Sociotechnology Begins

WWI was an eyeopener about malfunctional hierarchical behavior for many researchers in sociology. Ordway Tead began the assault in 1918:

“There has thus far been little serious study of the industrial activities of manual workers in the light of our increasing body of knowledge about human nature and the structure of human beings. The fears, ambitions, attitudes, and achievements of working people have been studied in relation to economic history , climate, ethics, and religion; but attempts to show the connection of their conduct with the realities of human nature are few. This is to be regretted because there is reason to believe that an examination of human behavior in industry will disclose vital relationships between those maladjustments which we call “ labor problems,” and the functioning of that complex of inherent tendencies and acquired characteristics which is human nature. In due course such examination promises to lead to a vastly better understanding of events and their causes, and to a deliberate attempt to mold the world nearer to the necessities of the nervous system and the mind.

A comprehensive survey of man’s conduct in industry, of his endowments and capacities in the light of modern anthropology and the so called “ behavioristic ” psychology, is beyond the scope of the present study. The aim is far less ambitious. It is to show, by means of a varied collection of facts, incidents , and anecdotes, that human conduct tends to become not only more intelligible but more amenable to control as we view it in the light of an understanding of the instinctive mainsprings of action . And a further limit is set by reason of my confining myself to the behavior of manual workers.

I have three reasons for thus concentrating attention upon working- class conduct.

First, it is now all too plain that the under currents of industrial unrest and discontent which come to the surface with increasing frequency have had their source in an unconscious but tremendously effective repression of human aspiration and desire. The release of energy and vigor, which is needed to clear the air, will not come until we see human nature as it is.

Second, the mind of the worker is grievously misunderstood. At a time in the country’s history when a common knowledge of the motives and attitudes of its manual workers is most imperative, we have little real understanding of people which traverses class lines. Efforts toward social justice or industrial democracy are doomed to be fumbling and inept if there is no attempt to envisage and reckon with a point of view among the workers which is the inevitable by -product of the treatment of any human being under similar circumstances.

Third, the “psychology,” or mental processes and habits, of the employers as a class has already been interpreted by other writers. At this hour in the world’s history beyond any other, the task of shaping a civilization in which the democratic enterprise can be further experimented with in safety, carries with it an extraordinary challenge. The experiment cannot go far unless we know the conditions under which the individual can act safely from the point of view of his own mental integrity. What demands can the world confidently make upon each of us in terms of our capacity to coöperate, to act with discrimination, to perpetuate a sound physical and mental inheritance —what demands can it make and be reasonably sure that each of us will or can deliver, can go the pace ? What, every thoughtful student of reconstruction is asking, are the limitations which our physical and nervous inheritance imposes upon human achievement; and what are the positive human forces which can surely be counted on as the rock – bottom basis for any stable readjustment? A study of the limitations upon human achievement is in effect a study of the forces at work to make conduct what it is . To know these forces requires that we identify the elements of human nature. This is our first task .

Recent psychological research has thrown real light upon this problem , and while there is no consensus of opinion as to the elements of human nature (and especially as to the names of these elements ), there is a reasonable agreement among psychologists upon the nature of the essential human characteristics. With these in mind, I propose to state and consider a variety of examples of familiar types of behavior in industry to see, in the second place, to what extent conduct does become more intelligible in the light of a knowledge of psychological habits and predispositions. In other words, this study will proceed from two known factors — the human impulses and the conduct of people in industry –to some third fact, to whatever conclusion about the relation of these two, which a study of them admits.

This customary method of proceeding from the known to the unknown has determined the confessedly artificial method of treatment of this study. The vital instincts of human beings are enumerated and, in connection with each, illustrations of conduct are considered which seem to reveal the operation of specific innate influences. Nevertheless no precise pigeon -holing of activity is intended and it should not, of course, be countenanced. Conduct can probably never be submitted to completely accurate dissection . It can never be tied up in neat parcels and tagged as embodying this or that instinct alone . The unknown and unmeasured causal elements are legion . The best that we can do is to make a beginning in interpretation . And in such beginnings it is inevitable that facts which I use to exemplify the influence of one instinct will appear to the reader to indicate the prompting of some other tendencies either singly or in combination.

