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Socio-Technical Systems not IT Systems (‘The Dreyfus Moment’)

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I’ve been intending to post on Socio-Technical Systems for a little while now, and Andy’s recent post on Business Technology has provided the prefect timing. Since a post I made in February on how the IT industry might have inadvertently corrupted the word ‘system’ – I appear to have been getting quite close to what might only be described as a personal ‘Dreyfus Moment’. For those of you familiar with the Pink Panther films, you might recall how the Chief Inspector Dreyfus character develops an increasingly obvious twitch, and is eventually driven mad by the folly of Peter Seller’s Jacques Clouseau. I call this ‘The Dreyfus Moment.’ I think many us approach moments like these in our professional lives and for me I seem to be developing my twitch in response to the term ‘IT System.’ The encounters seem more regular than ever these days - a little cruelly but perhaps entirely predictably precipitated in my own universe by the post complaining about the term in the first place - and usually begin along the lines of….

  • ‘The IT system cost too much because…’ or
  • ‘The IT system failed because…’ or
  • ‘The IT system isn’t doing what we asked…’ or
  • ‘Unlike the old one, the new IT system will deliver x, y and z!’ where x = cost efficiencies, y = new business value, and z = on time and on budget
My perspective is that the term isn’t helpful. Worse, the term itself can help us take our collective eye of the ball. Because I don’t think there’s one ‘IT System’ in the world which doesn’t have at least one person interact with it (directly or indirectly) at some point. And if there is this interaction, the thing that will help us with cost and value is not the IT System by itself, it’s the ‘PEOPLE IT System’. (Describing this several times in a single day can lead one dangerously close to the Dreyfus Moment!) And where people are involved, we need to think about the system in equal measure from the point of view of the people and the technology. And if we really did that, we might not look to the IT System alone to address many of the organisational issues. Taking a dose of some perspective inducing medicine as I write this (coffee in this case), the term IT System is of its time and has been adopted with good reason. IT System is synonymous with the real world delivery of IT in business and fits perfectly the description Andy provides of Information Technology in comparison to Business Technology. And perhaps it is because of late ‘IT’ has seemed to be having counter-productive effects and ‘BT’ has seen to be gaining momentum as a way to support the business in the connected world that my own twitch has developed. So if IT and its application through IT Systems described the pre-Web world, which concepts might we turn to for helpful context as we seek to apply Business Technology? I’m keen to see how the business architecture discussion progresses through Andy’s posts – specifically around the ‘bottom-up versus top-down’ approach – and to provide a little complement to the discussion I wanted to introduce the Socio-Technical Systems concept to it specifically. To my mind, ‘Socio-Technical Systems’ perspectives are helpful – perhaps in fact critical - for BT because they:
  • recognise the interaction between people and technology
  • recognise the interaction between society and people behaviour
  • and therefore work well as an aid to understanding the Web model
The term is in use by folks engaged in the Web Science Research Initiative and one can see why. As we understand more the step-change represented by Business Technology, the hope has to be the industry gets to grips with the step-changes of why and how Business Technology gets adopted, and why and how BT works well and not so well. And my twitch tells me it is not by thinking IT Systems first.

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C. Bate

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