This handbook presents socio-technical systems engineering from a particular perspective that was originally developed at Lancaster University in England in the early 1990s. The software engineering research group, led by Ian Sommerville, was interested in requirements engineering research and this group got together with people in the Sociology department, led by John Hughes, who were interested in the sociology of work and who were increasingly interested in how computer systems were really used in the workplace.
Our interests at that time were focused on how ethnographic studies of work practice could provide information that informed the design of systems to support work and we were involved in ground-breaking research in this area where we studied the practice of air traffic control. Over time, our interests diversified into a wide range of application domains (control rooms, banking, healthcare, etc.) and we looked at how ethnographic techniques could be adapted to be used alongside systems engineering processes. At the same time, ubiquitous computing was emerging as an important research area and the Lancaster work was unique in that it took a socio-technical view of ubicom rather than the more prevalent device-oriented perspective of most researchers in this area.
All of this led to involvement in two important projects in the early years of the 21st century. These were so-called Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations involving researchers from different disciplines and universities. The DIRC project, focused on socio-technical issues affecting the dependability of complex software systems and the EQUATOR project was concerned with ubiquitous computing. Since then, work on socio-technical systems engineering has been carried on in the LSCITS project, which has sponsored the development of this handbook.
The key distinction between the work at Lancaster and other work in this area by researchers in social informatics, CSCW and HCI was that our work has always had the practical goal of (ultimately) influencing the way that complex systems are engineered. Obviously, we have been influenced by other work such as that on soft systems methods, participative design, cognitive systems engineering and social informatics and we certainly don’t claim that we were the originators of all of the ideas discussed here. We believe that these alternative perspectives, which we summarise in this paper have much in common with each other and with what we do but we do not have the time or effort to include all of it in this handbook.
The Lancaster team has now largely dispersed and the focus of work on socio-technical systems engineering has now moved elsewhere. Some people have retired, others have moved on to do different things but all of us will remember our time at Lancaster with affection and how we did much more than play lip service to the notion of inter-disciplinary research.