Professor Ken Eason

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Ken Eason is a past Director of Bayswater Institute and an Emeritus Professor at Loughborough University. He is a specialist in sociotechnical systems theory with over 40 years experience of evaluation and action research work on the implementation of new technology and its impact on people and organisations.

Biography

Sense Making and Science

I suppose I was always destined to be a scientist of some kind. I was always trying to make sense of the complex and confusing world I found myself in. This is the story of how I came to be engaged in the kind of scientific enquiry that now preoccupies me.

To start with it was astronomy: I was quite good on constellations at the age of 11. My headmistress wrote in one of my school reports, ‘He spends too much time with his head in the clouds’. By the late 1950’s when I was 16 I realized my maths would never be good enough for astronomy so I turned my attention to the only other sciences I knew about: physics, biology and chemistry. I chose chemistry. I left school at 16. There was no history of higher education in my family. My father was a hop foreman, looking after the hop gardens, on a farm in Kent in South East England and my parents only aspiration for me was that I should never get involved in farming. So I became a junior chemist in a testing laboratory for the National Coal Board. There were four coalmines in Kent and we collected samples of gas, water and coal from underground and ran tests on them. I found the mining community underground absolutely fascinating even if I couldn’t understand what they said because it was mostly swear words. It was so different from the fairly refined culture of the laboratory. I carried on my studies on a day-release basis taking Advanced Level GCEs in Physics and Maths and a Higher National Certificate in Chemistry. When I was 18 I moved to London to joining the Central Electricity Generating Board’s Radiochemical Laboratory. I thought working with radioactive materials would be more exciting than coal samples. In truth it was pretty boring. We collected samples of grass, milk and soil from the environs of the first generation nuclear power stations and tested them to see whether there had been any radioactive leaks. Fortunately for the planet there were none: all we found was the normal background radiation.

The Psychology of Work

By the age of 21 I had concluded that if I wanted a professional career I needed a degree. I had grown tired of trying to make sense of what went on in test tubes but was finding the people in the working communities I knew – in farming, mining, electricity generation and in the scientific community – much more interesting. So I took the dramatic step of applying to study psychology at university. I remember thinking what a terrible gamble I was taking: changing to a different career with uncertain prospects and going to university when I was already so old. But I really fell on my feet. I wanted to study organisational psychology so I went to Brunel University and there I met two great life-changing mentors. Marie Jahoda was a major figure in social psychology who really understood the meaning of work in the lives of people and communities. I was to meet her again much later in life when she was part of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University and President of the Bayswater Institute when I joined it in 2002. Laurie Thomas taught me systems theory and introduced me to the conceptual love of my life – sociotechnical systems theory. He also taught me about life-long learning and went on to found the Centre for the Study of Human Learning. So I got a very good theoretical grounding to understand the world of work and organisations. I also got a solid practical grounding because the degree was a sandwich course with three six month placements: in a very large electrical manufacturing plant in Manchester, in a Hospital in West London and working with a management consultancy in a small factory in Newcastle. The hospital experience left an indelible impression because I got to study team-work in an operating theatre. It also introduced me to Reg Revans and the Action Learning movement that he founded. The idea that people can tackle change most effectively if they instigate action plans, collect evidence about the effects and reflect on the evidence before launching further change was to become very important to me. I recently wrote a paper about my 50 years of dealings with Action Learning1.

The Dawning of the Computer Revolution

I graduated from university in the mid-1960s just when the computer revolution was beginning to get going in industry and commerce. There were great claims about revolutionary new efficiencies and dire warnings that automation would lead ‘to the collapse of work’. Some predictions never change and are usually gross over simplifications. I joined the Ergonomics Laboratory of EMI Electronics led by Brian Shackel, a man of boundless optimism and limitless energy. He was leading the analysis of the human issues of computer applications both in EMI and in outside clients. I did a study of the value of computer-generated management information to the managers of EMI Electronics. There was very little value: they mostly used the slabs of computer printout as door-stops. I had great fun doing a systems analysis of the management decision-making process in the company. I covered the walls of the office with an elaborate flow chart. One of my colleagues said it was most impressive but what was I going to do with it? I really had no idea and neither did the people I was doing it for. It was a lesson I had to learn many times: it is very easy to get drawn into making sense of a situation yourself but if you lose sight of how it is going to help your client, it is mostly an act of self-indulgence.

The Ergonomics Laboratory did work for external clients and that led to my first introduction to Lisl Klein who at that time was social science advisor to Esso Petroleum. I worked with Lisl to explore the strategies and tactics of salesmen selling aviation fuel to airlines. It was a small study but started a professional partnership that would last many decades.

