A theoretical essay on socio-technical systems design thinking in the era of digital transformation

2023 – In this essay Govers and Van Amelsvoort argue that digital technology is here to stay. Currently, digital technologies are unleashing the fourth industrial revolution. This so-called digital transformation is about the integration of digital technology into all areas of society. Within organisations, work is fundamentally changing which impacts how organisations will operate and deliver value to customers. Furthermore, but often forgotten, it is also about a cultural change that requires organisations to continually challenge their status quo, experiment, and get comfortable with failure.

Digital possibilities are emerging which cannot be viewed separately from social effects in organised (eco-)systems and for people in those systems. The challenge is to jointly optimise technical and social aspects for creating both added value in a sustainable manner and improve quality of working life. As we have an ‘organisational choice’, technical possibilities can be aligned with social needs and requirements, and vice versa. This alignment forms the basis of socio-technical systems (STS) thinking, which is necessary for developing sustainable organisational solutions. Sociotechnical theory and practice originally have a focus on optimising social and technical aspects in organisations. Therefore, the authors choose in this essay for an STS perspective, especially for the STS Design (STS-D) approach which is elaborated by the Lowlands STS school of thought. As digital technologies offer new affordances and constraints for organisational design, this essay tries to merge STS-D with digital thinking. It is started with a brief sketch of the understanding of current digital technologies. After this, organisational design in terms of the division of labour and the penetration of digital technology into the nature of work is discussed. Then, the STS-D’s core design principles and design sequence, are introduced and adapted for digital thinking. This is followed by a section on design routines for unlocking the potential for designing future, digital-receptive workplaces and organisations. The essay is ended with some closing remarks and reflections


Some of the conclusions

  • All stages of organisational design should actively incorporate digital technology and absorb digital thinking. This rather than technology following strategy and structure.
  • Digital technology is changing the nature of human work, which has implications for the theoretical view of the nature of work itself. Human-machine collaboration is intensifying. In this perspective, maintaining or increasing human work regulation (a combination of responsible autonomy, decision space, instrumental support from colleagues, constructive feedback on performance, craftsmanship, flexible resources, appreciation and support from leaders, accurate information, and communication) is essential for improving the quality of working life. Quality of working life should be constantly monitored during the design process.
  • Digital technology is also blurring the boundaries between organisations. As part of ecosystems, organisations need to learn to work together in networks. And that is why the principle of bringing the whole system into the organisational design space is essential in the organisational design process.



The authors invite both the digital technology community and the organisational design community to further develop our theoretical attempt in a pragmatic and practical way. It would help and contribute to the empirical deepening and enrichment of the presented digitally advanced STS-D approach.

This would unlock the potential of the combination of organisational and digital transformation for future growth that can be of benefit to all stakeholders in modern 21st century organisations and networks in ecosystems.


Govers, M., van Amelsvoort, P. A theoretical essay on socio-technical systems design thinking in the era of digital transformation. Gr Interakt Org 54, 27–40 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11612-023-00675-8