In the present era of digitalization, agile and lean management oriented approaches are widely salient in current debates on work organization while there is a selective (re-)discovery of socio-technical approaches. There is a large number of published conceptual sources and the range of practical implementation approaches is even much more diverse and hybrid. In order to contribute to a clarification of concept focuses and differences, the Institute for Work, Skills and Training (University of Duisburg-Essen) and the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) jointly organized an expert workshop on October 1, 2019 in Dortmund, Germany.
Scientists as well as consultants and practitioners joint the effort. In the first session, two speakers each presented the design concepts: Heiko Tholen (researcher & consultant) and Jörg Bahlow (consultant) provided inputs on “agile work”, then Frank Lennings (researcher) and Ernst Bartels (practitioner from an automotive company) introduced “lean concepts” in production and management. Finally, Erich Latniak (researcher) and Wolfgang Kötter (consultant) outlined the specific features of German approaches to socio-technical system and work design, followed by a lively discussion. After that, Anita Tisch (research manager BAuA) presented selected opportunities and risks of digitalization for employees. Thereafter, participants discussed the pros and cons of the three concepts in rotating groups focusing on health aspects, on participation and whether the concept is conducive to learning at the workplace.
Participants attested that all three concepts have beneficial potential with regard to health: The preference for integrated (‘whole’) approaches would suggest a move away from monotonous and repetitive tasks; nevertheless, the context conditions would play a central role in whether this potential can be realized. From their point of view, rising work load (‘intensification’) and ‘interested self-endangerment’ seem more probable with lean and agile approaches than with socio-technically designed work. The concepts also provide answers in terms of participation: While employees in a Lean Production context are offered opportunities for participation in continuous improvement processes, in agile approaches (such as Scrum), joint reflection processes involving all relevant actors are on the agenda almost daily. And (recent German) socio-technical approaches try to extend the involvement of employees in designing work systems. By focusing on forms of teamwork and comparatively flat hierarchies, the concepts can also contribute to preconditions for learning. However, the importance of the framing context was emphasized again: In a Lean environment e.g., work-integrated learning would be partially impeded by a narrow scope for action and decision-making and a lack of capacity buffers needed. Agile approaches – if used in a ‘non-agile’ environment or inconsistently – could also quickly turn into work with limited learning options. Some workshop participants accused the German socio-technical concepts of lacking practical applicability.
In order to deepen the insights and exchange gained during the workshop, another event is about to be prepared: An exchange of recent German projects in socio-technical system design (and related ideas and values) is planned for December 2020.
Further Information available (in German language):
Alexander Bendel, Erich Latniak & Lilia Werner
Institute for Work, Skils, and Training (IAQ), University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany
These workshops are activities within the joint project “Work and process-oriented digitization in industrial companies (APRODI)” which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the European Social Fund (2017-2020).
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our meeting in Norway of the Global Network for SmarT Organization Design has been rescheduled to September 2021. In the meantime, during this year 2020, the Norwegian Design Team will provide Webinar(s) and background information to help prepare us all for an exciting meeting in 2021. Please stay posted for more details!
Right now, at this very moment, the Norwegian Design Team is continuing to plan an exciting program for the September 2020 Global Network Annual Meeting, while still evaluating all of our options given the recent coronavirus pandemic.
Please monitor www.stsroundtable2020.com. We will make a definitive announcement about the Trondheim, Norway meeting by latest June 1, 2020. Take care and stay healthy as we strive together to surmount the challenges in these extraordinary times.
Presentations: Technology @ Work;
Annual Meeting of Global Network for SmarT Organization Design,
Leiden, The Netherlands; September 5-7, 2018
(click on Link below to access presentation files)
New Book: Co-Creating Humane and Innovative Organizations: Evolutions in the Practice of Socio-Technical System Design;
Bernard J. Mohr & Pierre van Amelsvoort (editors).
(click on Link to Order)
New Article: Digital Sociotechnical System Design;
Stu Winby & Susan A. Mohrman;
Journal of Applied Behavioral Sciences, June 2018.
(click on Link below to access Article)