Social Networks : How Socio-technical Systems Reinforce Organizational Values

Richard Pfohl has worked with various Fortune 500 high-tech, insurance, telecommunications, software, utilities and government organizations. He has been involved with various organizations which promote leadership like CBMC and Vision New England. Presently, Richard is the Leader of the Hartford chapter of CBMC. He is also enrolled in the Doctor of Strategic Leadership Program at Regent University School of Leadership Studies, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Values Must be Forged Not Forced


The values of the organization provide a guide for the social and technical systems in achieving their part of the organization's mission. In Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner state, “values cannot be forced, they must be forged.” According to Eric Trist, a social system is a complex set of human relationships interacting with each other and with the outside world whereas a technical system is the infrastructure, processes and procedures of the organization. The socio-technical system is the integration of these systems where values are forged in the organization’s daily decision making process. In order to achieve success in reinforcing organizational values, socio-technical systems require steps of discovery to be taken to share these values. Kouzes and Posner agree when they say “discovering values that can be shared is the foundation for building productive and genuine working relationships.” It is through these working relationships where a technology executive can place their organization on the road to competitive advantage.


Eric Trist and the Tavistock Institute show us social and technical systems work together to improve efficiency and effectiveness while reinforcing the organizational values. Socio-technical systems allow an organization to be broken up into management components based on the strategy of the organization. In Organizational Behavior, Stephen P. Robbins asserts, values make a significant difference in behavior within the organization. Kouzes and Posner demonstrate, organizational values aligned to personal values improve the motivation of the employees. Socio-technical systems allow us to understand when values are misaligned and how to realign them. With this understanding an organization can work to create a culture of shared values.

A Closer Look At Socio-technical Systems

Taking a closer look at how socio-technical systems are formed, we can see how values can be integrated. In Software Engineering, Ian Sommerville states socio-technical systems are, “a purposeful collection of inter-related components, which include knowledge of how the components should be used, which work together to achieve some objective.

To simplify this definition, it is a system that begins with a purpose and ends achieving an objective. Organizational components are brought together, knowledge is applied and an objective is achieved. Based on the Hughes case we see, people are at the center of the socio-technical system, as the knowledge workers, who apply their knowledge in the integration of organizational components. Spencer Clark, CLO of Cadence Design Systems believes, “knowledge starts with a focus on shared values reinforced and practiced daily.” Therefore the glue that holds these systems together is the people and the application of their values.

An example of a socio-technical system is how project management is performed within many information technology organizations. An objective is given, measurements of that objective are agreed upon, components are brought together, knowledge is applied and then the objective is achieved. The project manager is the leader of this system. According to the Project Management Institute [PMI] project managers are said to spend more than 80% of their time in the coordination of the technical components and cooperation of the people.

This project management interaction is similar to Chester Barnard’s view on cooperation. In The History of Management Thought by Daniel Wren, Barnard’s view of “internal equilibrium” and “external adjustment” is insightful since project management looks to create synergy and align with stakeholders in order to obtain the objective.

We learn from Wren, the purposeful components and application of knowledge within a socio-technical system becomes conflicted when there is a gap between the “technical” and “human” organization. Ben Roethlisberger referred to this as the conflict between the “logic of efficiency” and the “logic of sentiments.

In the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness there needs to be a concern for the people within this system. Wren states, “the employees have physical needs, but they also have social needs.” It is management’s responsibility to “maintain the equilibrium” between efficiency and sentiment which will ultimately lead to “cooperation” in satisfying the interests of the organization.

In a socio-technical system the needs of the people help to maintain equilibrium. By balancing the logic of efficiency and the logic of sentiments information technology executives can maintain this equilibrium. Equilibrium leads to cooperation and values are forged through coordination and cooperation.

What happens when there is a gap between efficiency and sentiment? Let’s look at Apple Computer in 1985. In The Human Equation, Jeffrey Pfeffer demonstrates how a culture based on a well-balanced equilibrium introduced “the new employment contract” which became a culture of disregard for people and a focus on technology. This resulted in: decreased motivation/effort, more accidents, more turnover, reduced job focus and overall reduced job satisfaction.

Apple lost focus on a balanced equilibrium which effected cooperation and moved them from forged values to forced values. This example demonstrates why values are important to socio-technical systems.

Trends in Values Systems

What are values and why are they important? Wren defines values as, “cultural standards of conduct defining propriety of a given type of behavior” and they are considered to be a part of “social interactions.”

