Background reading: Socio-technical systems engineering

This part of the course introduces socio-technical systems from an engineering perspective, with a particular focus on how systems engineering might be influenced by the results of a social analysis of the settings in which complex systems will be used.

Because this is a topic that is not covered in most undergraduate courses, trying to start from scratch in a short course is very difficult. Therefore, it is essential that you do some pre-reading before the course presentations (they are deliberately shorter than normal to give some time for this). The aim of this introductory reading is to give you a general introduction to socio-technical systems and related issues.  As part of the course, you will be expected to make a short presentation about socio-technical systems and why understanding socio-technical systems is important in a study of Large-scale Complex IT Systems.


You should watch the following YouTube videos that I have made. These introduce the topic of sociotechnical systems and discuss important properties of these systems.

Introducing socio-technical systems

Emergent properties of socio-technical systems

System success and failure

The LSCITS Handbook of Socio-technical Systems is a comprehensive summary of relevant research on sociotechnical systems with links to most of the reading that I have suggested here. Each section has an introduction that summarises the area and you should read the following topic introductions:

Introduction to socio-technical systems

Fieldwork, ethnography and ethnomethodology


Research papers

I have suggested 5 research papers that you should read before starting the course.

Baxter, G. and Sommerville, I. (2010). ‘Socio-technical Systems: From design methods to systems engineering‘. Interacting with Computers. .

This paper surveys different approaches to socio-technical systems design and critically assesses the problems with these approaches. It then introduces a pragmatic approach to socio-technical systems engineering that has been designed for incremental introduction into organisational systems engineering processes.

An Ethnography Primer

This is a commercial brochure on the use of ethnography so can be read in a few minutes. However, I think it gets over the general idea on why ethnography can be useful in providing insights for systems designers.

Sommerville, I., Bentley, R., Rodden, T., Sawyer, P., Hughes, J., Randall, D. and Shapiro, D. 1992. ‘Ethnographically-informed systems design for air traffic control’. Proc. CSCW92., ACM Press, Toronto, 123-129.  

This paper presents a perspective on using ethnography in systems design from a systems engineering perspective.

Reason, J. 2000. Human error: Models and Management. British Medical Journal, 320, March 2000. pp 768-70.  

This short paper (3 pages) introduces Reason’s Swiss Cheese Model of system accidents. 

Keen, J. 2010. Normal Accidents: learning how to learn about safety. In: M Exworthy and S Peckham (eds), Case Studies in Health Services Research. Oxford, Polity Press.

A readable introduction to Perrow’s Normal Accident’s Theory and a discussion of the insights that can be gained from this when considering safety in healthcase and healthcare research

Other research papers  

Sommerville, I., Bentley, R., Rodden, T., and Sawyer, P. 1992. ‘Sociologists can be Surprisingly Useful in Interactive Systems Design’, Proc. HCI’92, York, September 1992.

This paper discusses our general experiences of inter-disciplinary working and presents some of the issues and problems that arise.

Hughes, J.A., Randall, D. and Shapiro, D. 1992. Faltering from Ethnography to Design. Proc. CSCW92., ACM Press, Toronto, 115-122.

A sociologist’s perspective on the studies of air traffic control.

Marias, K., Dulac, N. and Leveson, N. 2004. Beyond Normal Accidents and High-Reliability Organizations: The Need for an Alternative Approach to Safety in Complex Systems. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This paper introduces the two principal theories of organizational safety – namely Normal Accident theory by Perrow and the notion of High-Reliability Organizations, proposed by LaPorte and Consolini. It critiques both of these approaches (particularly the HRO approach) and makes the case for a systems approach to safety in compex systems. (Normal Accidents theory is described by Perrow in his book – which is too long for you to read at this stage; I have provided a link to the LaPorte and Consolini’s paper but reading this is not essential).

Assessment reading

Ethnomethodology, Patterns Of Cooperative Interaction and Design. D. Martin and I. Sommerville.

A paper describing an approach that we develop to support the reuse of knowledge from ethnographic studies in design.

The Pointer web site. 

The list of patterns of interaction that we developed.

Patterns of Interactions for Extreme Programming.

Applying Patterns of Cooperative Interaction to Work (Re)Design: E-Government and Planning. D. Martin, M. Rouncefield and I. Sommerville.

A paper that describes how the patterns that we developed were used in a study of local government planning.

Ethnographically informed analysis for software engineers. S. Viller and I. Sommerville.

A complementary approach to Patterns of Interaction that proposes guidelines for conducting fieldwork for design.

Minus nine beds: Some practical problems of integrating and interpreting information technology in a hospital trust. K. Clarke, M. Hartswood, R. Procter, M. Rouncefield and R. Slack.

Bed management 

An overview of the bed management process.