Illustrations are, therefore, to be taken not so much as making out a case for the relation between any one instinct and activity, but rather as showing the vitally dynamic relation between the total of instinctive predispositions and activity. Directly or indirectly, immediately or remotely, someone or a combination of instincts is destined to have a hand in conditioning the critical choices of conduct. Because this is true, it becomes our business in the troubled affairs of industry to find out what instincts are operative and in what ways they determine and limit behavior. In order, then, to be quite clear as to the limits within which the present study is undertaken, let me recapitulate before proceeding. I am not attempting here to interpret conduct in terms of any arbitrary classification of instincts, or to attribute specific courses of complex activity to unduly simple motives. The aim throughout is to establish an understanding point of view toward familiar activities in the industrial world —– a point of view which construes human behavior as having an organic relation to the human nervous system and its environment, past and present.

The value of this method of approach to the human problems in industry has only recently been grasped. But there is justification for the hope that scientific knowledge of human nature can give us a sound basis for concrete attack upon industrial maladjustment; can offer practical suggestions as to ways of squaring industrial practices with known facts about human nature, and can afford an approximately sound basis for prophesying the course which events will take under given circumstances. It is to point out what this justification is and to suggest the hopes about industrial life to which it gives rise that this study is devoted . With this purpose in view my volume is addressed to all who have contacts with the workers —who must deal with them, speak for them or of them . The book is an effort toward a better understanding of people in their capacity as manual workers. My endeavor is to provide a weapon by which the mind can — so far as this is intellectually possible — envisage the problems of human beings in different economic strata, can cut across class lines, see over class barriers and overlook group antagonisms.

Today as never before, the professional men, the employer, the employment manager and foreman, the labor leader and social worker — all are under the necessity of knowing what the workers are thinking and feeling, of discovering the content of their mental life and the impulses by which they are moved . This issue is addressed in the hope that the great gulf which separates them from the hand workers of the world may in the years of reconstruction be narrowed, and a common ground be discovered for cooperative effort toward a social organization which will make use of the best in human nature.”



“This is an incalculable gain. Industry has been in danger of losing sight of the person. Now we get back to people —to men and women whose passions energize the structure of industry. Workers cease to be “hands” and numbers, and become human beings. We hear much of “ humanizing ” our industrial system. What is involved in this is nothing more nor less than a discovery of personalities, a knowledge of their human natures, and an effort to give those natures a chance. No exhaustive analysis of the elementary characteristics of people has been here attempted. But we have seen that certain our standing traits are causally related to much of the prevailing conduct in modern industry. And a knowledge of the human tendencies – from the parental through the entire list to curiosity – has thrown light on events which may heretofore have seemed to be without sense or reason.

The individual is now seen as a compact of ascertainable impulses, who acts as he does because known forces, external and internal, are at work to influence his behavior. The individualization of industry demands, however, something more than a regard for the conduct of each person separately. Sound analysis demands that such study be inextricably tied up with the attempt to apply our fragmentary knowledge about the structure, functions, and characteristics of groups and group behavior. We have seen how largely the conduct of men is determined by their group associations, and it is idle to suppose that in the absence of light upon their loyal ties and attachments we can calculate their individual reactions. To be sure, our knowledge about group reactions is far from adequate, but there is sufficient promise in what we have to afford encouragement.

It seems probable, for example, that there is great practical value in the application of the idea that instincts, if not expressed or successfully diverted into channels of equivalent impulsive value, are a source of increasing danger as the suppression goes on . If it is true that three alternatives are present in the working -out of all natural tendencies; namely, expression , suppression, or sublimation — this opens up an extraordinary field for social experimentation. The possibilities in the direction of sublimation of those traits for which civilization seems to have comparatively little use, appear to be infinite.