In 1969 Brian Shackel was offered a chair at Loughborough University and sufficient funding to create a team to study the human issues of emergent forms of interactive computing. After he moved he used his considerable persuasive talents to convince me I should move to Loughborough to help him set up the team. At the same time the Managing Director of EMI Electronics offered me the chance to join a fast track management training programme with a view to becoming his assistant. This was my first encounter with a career crossroads that was to confront me many times: to follow a management career or to stay with my chosen specialism? I chose the latter and took up a two-year research fellowship in Loughborough in 1970. I was to stay 32 years until I ‘retired’ in 2002.

The Human Factors of Human-Computer Interaction

At Loughborough Brian and I assembled the HUSAT (Human Sciences and Advanced Technology) Research Institute which for over 20 years was at the forefront of efforts to make baffling complex computer technology simple enough for every citizen to be able to use. At the beginning there were mainframe computers in air conditioned halls tended by specialists in white coats and connected to them were dumb terminals that non-specialists could use if they could master the arcane alphanumeric strings of symbols the computer generated. You usually had to go on a training course to do even simple clerical tasks. Our goal was universal ‘walk-up and use’: to get the computer to engage with people in ways they felt were easy and natural to use. Most of the technical developments went on elsewhere but we did the studies to see whether people could use emergent forms of interaction. Over the years we worked on graphics interfaces, touch screens, keyboard design, speech recognition and a host of other ideas to improve human-computer interaction. Later we worked on specific interactive computing applications like mobile telephones, cash machines and mobile telephones. We also worked on the tools needed to address human issues in the design process: user requirement specification, usability evaluations of early prototypes and so on. Many of these tools are now industry norms and are embodied in international standards.

In this period I became intrigued by user behaviour with computer systems. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of two important user motivations: getting the computer to help with specific tasks and using it with the least mental effort. Often people would master sufficient of the functionality in the system for it to be easy for them to use, they would use this knowledge to undertake their tasks and then ignore anything else the system may have to offer2. I undertook a PhD whilst working on several related projects: I studied how managers used the new emergent forms of interactive computing. Or, in the end, I wrote a thesis on how managers avoided using these forms of interactive computing themselves in favour of getting their assistants to use them for them3. People are very adept at finding ways of getting work done whilst minimizing the personal effort involved.

Information Technology and Organisational Change

But whilst the individual computer user was of great interest, whether this technology was of value in business depended on the extent to which work organisations could adopt it effectively. There was a lot of evidence that much investment in new technology was going to waste or that the new systems reduced the effectiveness of the organisation rather than helping it make the promised great strides forward. To me it was obvious that we were designing technical systems that then had negative organisational consequences when we should be designing integrated sociotechnical systems.

We did a lot of studies to understand these organisational problems and to work out alternative design methods. We did a study of management information systems in the UK, Denmark, Austria, the USA and Germany. This revealed many of the problems of adopting new systems and demonstrated the flexibility of the technology: you could use it to tightly monitor and control what everybody was doing or you could use it to help everybody get on with their work. It was a matter of making choices in the design process. I took a sabbatical in Copenhagen to help write a book about how to manage computer impact 4.

So we worked on design methods that were not just technical but sociotechnical. In another European project we developed the ORDIT methodology the first stage of which was to engage all the relevant stakeholders and help them to express both the organisational and technical requirements. Thereafter the methodology sought to hold together both technical and organisational strands of development. As a result I wrote a book called ‘Information Technology and Organisational Change5 that got people in Digital Equipment in New England quite excited. So for a short time I joined the jet set fraternity commuting regularly to Boston to set up new design processes: that was shortly before Digital Equipment went out of business!

We and others worked very hard on developing methodologies for integrated sociotechnical systems design but other studies we were doing were showing how difficult it would be to get these adopted in practice. A big problem was that front line operational sociotechnical systems are usually the product of many different design processes undertaken by different groups in time and space. Technical systems might be designed by a supplier to serve many customers and they might be bought ‘off the shelf’ by a particular organisation. In that organisation policy decisions might be made at board level and operationalized as work processes by other teams whilst management teams were making organisational changes. The different strands of development came together at the front line where often there was a lot of local design work, some of it not officially recognized, to produce an operational system capable of serving local needs. The problem we had was how to support the creation of effective sociotechnical systems when design was a fragmented process.

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and Putting Social Science to Work

During this period I had the chance to deepen my understanding of sociotechnical systems by being seconded half-time for two years to the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London where it all began. There I was able to work with Harold Bridger on a sociotechnical analysis of warehousing in East London, a rather special privilege. But the main reason for the secondment was to work with Lisl Klein who was now on the staff of the TIHR. I had renewed my acquaintance with Lisl earlier when she invited me to join a team looking at customer experiences in branch banking. Another important member of the team was Penny Jones. Lisl had written a book about her Esso experiences and was trying to find a conceptual framework to explain her experiences of applying social science theories and methods in organisations. It mirrored my concerns about how to get sociotechnical ideas adopted in practice. So with Anglo German funding we worked with a team in West Germany to review many examples of social scientists trying to apply their ideas in organisational settings. Across many examples we found that the effective adoption of social science ideas depended on helping the staff of the organisation to internalize, transform and own the ideas. Then, as Lisl said, you might get institutionalization of a new way of operating. Lisl and I wrote a book called ‘Putting Social Science to Work’6 to summarise our conclusions about being ‘client centred’ in order to facilitate organisational change.

