomy, on a daily basis, is organized by the individual knowledge worker, who reigns over an equilibration
process of maximizing and minimizing autonomy in a pursuit of productivity.
As such, the mechanisms are not working against each other. They complement each other and create what we label the dual-IS. The dual-IS significantly alters how we explain socio-technical change. It now includes a both/and view in
the form of the dynamic relation between the individuated individual empowered with SMC technology at the surface level and, the same individual being socially oriented, when interacting with technology constituting processes and routines at the deep level of structures. When triggered, these mechanisms and outcomes combine and work in tandem simultaneously. We propose the concept of contradictory complementarity to explain the dual-mechanisms causing the
outcomes in a dual-IS. We introduce dual-mechanisms into the socio-technical perspective that can now potentially deliver humanistic and economic objectives when technological individualization, technological institutionalization and
technological socialization combine and enable each other. However, how to trigger this form of mechanism needs further research. We see tendencies in the IS that create outcomes of both stability in processes constituting deeper structures and agility in practices constituting flexible and malleable surface structures. We surmise that a system, in which these mechanisms are triggered, can hold capabilities of resilience and elasticity.

As observed in some of our cases, if one or the other mechanism takes prominence, the system can become either too rigid or to loose, thus falling out of equilibrium conditions. One consequence is a spiral in which people become egoistic, exploiting resources on behalf of others. Another consequence is that the system becomes overwhelmingly strict and rigid and thus difficult to change. In any of these scenarios, achieving both financial objectives and employee satisfaction will be impossible.

Both of these scenarios are found in the contemporary workplace today. They represent a real and present challenge to managers and individuals in workplaces in which these forces are set in motion.

In the light of these challenges and opportunities, the socio-technical perspective’s original mission, holding an equal balance between people and technology in the pursuit of humanistic and economic objectives, becomes a guiding principle. However, a new perspective must cover an equal focus on the balance between the outcomes from individualization, institutionalization and socialization. Lastly, we suggest that business and IS managers must be more
aware of what triggers individualization, institutionalization and socialization.

How we plan and manage IS activities and adjust our perspective to the dual-IS becomes important. Thus, we deliver a socio-technical change framework, an aide-memoire, that can support the IS discussions in the now dual-IS. In addition, we suggest a set of questions that IS business managers could discuss. We suggest that the 21st century enterprise should aim at highlighting data and information as a shared resource, while simultaneously catering to the
individuated individual’s autonomy. In turn, this can deliver on economic and humanistic objectives. This involves more knowledge of how to trigger the dual-mechanism properly without causing breakdowns, eventually involving further examination of the concept of data and information conceptualized as a commons.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherIT-Universitetet i København
Number of pages166
ISBN (Print)978-87-7949-014-7
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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