In one sense the central problem of progress hinges upon this very question. Can people, our study forces us to ask, find in the institutions and environment of modern life conditions which allow for proper play of all the inherent impulses which demand ex pression and some measure of satisfaction? And this problem , we must understand, is preponderantly a group problem. For to -day, as never before, we live in such immediate contact with so many people that our satisfactions and activities have to come to us largely in group events and in the behavior of people associated together for special purposes, of which the purpose of producing goods in industry is the one to which we here have given special attention. The conduct of groups in industry, like that of individuals, is also to be more readily understood when we know even a little about the moving energies out of which it proceeds. This means, of course, that a change in causes will bring a change in effects. And experience shows that this is true. If, to take an example which is impossible only in degree, a twenty five per cent increase in the wages of all members of a mill community would in a given period of time halve the arrests, would increase the births, reduce the sick – rate by twenty per cent, and add forty per cent to the saving banks’ deposits, there would seem to exist in human affairs an element of organic relationship which opens the door to wise control and effective interposition. In other words, industry discovers again the precious value of each individual.

But that value, we now see, is to be realized only as we give measurable latitude to the behavior of groups —trade-unions, cooperative societies, political parties —no less than to the activities of the individuals within them. If we are really to set up personality as one of the major ends in life, we must see to it that all the impulses secure expression ; and not the least important of these is the desire (and necessity) for concerted action in associations of various sorts . Personality as a touchstone requires the provision of chances for rounded self -expression and for conscious self-direction. The institutional arrangements which assure these are naturally democratic in method and in spirit. The demand for a recognition and for a free play of instincts in industry ends, if the testimony of this study is accurate, in a demand for democracy in industry.

Our facts, therefore, appear to have brought us to several fairly definite conclusions :

  • First, that the causes of the conduct of individuals and groups are knowable. Although there are subtleties and complexities we can come to approximate knowledge of the origins of the characteristic reactions of people to given types of situations. We can begin to answer with some beginnings of accuracy the question which is so often put : “ Why do they act that way ? ”
  • Second, that human nature and its elements are subject to law —a fact from which we may properly derive a modicum of hope and encouragement as to the future of the race ; because this fact carries with it the conclusion.
  • Third, that conduct, if subject to law , can be controlled if we can control its causes . Human nature will respond in varying ways to varying stimuli, and if we supply a stimulus which is calculated to evoke only the more socially beneficent impulses of human beings ( assuming that we know which these are), we can rely upon the desired reactions taking place.
  • Fourth, that the determining conditions of conduct, being in origin economic, geographic, physiological, and psychological, are definitely capable of a measure of manipulation and variation. Fifth, that since adequate expression of in dividual and group impulses requires a considerable measure of self -direction, it seems not unlikely that the demand for an extension of the democratic method is in fundamental harmony with the facts of human psychology. We seem, therefore, to be entitled to a point of view toward the problems of adjusting industry to instinct which is on the whole hopeful and affirmative.

Reasons, remedies, and new criteria begin to materialize where many have thought that only caprice and chance obtained. Human nature begins to seem more comprehensible, more tangible, more susceptible of approach and control. And people, as we see them in their active associations and individual preoccupations, take on a certain significance and richness of which the machine era has tended utterly to strip them. Each stands out strikingly different and unique, yet all conform broadly to a common (and increasingly understandable) type. Each presents a problem of adjustment and growth which is fascinating in its delicacy and infinite in its possibilities. We get a fine sense of the artistry of life; of a potential flowering of personality which will give to life the grace and charm of a waste place made beautiful with trees and flowers.

