On 12th-15th September 2012, The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations joins forces with the STS Roundtable and Canterbury Christ Church University to sponsor a working conference in Canterbury, UK
Using the title as its focus, this article explains the rationale behind the event.
Those of us of a certain age will be familiar with a song entitled, ‘what’s love got to do with it’. Whether you recall versions by Tina Turner or by Bucks Fizz, the lyrics express the sensation of expectations not matching experience. Lyrics question the place emotions have in relations, as if only instincts can explain them. For the song, love is the emotion that is second-hand, not new. In the instance of the working conference on 12th-15th September 2012, jointly sponsored by the STS Roundtable, The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) and Canterbury Christ Church University in Canterbury, UK, the value in question is different from love.
‘What’s humane got to do with international STS today?’ echoes the title of the popular song. STS of course refers to ‘socio-technical systems’- an approach to action research, development and change with the purpose of studying and improving organisations and other social systems. Originated in and around The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and its associates from the late 1940s well into the 1980s, socio-technical systems has been used for work organisational design that addresses both the needs of people and the needs of the control and coordination of the work itself, often labeled as ‘technological’ (Trist, 1981).
Similar developments and extensive experimentation spread STS throughout the globe. Not only was STS deeply useable as an approach for solving issues contemporary to managers and employees, but the recognition that the needs of people had to be incorporated as a central concern helped with the dissemination. Thus, the notion that socio-technical systems resulted in a more humanly designed organisational and social systems took root.
Dictionaries define ‘humane’ as meaning benevolent, compassionate, inflicting the minimum of pain. By ‘jointly optimising’ the needs of people with the control and coordination of the work (the technology), something better than one or the other was created. A stepwise methodology, developed in the late 1960s by TIHR staff and a petroleum company client, was picked up by consulting social scientists and disseminated widely. This echoed work being undertaken by operations researchers around the world and influenced European interest. In the 1960s and 1970s, trade unions in North America, Scandinavia and Australia joined with sympathetic industrial leaders to incorporate STS into a wider approach to change and development that was known as ‘Quality of Working Life’ (Davis & Cherns, 1975). STS was more humane because applying the principles and values tended to avoid the worst excesses of, say, scientific management and sweat shops.
By the late 1980s, STS was being rejuvenated by those working in health care management. Non-linear STS became of specific interest to those within service industries. Since then STS developments in Europe have been diverse with widely dispersed communities of practice claiming their particular approaches.
Some researchers and practitioners claim that STS is now second-hand. Today’s world is characterised by faster paced, more dynamic and increasingly complex contexts. Despite many experiments with using STS within the service sector and work flows based in information technology, the degree to which being humane is possible has been repeatedly questioned. In the current economic climate, the outcomes of earlier STS work can be expropriated while the needs of people boil down to being glad to even have a job.
Since the early 1980s, a not-for-profit international learning community has kept the humanity of STS firmly in mind. The Socio Technical System Round Table (STS/RT) is a group of people comprised of business leaders, researchers, trade unionists, academics, managers, consultants, and students. The STS/RT has kept a space where those sharing the values, principles and practices of socio-technical systems theory as a common interest come together. Currently, this network has reiterated its commitment ‘in designing more humane and effective organisations and communities’, alternately using the phrase, ‘people first’, to capture this decision.
For the first time in the STS/RT history, their annual meeting will take place in Europe. This learning community of people, who continue to use the idea of humane design and development, will be joining forces with The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and Canterbury Christ Church University. TIHR’s founding mission explicitly places priority on the well-being of people in work, communities and society. Canterbury Christ Church University is the largest centre for high education in Kent for ‘people services’ with the central value of empowering individuals in contributing innovative and sustainable communities.
Participants are expected from a variety of countries and communities of practices, with or without explicit reference to STS tradition but with a clear focus on ‘humane organisation’, what constitute them and how to support their onset and development. Because this is a working conference contributions are invited, through reports from the field and the practice, to use experiential, participative, and reflective frameworks and methods in order to facilitate shared learning.
Jean Neumann and Antonio Sama
For further information on ‘International STS Today?- A Working Conference’, jointly sponsored by STS Roundtable, The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, UK (September 12-15, 2012) can be obtained by emailing:
Doug Austrom (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Carolyn Ordowich, (CarolOrd@aol.com)