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Socio-technical thinking: a prerequisite for innovation

Author: Prof. Dr. Anton Wäfler, Olten
In socio-technical design approach, human and technology are considered to complement each other.
In socio-technical design approach, human and technology are considered to complement each other.

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Much is being said today about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In light of recent leaps in technology, ground-breaking changes are expected to happen that will radically change industrial production. Particularly digitalisation and the "Internet of Things" are expected to make innovations possible that will enable companies to gain competitive advantages.

The real innovation potential is not really being used in this context, though. Yes, it is true that technological progress is being pursued with great commitment, and technical innovation is being put to use wherever possible. And productivity gains are also actually being achieved as a result. This is partly due to more efficient technologies of the same kind, and partly thanks to technologies that enable new processes. But the approach remains technology oriented. In other words, innovation is primarily being sought within the framework of technical modernisation. This is where the mistakes of the past are being repeated: the latest technology is being implemented in organisational structures that are not suited for it. In the 80s of the last century, the American Society of Manufacturing Engineers had already noted that it made little sense to introduce computers of the third, fourth or fifth generation in organisations of the second generation.

Technology and organisation must fit

In our studies, we are finding exactly the same thing still today. Technology-based innovation is being promoted systematically and proactively. Unsystematically and reactively, however, is how innovation is taking place in the ways work and organisation are structured – and even then, innovation often occurs only when problems occur. Thus, for example, new production technologies are being introduced, the actual potential of which can only really be realised if the workpieces to be produced are suitably constructed. Traditionally, however, production and construction are different departments, each having its own typical way of thinking. In this light, innovative forms of cooperation between production and construction would have to be developed to enable the potential of the new technology to actually be utilised. But this does not often succeed.

The problem lies in the unilaterally technology-oriented approach. Technology is used for the purpose of improvement, in the spirit of "working harder". This involves an underestimation – if not a disregard – of human's role. For us to be able to actually realise the innovation potential found in new technologies, this must change. We must find innovative forms of "working smarter". To this end, we must learn to think socio-technically and to take into account the fact that actual innovation will only occur where there is a smart design for the interaction of human, technology and organisation. Such design methods have been around in work psychology and ergonomics for a long time.

Technology should not be used to replace people

The socio-technical design approach takes into account the qualitative differences between human and technology. From this perspective, technology is not primarily used to replace people. Rather, human and technology are considered to complement each other. If combined appropriately, together they can deliver a performance of which neither human nor technology alone is capable. It is in their combination, therefore, that we find the real innovation potential. But this potential can only be realised to a suboptimal extent if primarily technology is perfected and human is adapted to fit technology as its appendage, so to speak. A smart combination of human and technology will only be possible when technology is specifically designed in such a way that human strengths – such as performance motivation, expertise or empirical knowledge – are promoted and human weaknesses, such as the limited ability to process information or fatigue, are compensated. In this respect, Industry 4.0 technologies offer great opportunities that we will only be able to use when we begin to think socio-technically.

The author: Anton Wäfler is a professor at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwest Switzerland, School of Applied Psychology. With his proven record in the fields of safety and human factors, sociotechnological system design, organizational development, and human-computer interaction, Professor Wäfler possesses a unique expertise in work and organisation psycology. He was a co-founder of iafob GmbH, a private consulting company developed out of the ETH Zurich, where he still is a senior consultant.