Are values systems a new concept? Some might believe that values have their place but in fact values have been an issue since the beginning of time. Wren states, “ethics in interpersonal relationships is an age-old problem.”

Where do values come from? If we go back to the fall of man we can see the first values issue with Adam and Eve. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis: 2:16-17). Then, “when the woman saw that the tree of the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She gave some to her husband, who was with her and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6).

Eve knew what the instructions were but she decided to eat from the tree anyways. Even though she was influenced by the serpent she made a conscience choice to disobey and therefore went against the value system of God. So where does Adam come into this issue. Adam knew what he was commanded but still decided to partake of the fruit (Genesis 3:6). His lack of leadership, of standing up for what God commanded, demonstrates his inability to forge God’s values in his relationship with Eve.

How have values developed and shaped organizations? Values issues have been with us since the beginning of time and they cannot be ignored but dealt with. Wren states, “values shift from one time period to another and from one culture to another.”

Changing cultural values led to the Industrial Revolution. In Wren we learn, the protestant ethic, liberty ethic and market ethic came about, “to change cultural values toward people, work, and profits; The outcome of this cultural rebirth was the creation of a new environment hat would lead to the need for the formal study of management.”

Victorian values came out of the Victorian period. A new social conscience towards laborers emerged. The employment of women and children had been prevalent before the Victorian values came out. Wren writes, they brought a new understanding of who was employed in the factories and “a formal adherence to strict standards of personal and social morality.”

The Social Gospel developed so, “all society would be Christianized and the Golden Rule applied to both labor and management.” Many came along later to change the direction of the Social Gospel and brought us into the Scientific Management Era. Workers would find value and worth in their positions and titles. This would last only for so long before we were brought right back to a re-adjustment of focus on values. Ultimately, through the ages we began with values, tried alternative methods to improve productivity but it was values that allowed us to achieve this objective.

How do we go about in obtaining values? In technology values are obtained by a matching of logical flows of data to obtain a desired result. Robbins states, values represent basic convictions which “a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end-state of existence.” Socio-technical systems create the crossroads where organizational and personal values intersect and shared values are aligned or become misaligned. To re-quote Kouzes and Posner “values that can be shared” are foundational “for building productive and genuine working relationships.”

Aligning Socio-technical Systems and Organizational Values


With an understanding of values and where they came from how can we go about aligning them to socio-technical systems? In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner state; “values influence every aspect of our lives, values serve as guides to action, values are empowering and values motivate.” Kouzes and Posner have done some valuable research on this subject. They have come to the conclusion, “values make a significant difference in behavior at work.” Based on their research they have created a matrix which demonstrates the “impact of values clarity on commitment.” The vertical axis demonstrates the “clarity of organizational values” and the horizontal axis demonstrates the “clarity of personal values.” The point is to see how the organizational values are aligned to personal values.


The result of this study demonstrates, “people who have the greatest clarity about both personal and organizational values have the highest degree of commitment to the organization.”


If shared values create alignment how do we go about aligning social-technical systems to the organizational values? Wren states, values are part of “social interactions.” Then we see socio-technical systems are “inter-related components” as stated by Ian Sommerville. Sommerville and Wren show us these inter-related components have knowledge applied to them to achieve corporate objectives. Then we see the application of knowledge happens through the social interactions. It is these interactions which need to apply the correct knowledge in order to achieve objectives. Therefore the correct values applied to the socio-technical systems help the organization achieve their objectives.

Reinforcing Values


How can an organization go about reinforcing values? A socio-technical system reinforces organizational values through the values which link these components together to achieve organizational objectives.


How does this happen? We see that socio-technical systems are the web of social interactions, demonstrated by Barnard, which link organizational components together, explained by Sommerville. From Roethlisberger, we understand it is the people who form these social interactions. Within these social interactions we need “coordination” and “collaboration” which Mary Follett pioneered and Chester Barnard expanded. This coordination and collaboration happens when values are forged. Kouzes and Posner shows us, when personal values are matched to organizational values there is commitment.


Commitment reinforces the values and this all happens within the socio-technical system. As Davis mentioned, this is “practiced daily.” Finally we ask, how do socio-technical systems reinforce organizational values? Through the daily practice of shared values forged within the organization’s social interactions.


Copyright 2006 - Richard M. Pfohl

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