What is a socio-technical system?

A social system is an association of two or more members who work together towards a desired goal. Usually, there are system-approved set of behaviors and rules which are known to the members. Hide and seek is social system. The rules of the game are known to all players; there’s an implicit moral code (don’t reveal the position of other players to the seeker); there’s a joint sense of how long the game should take and what hiding places are socially acceptable. School is another social system. There’s a well-defined hierarchical structure with organization-approved behaviors for each type of membership level: student, teacher, administrator. And there’s a clear understanding of explicitly expressed overall goals for the whole system: the system exists to raise the educational capacity of its student members. But even within this seemingly well-understood social system, schools vary dramatically. While we know how school system works, and we mostly agree on the goals of providing education, we don’t necessarily concur on which set of rules and behaviors will lead to the desired goal in a timely, culturally-appropriate, and least wasteful manner. It’s the details of each system that are difficult to figure out: how can we set up the right set of rules that lead to the right set of behaviors among the group members that result in achieving the desired goal?

Social systems can arise spontaneously or be build by design. Spontaneous social systems tend to rise out of necessity, are governed by group dynamics, and evolve over time carrying forward the historical set of traditions and cultural attitudes. Social systems that are purposely designed also have to abide by the laws of group dynamics, but here system rules can encourage desired behavior and limit distractive activity. A clear example of a designed social system is a game system.

Most real world social system have a bit of both — they might start out as spontaneous systems and then require a set of rules to help governed member behavior and improve outcomes. A simple example is an alumni association. There’s also a possibility of a designed system evolving into a more free-form organization. Real world scenarios require a careful consideration of the cultural norms and historical roots of the social system.

A socio-technical system is a social system with a technology component. Paraphrasing a bit from Whitworth and Ahmad own words from their chapter on Socio-Technical System Design in “The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.”:
Socio-technology is about technology and people. Technology is any device. IT system is then a combination of software AND device(s). Human computer interaction (HCI) is a person plus an IT system. Introduction of “person” brings physical, informational and psychological levels into the combined system. And finally, socio-technical system (STS) is merger of community and HCI(s). (Whitworth & Ahmad, 2013)

The technology component is there to solve the needs and problems of the social system. When we discuss online education, we are discussing an education-focused social system based on the Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). Technology is supposed to make certain goals easier to accomplish or make particular behaviors easier to evoke. Technology can also expand the reach of the social system to include previously underserved audiences: students from inconvenient to support geographical locations, individuals with learning differences, or families with socio-economic barriers to education. But with the introduction of technology, we introduce complexity.

And we have to work within the boundaries of what’s possible given the history of the social system, the constraints of technology, the limitations of budgets, and cultural limits of the society wich endevers to implement the socio-technical system.


Whitworth, B., Ahmad, A. (2013): Socio-Technical System Design. In: Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.). “The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.”. Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction Design Foundation. Visited on February 8, 2013: http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/socio-technical_system_design.html

Werby, O. (2012) “Special Preview: Socio-Technical System Design.” /blog/2012/06/special-preview-socio-technical-system-design/

Schubarth, C. (2013). “Disruption guru Christensen: Why Apple, Tesla, VCs, academia may die.” Silicon Valley Business Journal. Visited on Feburary 8, 2013: http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2013/02/07/disruption-guru-christensen-why.html