We know that if only we had the patience and insight to see each other as we are, we should not be racked wanderers “on the sea of life enlisted,” but comrades on a joyous quest. Are we, then, to say that industry must square its practices with the facts of our human structure and impulses? Or are we to say that human nature must by some wise discipline be made more amenable to the purposes of our economic life? Or are we rather to say that knowing the demands which industry must set itself to supply and knowing human nature as it is, we should seek both institutions and purposes for life which will make possible a reconciliation of our needs, our knowledge, and our limitations? Such questions inevitably present themselves in reflection upon our facts. But the answers to them lead out and beyond the field of immediate inquiry. I shall be content if the foregoing suggestions and questions about the springs of human behavior throw some light upon the confused affairs of modern industry; give a sharpness of outline to its most salient defects; and hint ever so tentatively and broadly at the kind of economic organization we must demand if human nature is to be coped with and the richness of human life enhanced.” Ordway Tead, 1918

The rocky road to plan B

Our implementation of Plan B in 2013 was by design and a deliberate process. It was a first in mankind’s history. There were many occasions in the record where a Plan B was formed, succeeded, and returned to business as usual without a clue as to what took place. We surmise that the earliest examples of Plan B were fashioned in warfare and trade. In every case, goal attained, the Plan B social system dissolved back to standard top-down autocracy. This outcome was reversed by the forces of the Nash Equilibrium, nothing else. By itself, Plan B performance does not spontaneously migrate to other organizations.

The first example of an operational Plan B, described as such by scientists, was made by a group of sociologists of the Tavistock Institute in England led by Eric Trist in 1960. The study was sponsored by the British government concerned about falling productivity in mining coal. Excerpts from the report tells the tale:

“The work organization of the new seam (Haighmoor) 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. The men told us that in order to adapt with best advantage to the technical conditions in the new seam, they had evolved a form of work organization based on practices common in unmechanized days when small groups, who took responsibility for the entire cycle, had worked autonomously. These practices had disappeared as the pits became progressively more mechanized in relation to the introduction of ‘longwall’ working. This had enlarged the scale of operations and led to aggregates of men of considerable size having their jobs broken down into one-man-one-task roles, while coordination and control had been externalized in supervision, which had become coercive.

Now they had found a way at a higher level of mechanization of recovering the group cohesion and self-regulation they had lost and of advancing their power to participate in decisions concerning their work arrangements. The transformation represented a change of direction in organizational design. For several decades the prevailing direction had been to increase bureaucratization with each increase in scale and level of mechanization. The organizational model that fused Weber’s description of bureaucracy with Frederick Taylor’s concept of scientific management had become pervasive. The Haighmoor innovation showed that there was an alternative.

Those concerned with it had made an organizational choice. While they could have extended the prevailing mode of working, they chose instead to elaborate a major design alternative. It was not true that the only way of designing work organizations must conform to Tayloristic and bureaucratic principles. There were other ways, which represented a discontinuity with the prevailing mode. The technological imperative could be disobeyed with positive economic as well as human results. Output was 25 percent higher with lower costs than on a comparison face similar in every respect (conditions, equipment, personnel) except that of work organization. Accidents, sickness and absenteeism were cut in half. Only one man left the composite faces in two years.

As became clearer later, what happened in the Haighmoor seam was ‘the emergence of a new paradigm of work’ in which the best match would be sought between the requirements of the social and technical systems. This principle valued the discretionary rather than the prescribed part of work roles. Internal, self-regulation of the system by the group was thus rendered possible. The social and technical systems were the substantive factors — the people and the equipment. Economic performance and job satisfaction were outcomes, the level of which depended on the goodness of fit between the substantive factors. It was variety-increasing for both the individual and the organization rather than variety decreasing in the bureaucratic mode. Conceptually, the new paradigm entailed a shift in the way work organizations were operated.

Work organizations exist to do work — which involves people using technological artifacts (whether hard or soft) to carry out sets of tasks related to specified overall purposes. Accordingly, they are socio-technical systems.

Focus on the unconscious factors obstructing the attainment of group purposes and on group creativeness; on the commitment to action consequent on participation and on the performance superiority of the small group in self-regulation. It shows how the socio-technical concept affects the organization as a whole. It reduces the administrative overhead which has become so excessive in large technocratic and bureaucratic organizations.

The technical and social systems are independent of each other in the sense that the former follows the laws of the natural sciences while the latter follows the laws of human nature as well. It is a purposeful system. Yet they are correlative in that one requires the other for the transformation of an input into an output, which comprises the functional task of a work system. Their relationship represents a coupling of dissimilars which can only be jointly optimized. Attempts to optimize for either the technical or social system alone will result in the suboptimization of the socio-technical whole.

