Emerging Organization Design — Part III: Design Principles of Adaptive Enterprises

In my previous blogs on emerging organization design for the 21st century, Part I and Part II, I shared the output from several years of inquiry and action research conducted by the Socio-Technical Systems Roundtable (STS-RT) Discovery and Integration Teams.  Because ‘pictures are worth a thousand words’, I emphasized our three visual models of adaptive enterprises rather than defining technical terms.  My intent in this blog is to define some technical terms that form the theory and practice of STS design across adaptive enterprises with the main focus on principles for designing these systems.

But first, let us start with the following as a means of building shared understanding:

1.  SYSTEM – a set of things and/or people working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network (i.e., team, organization, community, nation, etc.)

2.  SOCIAL SYSTEM – people, culture, norms, roles as well as work-related transactions and interdependencies.  The work of the social system is setting and attaining goals, adapting to the external environment, resolving differences, developing long-term sustainability, that is, to coordinate the work of the technical system.

3.  TECHNICAL SYSTEM – tools, materials, technology (i.e., inputs, throughputs and outputs).  The work of the technical system is the conversion of inputs into outputs.

4.  PRINCIPLES – empirical criteria leading to good practice and desired outcomes

5.  IDEALS – universally shared beliefs of what is important that supersede values

6.  VALUES – subjective beliefs about what is important in one’s life

7.  VALUE PROPOSITION – a unique offer with respect to cost and benefit

8.  MODEL – a built, tangible representation of a system and its relationships enabling people to see and create the new

9.  METAPHOR – a symbolic representation of a system and its relationships enabling people to see and create the new

10.  STRUCTURE – a container within which coordination occurs.

Characteristics of Socio-Technical System (STS) Design

It was not until 1976, twenty-five years after the initial action research conducted by Trist and Bamforth (1951) in a coal mining study, that the characteristics of socio-technical system (STS) design were clearly stated.  In a seminal paper Albert Cherns, (1976:738-792), identified nine key principles as being inherent to STS design.

Since then, many STS theorists and practitioners (Cherns, Emery, Berniker, Pasmore, Winby, de Guerre and other STS Roundtable members) continually revisit and add to this list of design principles.

The STS-RT Integration Team also revisited and added to the original list in its attempt to answer the question “What are currently relevant STS design principles for organizing in the 21st century?”  In answering that question, the Integration Team’s most current iteration is compiled below for presentation to its community of practitioners in September 2011.

1.  COMPATIBILITY – the process of design must be compatible with its objectives

2.  MINIMAL CRITICAL SPECIFICATIONS – only the most critical aspects of jobs and methods are specified thereby keeping options open and assuring those performing the work have the opportunity to impact its design

3.  VARIANCE CONTROL AT SOURCE – if they cannot be eliminated, variances must be controlled as near to their point of origin as possible

4.  BOUNDARY LOCATION ENABLING SELF-REGULATION – boundaries are drawn to not interfere with the sharing of information, knowledge and learning within the system but not necessarily according to traditional criteria (such as technology, territory or shift)

5.  INFORMATION FLOWS FIRST TO PRIMARY TASK HOLDER – needed information is shared first with those performing the task

6.  AUTHORITY AND RESOURCES MATCH WHOLE TASK ACCOUNTABILITY – direct access to task-relevant knowledge, experience and resources so responsibilities can be carried out

7.  MULTIFUNCTIONAL TEAMS – flexibility is achieved through redundancy of skills rather than redundancy of parts or people

8.  CONGRUENT SUPPORT SYSTEMS – management actions and policy in areas such as selection, pay and training reinforce behaviours consistent with the design philosophy and objectives

9.  ONGOING REDESIGN – the design process is about learning to learn (conscious choice) and therefore an unending search for improvement and innovation by those doing the work


    • Freedom to participate in decisions directly affecting one’s work
    • A chance to continually learn on the job
    • Optimal variety (not too much, not too little)
    • Mutual support and respect from their colleagues
    • Socially meaningful work
    • Leading to some desirable future


11.  PARTICIPATIVE AND DEMOCRATIC – people who do the work design the organization

12.  STAKEHOLDER & STRENGTH CENTERED – all stakeholders’ needs are optimized from a strength-based perspective

13.  JOINT OPTIMIZATION & INNOVATION – functioning of the social and technical systems is considered simultaneously so the improvement and innovation needs of BOTH are met

Using the design principles above as a checklist for your own work place, which principles do you feel are being met?

Is it any wonder that the reality for organizations in today’s current environment is “low life expectancy and high early mortality” (De Geus, 2002).  The news is no better on IT project delivery (Eveleens & Verhoef, 2010) with a success rating of 32%  (on time, on budget, fully functional).


Cherns, A. B.  1976.  “Principles of Socio-technical Design,” Human Relations, 29, pg. 783-92.

Lapalme, J., and D. W. de Guerre.  2011.  An Open Socio-Technical Systems Approach to Enterprise Architecture.

STS-RT Integration Team.  2011.  Matrix of Emerging STS Design in 21 Century Organizing.

Trist, E. L., and K. W. Bamforth.  1951.  “Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal-getting.”  Human Relations, (4:1), pg. 3-38.

Author: Helen Maupin

Author: Helen Maupin

Helen is passionate about transforming fear into love — from her, for her, for all. She expresses her commitment to transformation through writing poetry, self-awareness and yoga books, co-designing organizations into adaptive enterprises and deepening her daily meditation and yoga practices.

Recent Posts by Helen Maupin