The Evolution of Sociotechnical Systems Through Action Research and Organisational Learning

Back at Loughborough I put all this learning about how to introduce new technology as sociotechnical change into a different approach that recognized the fragmented nature of the design process. This approach encouraged the more distant and higher contributors to new sociotechnical systems (generic technology developers, policy makers etc) to adopt a minimalist or incomplete approach to design in order to leave flexibility for front line design efforts to construct local sociotechnical systems tailored to the specific demands of their circumstances. Through a series of case studies we discovered that engaging local staff in these design activities was always going to be a learning process for them: a voyage of discovery taking them away from their current ways of working. And to help them make this voyage we found we had to give them evidence of what the future might be like so they could evaluate the pros and cons of different possibilities. If we could, we set up pilot studies so people could experience the new technology in their organisational settings for themselves. Or we got them to write small-scale sociotechnical scenarios of their work process into which we could weave new technology so they could explore the positive and negative consequences that might result. These methods became a fusion of human learning based on action research and sociotechnical systems concepts.

We had opportunities to explore how this worked in a number of domains which often led to dramatic changes of direction. In a Freightforwarding company, for example, the original Board level policy was to introduced a computer system that would centralise call handling and freight distribution across a nationwide network of branches. We ran a trial linking three branches and found the new system would completely break the current organisational system where each branch had a lot of autonomy to work with local customers. As a result of the trial the company abandoned the centralised system and implemented a branch-based system that preserved local autonomy7.

In electricity distribution we worked on an early application of artificial intelligence. Whenever engineers needed to work on the distribution network they had first to create a switching schedule, a list of actions needed to isolate the part of the network to be worked on. A team of AI specialists had created a programme that understood the connections in the grid and could detail the steps necessary to isolating the section to be worked on whilst sustaining electricity distribution to customers. The plan was to automate the production of switching schedules. We created a pilot version of this system and got the electricity engineers to try it out. Apart from the serious doubts they expressed about trusting their lives to the decisions of a computer programme, we also found that the programme was not using many other sources of knowledge that the engineers were using, often implicitly, when they drew up their switching schedules. Isolating parts of the network involved visits to a number of sub-stations so they used geographical information, traffic information and staff shift information to come up with their switching schedules. In the end rather than automate the switching schedule process the company developed a switching schedule assistant so the engineers could use all their knowledge but have a smart assistant to help them8.

We were also involved at the beginning of the development of electronic journals, when it was becoming possible to replace paper-based journal articles with electronic versions. Publishers and university libraries were beginning to wonder what the implications of this revolution would have for them. We became the evaluators of a large trial of electronic journals in which many publishers provided electronic versions of their journals for use in 10 universities. We studied what happened from many stakeholder perspectives including authors, readers, publishers and librarians. The strap line for this project was ‘They are journals but not as we have known them’. This is because there was an expectation that, if electronic journals were to take off they would have to offer much more than traditional journals. So there were plans for 3-D diagrams, animations, links to commentaries and reviews, access to the data that supported the findings and so on. However, what our findings showed very clearly was that what authors and readers wanted was articles in exactly the form they were on paper but accessible wherever they were9. No more having to go to the library to read journal articles. This finding had powerful implications for all the stakeholders and is still leading to innovations in how journals can be accessed and the business models of publishers. What has not changed is the format of the journal articles.

Academic Life or Being a Reflective Practitioner?

Whilst I was working my way through the conundrums of applying new technology I was also following the normal course of an academic. In addition to my research I was taking on more and more teaching and acquiring administrative tasks. I climbed the career ladder from research fellow to lecturer, to senior lecturer and reader and finally became a professor. But in the process immersion into university life was becoming total: It was getting harder to get to work with other organisations and whilst I bid for a lot of research money, other people got to do the research. In 1989 I became Head of the Department of Human Sciences and later I succeeded Brian Shackel as Director of the HUSAT Research Institute. Other university appointments followed. These roles had their rewards: you could really help staff and students fulfill their potential in the disciplines that you cared about. But I was being taken further away from what I wanted most: to be out working with clients on the adoption of new technology into organisations. In 2002 at the age of 60 I had an opportunity to take early retirement and I chose that moment to leave university management in favour of getting my hands dirty once again as a reflective practitioner.

