“Open” Socio-Technical Systems

When companies evaluate the use of new technologies to gain a competitive advantage they often rely on customer-focused evidence. Questions about the consequences of the use of the new technologies for the organisation’s existing customers and whether the changes will drive them away were focused. The introduction of new technologies often fails because organisations focus only on their existing customers, who prefer to avoid the uncertainty introduced by any changes in the technologies.

Little work has been done on the effects that new technologies may have on the internal view of organisations. For example, what are the consequences for employees (people), tasks and/or processes? These questions resonate with work on socio-technical systems. Socio-technical systems are defined through the interaction and relationships of the aforementioned areas (technology, people, task, process). The majority of research and practice, particularly within computer science, has focused on the technical aspects (technology, task). Less work has been done on the changes these systems have for the entire organisation.

Taking into account current challenges for IT departments, the range of relevant research areas becomes more complicated. The IT industry focuses on the Big Five challenges at the moment: cloud computing, mobile devices, consumerisation of IT, Big Data and Social Media. Explaining these developments in detail would exceed the scope of this paper but it is worth explaining that all of them have three things in common. First, they mainly affect the people of socio-technical systems because they get more power in their relationship with the IT department. Second, they make an organisation more open to the outside world. Finally, they make an organisation more complex and dynamic. Why these consequences exist will be explained in more detail later. My work will show that these developments (e.g. the Big Five) lead to change in the IT department. However, this change is different to previous changes experienced within IT (e.g. the move to Desktop PCs, and the introduction of the Internet). Because of these developments the IT will be in a constant state of change in the future. In other words, before they have the chance to fully integrate and optimise a recent technology a new one appears on the horizon requiring evaluation and possible integration. In addition, there will be ever more change for the IT because ever more technologies are being developed and interoperated with each other. The situation is further complicated because the demand for change is not only coming from internal factors, but from external factors that occur more rapidly: either through the development of new or through competitors that use different technologies to gain a competitive advantage.

Existing models that were mainly in the 1990s to support the integration of emerging technologies into organisations can’t accommodate current developments and trends (e.g. see Christensen and Overdorf 2000). This is why we will adopt and update the notion of “open” socio-technical systems (see Figure 1). These systems are becoming more wide open to external factors (e.g. bring your own device). The impact of this is that the IT department finds it more difficult to control what people use to get their work done. This has crucial consequences for the IT: it is losing control in two directions (see Figure 2). On the one hand they are losing control to the people within socio-technical systems, who are getting more power. On the other hand they are losing control to the outside world, to cloud provider. The IT department needs to be aware of these two potential consequences to achieve the right balance of power.

Figure 1: "Open" Socio-Technical Systems

Figure 1: “Open” Socio-Technical Systems (the boxes underneath the implications of “open” socio-technical systems present possible research areas to deal with the implication)

IT is losing control in two directions

Figure 2: IT is losing control in two directions

The following questions need investigation. First, an organisation shouldn’t ask whether to use new technologies, but if it can stop people from using them. Second, how can the IT department regain control over the provision and use of IT? Finally, are the people in socio-technical systems aware of the power they have?

In conclusion, research and practice say the IT department needs to change its structure and internal organisation to become a service broker in order to offer more specialised services to business units and only maintain a basic IT infrastructure in-house and source the rest from outside. This applies to IT-Systems as well as people. However, neither research nor practice describe how this change can or should happen.

This article was written as part of my PhD progress with the School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews.

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