A work system depends on the social and technical components becoming directively correlated to produce a given goal state. They are co-producers of the outcome. The distinctive characteristics of each must be respected else their contradictions will intrude and their complementarities will remain unrealized.

A socio-technical theory of the efficacy of autonomous work groups is based on the cybernetic concept of self-regulation. The more the key variances can be controlled by the group, the better the results and the higher the member satisfaction.. Over a large array of situations, the range of variances controllable by a group is greater than that controllable by individuals separately linked to an external supervisor. The function of supervision is to manage the boundary conditions in the group’s environment so that the group itself may be freed to manage its own activities. This is a very different concept from the bureaucratic theory of control.

Autonomous groups are learning systems. As their capabilities increase, they extend their decision space. In production units they tend to absorb certain maintenance and control functions. They become able to set their own machines. Autonomous groups do not always succeed. A principal reason is lack of support in the wider organization. When the initiator departs, ‘fade-out’ occurs no matter how successful the project was economically.

These innovations are resisted in many if not most conventional establishments. Even where they are welcome, substantial change cannot be introduced across the board. Yet where such change is left only in one section of a plant or only in one plant in a corporation, more often than not it fades out or is actively stopped.

In most of the plants, so great were external pressures to conformity that sooner or later they underwent some regression toward the conventional mode. For the most part, their example was rejected by other units in their own corporations, though they received large numbers of visitors from other organizations who not infrequently adapted some of what they saw to their own purposes. Whatever the course of diffusion, it is not linear.

The development of self-standing primary work systems containing mixes of groups with commonly shared skills, matrices whose members have partly overlapping skills and networks of mainly specialist skills constitutes a new basis for the effectiveness of socio-technical organizations. They create organizational units of considerable ‘robustness’ which compose ‘microsocieties’ which have intragroup, intergroup and aggregate relations with a whole operational task. These microsocieties provide considerable space of free movement to the individual and are open to the interorganizational environment.

Joint optimization involves a different principle from following the technical imperative. The group-centered primary work systems which are evolving in relation to it are radically different from the one-man-one-job units upon which conventional organizations have built their top-down hierarchies.

Redundancy of function is organic. Any component system has a repertoire which can be put to many uses, so that increased adaptive flexibility is acquired. While this is true at the biological level, as for example in the human body, it becomes far greater at the organizational level where the components— individual humans and groups of humans—are themselves purposeful systems. Humans have the capacity for self-regulation so that control may become internal rather than external. Only organizations based on the redundancy of functions have the flexibility and innovative potential to give the possibility of adaptation to a rapid change rate, increasing complexity and environmental uncertainty.

The higher levels of interdependence, complexity and uncertainty now to be found in the world environment pass the limits within which technocratic bureaucracies were designed to cope. Given its solely independent purposes, its primarily competitive relations, its mechanistic authoritarian control structure and its tendency to debase human resources, this organizational form cannot absorb environmental turbulence, far less reduce it. But such absorption and reduction are a necessary condition for opening the way to a viable human future.

The socio-technical systems involved are not confined to work organizations.”

To appreciate Plan B you must think outside the box. System think.


The description of the 2013 implementation of Plan B is provided on this website in profusion. We specified the goal, so we could recognize it if it was attained, and we performed the transformation of a Plan A organization, as is, to Plan B specifications.


Nothing we have done in implementation examples matches the scale of the Eastern European war of 2022. This was/is validation of Plan B beyond dispute. So far, everything in the conflict has turned out as theory predicted. Plan A autocratic societies cannot win a military confrontation with Plan B warfare, in theory or in practice.

As the war has proceeded, military technology gave increasing scope for, and prominence to small group formations, recognizing their power to make intelligent decisions and to remain cohesive under rapidly changing conditions. This led to a recasting of the role of junior officers and the kind of relations (more open and more democratic) best maintained between them and their men. For Plan A, stalemate with Plan B is impossible.

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