In 1991 Lisl Klein had set up the Bayswater Institute to pursue her beliefs about putting social science to work. By 2002 she had decided she wanted to retire as Director of the Institute so I took over the role. The Institute’s objective was to support organisations and their staff through challenging change processes so it gave me the opportunity to get back to applying my knowledge. After 5 years as Director I retired from that role in order to become a consultant with the Institute, freeing me to work even more with clients.

The Integration of Health and Social Care as a Sociotechnical Challenge

One of the biggest organisational challenges in the UK at present is how to integrate health and social care for the elderly. It involves coordinating an array of caring agencies in different organisations so that they provide a coherent and specific service for each elderly person. It can also involve many different forms of technology, from information systems to support the sharing of patient information to remote technologies that enable people to continue living at home. For me this represents another challenge for sociotechnical systems, one in which the work system is not wholly within one organisation but is spread across many10. This is becoming a very common feature of work systems in the digital age.

Integrated health and social care has been a significant part of my work in the Bayswater Institute. We undertook a sociotechnical systems research study to examine the interdependencies in some major care pathways, for example, the stroke pathway, in which the patient moved from treatment in hospital to care in the community. It showed clearly the many ‘handoffs’ in the process where information sharing was very important but also showed the fragmentation of information systems because each agency had their own11. At the time we were undertaking this study the NPfIT (National Programme for Information Technology) was being ‘rolled out’. Its objective was to solve the problem of sharing information by getting all health agencies to use the same system. We worked with a number of health trusts as they grappled with the adoption of NPfIT systems. It was obvious to me from the very beginning of the programme (and to many others) that this was another technology juggernaut proceeding without reference to its organisational ramifications. It duly ran into enormous problems and was finally discontinued. We are still desperately in need of mechanisms for developing shared patient information systems that respect the organisational reality of front line staff in different agencies12>.

We have worked in a number of projects to help with local initiatives to promote integrated health and social care. In these projects we have tackled another perennial problem: there are many technological advances in telecare and telehealth that could play a major role in enabling vulnerable people to continue to live safely at home but it is proving very difficult to embed these technologies in the normal processes of health care13. Yet another sociotechnical challenge. We have recently had an excellent opportunity in the BOLDTC project (to provide teleconferencing for people with learning difficulties) to tackle this as an organisational learning process. Front line staff got the opportunity to explore what the technology had to offer and to find ways of embedding it in normal practice.

As many of our clients have said along the way: this is not rocket science, it is good common sense. But the work to set up projects in this way has to go on. It is still much more likely that the next major initiatives will be technical or organisational…..but not sociotechnical.

References

  1.   Eason K. D. (2017) Action learning across the decades: case studies in health and social care settings 1966 and 2016 Leadership in the Health Services, 30(2) 118-128 https://doi.org/10.1108/LHS-11-2016-0057
  2. Towards the experimental study of usability Eason K. D. (1984)  Behaviour and Information Technology 3(2) 133-143
  3. Eason K. D. (1974) The manager as a computer user Applied Ergonomics 5, 1 9-14
  4. Bjorn-Anderson, N. Eason, K.D. & Robey, D. (1986) Managing Computer Impact’, Ablex, Norwood NJ.
  5.  Eason, K.D. (1988) Information Technology and Organisational Change, Taylor & Francis, London.
  6. Klein, L. & Eason, K.D. (1991) Putting Social Science to Work, Cambridge University Press
  7. Eason K. D. (1991) Case G: Freight Import and Export In Klein, L. & Eason, K.D. (1991) ‘Putting Social Science to Work Cambridge University Press, pp 106-114
  8. Eason K. D. Harker S.D. P., Raven P. F. et al (1987) A user-centred approach to the design of a knowledge based system In Bullinger H-J, and Shackel B. (eds) INTERACT ’87, Human-computer interaction’ Amsterdam, North-Holland
  9. Eason K. D. Yu, L. and Harker S.D.P. (2000) The use and usefulness of functions in electronic journals: the experience of the Superjournal Project Program 34(1) 1-28
  10. Eason K. D. (2014) ‘Afterword: The past, present and future of sociotechnical systems theory’ Applied Ergonomics 45(2A) 213-220 DOI: 10.1016/j.apergo.2013.09.017
  11. Eason K.D. and Waterson P.E. (2013) The Implications of e-health system delivery strategies for integrated healthcare: lessons from the UK and elsewhere. International Journal of Medical Informatics. 85(5) 96-106 Doi:10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2012.11.004
  12. Eason K.D. (2007) Local sociotechnical system development in the NHS National Programme for Information Technology. Journal of Information Technology 22 (3) 257-264
  13. Eason K. D. and Waterson P.E (2014) Patient Safety in Community Care: e-health systems and the care of the elderly at home. In Michell V., Gulliver S., Rosenorn-Lang D. and Currie W. (eds) Patient Safety and Quality Dimensions of Health Informatics. IGI Global 198-213