The 2017 Sociotechnical Systems Roundtable event was held September 12-15 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
It is an achievement, in a way, to assemble a group of practitioners, researchers and theorists of systemic work design to present ideas, challenge each other’s assumptions and also deliberate on the lightning-speed transformations happening today across industry, culture, and politics.
It is perhaps a rarer accomplishment to have as the foundation of that gathering genuine respect, deep and mutual admiration, strong and long-standing collaborative relationships, as well as an environment at play that encourages laughter, passion and innovation. The 2017 STS Roundtable achieved that rare feat, resulting in sustained insight and practical methods for participants to use in the boardroom, classroom, or in the field.
There were several reasons behind such a positive outcome.
Sociotechnical Systems Roundtable Recap
The first was the concrete relevance of the roundtable theme: Designing Collaborative Ecosystems. Lack of strategic clarity, unwillingness to make concrete trade-offs, politics and other stumbling blocks have long challenged organization design work. As digitization, virtualization and interdependency swiftly take center stage, existing collaboration points have broadened and new interdependencies have also emerged.
As the STS background notes observed: “We are learning that work within this context involves systems of unprecedented collaboration among diverse loosely-linked disciplines, communities, enterprises, and clients/customers.”
This has renewed and prioritized the understanding that changing an operating model means all the interdependencies change. Figuring out how these ecosystems, rather than emerging organically, can and should be intentionally designed may be the next horizon for systemic work designers. The roundtable took on this critical landscape head-on and built a workshop design that enabled participants to deeply immerse themselves in its textured themes and issues.
Two important choices by the Roundtable designers had a profound impact on its success:
1. Partnering with the Center for the Study of Collaboration in Work and Society at the host site, Rutgers University.
2. Integrating the tools and methods of “Deliberation” to redefine a refreshing set of results.
The partnership with Rutgers merged theory with practice and provided a richer experience for both practitioners and researchers in attendance. The perspective of the PhD students created a harmony of new and existing voices. This caused an evolution of thought and a barrier to “group-think” on how problems should be solved.
The emphasis on deliberation offered a powerful antidote to the “over-PowerPointed” conference format with its series of presentations and limited interaction and discovery. Long slide presentations were replaced with brief “lightning talks” meant to develop and articulate issues raw and unsolved. This approach was a component of what roundtable designers hoped would be a “learning journey,” guiding participants through a program sequence of “Why” (context and theory), “What” (case experiences), and “How” (design principles) to build collaborative ecosystems.
Deliberation sessions allowed for participants to process the content of the book-ended keynotes by Charles Heckscher (“Why Collaborative Ecosystems Now”) and Bill Passmore (“STS Design Renewed”). Deliberation also complemented case study and prototyping exercises on a broad range of design projects, including Education in the New Jersey Public Schools; Fresh Stop Market cooperatives for local food access; and creating integrated care for L.A. residents. The Prototyping exercise was a real-life initiative to build a collaborative ecosystem for alternative energy. Space to deliberate allowed participants to leave not with pat answers, but with the gift of great questions.
The discussion and presentation space, the participant accommodations as well as the surrounding campus all contributed to the learning journey. The choice to break free from the chain hotel setting helped link the context and theory with the case experiences. It became, as one participant observed, “a comfortable place to meet old friends, exchange notes, meet new people, tell stories, and learn from each other in a relaxed, convivial way.”
When you add the bustling campus in its city setting, you had an ecosystem environment to match the central theme.
In a conference leveraging the metaphor of a learning journey as well as reserving focused time on deliberation, it’s important to count among key outputs the concrete results of journeying and deliberating. You come away from these experiences grown, expanded, enlightened and also challenged. You may not necessarily come home with fixes, measures or a game plan. But you also return with the comfort in knowing the support and community of those who joined your journey; those with whom you thought hard, considered much, and became a stronger design practitioner, researcher, or theorist. To that end, ongoing learning groups formed to continue the work contemplated at the roundtable. The final outcome, then, is not to have a final outcome; but rather to leverage the built network and pursue more progress in the coming weeks, months and years.
So, thank you to all who made this a great sociotechnical systems session!
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Daniel Laskero is a Senior Consultant at ON THE MARK. ON THE MARK’s experience and passion for collaborative business transformation that’s supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and a belief in people is unparalleled. OTM has been in business for 28 years and is a global leader in organization design consulting.
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