Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

From the coalface: an essay on the early history of sociotechnical systems

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The story of sociotechnical systems began a little over half a century ago, in a somewhat unlikely setting: the coalfields of Yorkshire.

The British coal industry had just been nationalised and new mechanised mining methods were being introduced in the mines. It was thought that nationalisation would sort out the chronic labour-management issues and mechanisation would address the issue of falling productivity.

But things weren’t going as planned. In the words of Eric Trist, one of the founders of the Tavistock Institute:

…the newly nationalized industry was not doing well. Productivity failed to increase in step with increases in mechanization. Men were leaving the mines in large numbers for more attractive opportunities in the factory world. Among those who remained, absenteeism averaged 20%. Labour disputes were frequent despite improved conditions of employment.   – excerpted from, The evolution of Socio-technical systems – a conceptual framework and an action research program, E. Trist (1980)

Trist and his colleagues were asked by the National Coal Board to come in and help. To this end, they did a comparative study of two mines that were similar except that one had high productivity and morale whereas the other suffered from low performance and had major labour issues.

Their job was far from easy: they were not welcome at the coalface because workers associated them with management and the Board.

Trist recounts that around the time the study started, there were a number of postgraduate fellows at the Tavistock Institute. One of them, Ken Bamforth, knew the coal industry well as he had been a miner himself.  Postgraduate fellows who had worked in the mines were encouraged to visit their old workplaces after  a year and  write up their impressions, focusing on things that had changed since they had worked there.   After one such visit, Bamforth reported back with news of a workplace innovation that had occurred at a newly opened seam at Haighmoor. Among other things, morale and productivity at this particular seam was high compared to other similar ones.  The team’s way of working was entirely novel, a world away from the hierarchically organised set up that was standard in most mechanised mines at the time. In Trist’s words:

The work organization of the new seam was, to us, a novel phenomenon consisting of a set of relatively autonomous groups interchanging roles and shifts and regulating their affairs with a minimum of supervision. Cooperation between task groups was everywhere in evidence; personal commitment was obvious, absenteeism low, accidents infrequent, productivity high. The contrast was large between the atmosphere and arrangements on these faces and those in the conventional areas of the pit, where the negative features characteristic of the industry were glaringly apparent. Excerpted from the paper referenced above.

To appreciate the radical nature of practices at this seam, one needs to understand the backdrop against which they occurred. To this end, it is helpful to compare the  mechanised work practices introduced in the post-war years with the older ones from the pre-mechanised era of mining.

In the days before mines were mechanised, miners would typically organise themselves into workgroups of six miners, who would cover three work shifts in teams of two. Each miner was able to do pretty much any job at the seam and so could pick up where his work-mates from the previous shift had left off. This was necessary in order to ensure continuity of work between shifts. The group negotiated the price of their mined coal directly with management and the amount received was shared equally amongst all members of the group.

This mode of working required strong cooperation and trust within the group, of course.  However, as workgroups were reorganised from time to time due to attrition or other reasons, individual miners understood the importance of maintaining their individual reputations as reliable and trustworthy workmates. It was important to get into a good workgroup because such groups were more likely to get more productive seams to work on. Seams were assigned by bargaining, which was typically the job of the senior miner on the group. There was considerable competition for the best seams, but this was generally kept within bounds of civility via informal rules and rituals.

This traditional way of working could not survive mechanisation. For one, mechanised mines encouraged specialisation because they were organised like assembly lines, with clearly defined job roles each with different responsibilities and pay scales. Moreover, workers in a shift would perform only part of the extraction process leaving those from subsequent shifts to continue where work was left off.

As miners were paid by the job they did rather than the amount of coal they produced, no single group had end-to-end responsibility for the product.   Delays due to unexpected events tended to get compounded as no one felt the need to make up time. As a result, it would often happen that work that was planned for a shift would not be completed. This meant that the next shift (which could well be composed of a group with completely different skills) could not or would not start their work because they did not see it as their job to finish the work of the earlier shift. Unsurprisingly, blame shifting and scapegoating was rife.

From a supervisor’s point of view, it was difficult to maintain the same level of oversight and control in underground mining work as was possible in an assembly line. The environment underground is simply not conducive to close supervision and is also more uncertain in that it is prone to unexpected events.  Bureaucratic organisational structures are completely unsuited to dealing with these because decision-makers are too far removed from the coalface (literally!).  This is perhaps the most important insight to come out of the Tavistock coal mining studies.

As Claudio Ciborra  puts it in his classic book on teams:

Since the production process at any seam was much more prone to disorganisation than due to uncertainty and complexity of underground conditions, any ‘bureaucratic’ allocation of jobs could be easily disrupted. Coping with emergencies and coping with coping became part of worker’s and supervisors’ everyday activities. These activities would lead to stress, conflict and low productivity because they continually clashed with the technological arrangements and the way they were planned and subdivided around them.

Thus we see that the new assembly-line bureaucracy inspired work organisation was totally unsuited to the work environment because there was no end-to-end responsibility, and decision making was far removed from the action. In contrast, the traditional workgroup of six was able to deal with uncertainties and complexities of underground work because team members had a strong sense of responsibility for the performance of the team as a whole. Moreover, teams were uniquely placed to deal with unexpected events because they were actually living them as they occurred and could therefore decide on the best way to deal with them.

What Bamforth found at the Haighmoor seam was that it was possible to recapture the spirit of the old ways of working by adapting these to the larger specialised groups that were necessary in the mechanised mines. As Ciborra describes it in his book:

The new form of work organisation features forty one men who allocate themselves to tasks and shifts. Although tasks and shifts those of the conventional mechanised system, management and supervisors do not monitor, enforce and reward single task executions. The composite group takes over some of the managerial tasks, as it had in the pre-mechanised marrow group, such as the selection of group members and the informal monitoring of work…Cycle completion, not task execution becomes a common goal that allows for mutual learning and support…There is basic wage and a bonus linked to the overall productivity of the group throughout the whole cycle rather than a shift.  The competition between shifts that plagued the conventional mechanised method is effectively eliminated…

Bamforth and Trist’s studies on Haighmoor convinced them that there were viable (and better!) alternatives to those that were typical of mid to late 20th century work places.  Their work led them to the insight that the best work arrangements come out of seeking a match between technical and social elements of the modern day workplace, and thus was born the notion of sociotechnical systems.

Ever since the assembly-line management philosophies of Taylor and Ford, there has been an increasing trend towards division of labour, bureaucratisation and mechanisation / automation of work processes.  Despite the early work of the Tavistock school and others who followed, this trend continues to dominate management practice, arguably even more so in recent years. The Haighmoor innovation described above was one of the earliest demonstrations that there is a better way.   This message has since been echoed by many academics and thinkers,  but remains largely under-appreciated or ignored by professional managers who have little idea – or have completely forgotten – what it is like to work at the coalface.

Written by K

April 7, 2015 at 10:30 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Such a great story. Thanks🙂


    Craig W Brown

    May 18, 2015 at 3:51 pm

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