Socio-Technical Features of Systems of Systems

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Most systems of systems (SoS) are socio-technical systems that are composed of a number of interdependent resources, such as, people, processes, information, and technology that must interact with each other and their environment in support of a common mission (See also Enterprise Systems Engineering).

Managing the Socio-Technical Features of Systems of Systems

The managerial and operational independence of constituent systems of a SoS (Maier, 1998) imply that in general, SoS are socio-technical systems. Turning to views outside of Systems Engineering, Ergonomists regard socio-technical systems as having the following characteristics (Maguire, 2014):

  • There are collective operational tasks,
  • They contain social and technical sub-systems,
  • They are open systems (i.e. strongly interacting with their environments), and
  • The concept of the system being an unfinished system.

These are also characteristics of Systems of Systems. Klein (2014) has noted that approaches to socio-technical systems can take the two perspectives of “system affects people” or “people affect system”, depending upon how the system boundary is drawn. It is generally true for systems that consideration of their context requires socio-technical aspects to be taken into account.

Although there are many matters concerning the socio-technical aspects of SoS, there are two main issues, which are somewhat related, requiring attention. The first is the need for appropriate governance structures, given that operational and/or managerial independence affects top-down direction of the SoS and may compromise achievement of the SoS goal(s). The second issue is a lack of situational awareness of managers, operators, or other stakeholders of the SoS, so that they may not understand the impact of their local decisions on the wider SoS.

SoS Governance

Generally, design and operation of complex systems is concerned with control, but the classification of SoS (Dahmann, et. al., 2008) is based on the notion of diminishing central control, as the types go from directed to virtual. Sauser, et. al. (2009) has described the ‘control paradox of SoS’ and asserted that for SoS, ‘management’ is replaced by ‘governance’. Thus in C2 terms, the emphasis in SoS is on command, rather than control: ‘Control is a function of rules, time, and bandwidth; whereas command is a function of trusts, influence, fidelity, and agility’. Trusts, influence, and fidelity are intrinsically human qualities. The matters relating to the organizational aspects, such as these, are relevant to Enterprise Systems . Siemieniuch and Sinclair (2014) highlighted the complexity issues with respect to SoS by drawing attention to a variety of organizational characteristics that concern the interactions among system operators in a SoS:

  • Many agents, of different kinds
  • Some degree of behavioral autonomy for agents
  • Multiple steady states for agents
  • Interactions between agents in an environment
  • Lots of connections between agents
  • Agents communicating in parallel
  • Effects of an evolving environment
  • Effects of evolving agents
  • Interactions between different goals within an agent
  • Interactions between agents with different goals
  • Language/culture differences between agents

A major governance issue for SoS is understanding the ownership of, and making reliable estimates of risk (Fovino & Masera, 2007). High levels of connectivity, and the potential for emergent behavior due to the interactions of separately owned/operated constituent systems, means that significant risks may go unacknowledged and their mitigations unplanned.

In general, governance can be summed up by asking three connected questions (Siemieniuch and Sinclair, 2014):

  • Are we doing the right things (leadership)?
  • Are we doing those things right (management)?
  • How do we know this (metrics and measurements)?

Currently, there is no accepted framework for addressing these questions in a SoS context, but Henshaw et. al. (2013) have highlighted architectures as an important means through which governance may be clarified. They postulate that a SoS can be regarded as a set of trust and contract relationships between systems (i.e. including both informal and formal relationships). The systems architect of a constituent system must, therefore, address trust issues for each participating organization in the overall enterprise with which his/her system must interoperate. For SoS, technical engineering governance is concerned with defining and ensuring compliance with trust at the interface between constituent systems. An example of difficulty managing the interfaces in a SoS is provided in the Cassini-Huygens mission case study .

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is a decision maker’s understanding of the environment in which he/she takes a decision; it concerns information, awareness, perception, and cognition. Endsley (1995) emphasizes that situational awareness is a state of knowledge. There are numerous examples of SoS failure due to the operator of one constituent system making decisions based on inadequate knowledge of the overall SoS (big picture). Fratricide incidents are among the most shocking (see for example Rasmussen, 2007).

On the other hand, SoS development is also viewed as the means through which improved situational awareness may be achieved (Van der Laar, et. al., 2013). In the defense environment, Network Enabled Capability (NEC) was a system of systems approach motivated by the objective of making better use of information sharing to achieve military objectives. Court (2005) identified that the NEC benefits chain was concerned with the quality of decision making, which relies on the quality of shared awareness, which relies, in turn, on networks and information quality; a crucial element is the sharing of information, knowledge, and understanding. NEC is predicated on the ability to share useful information effectively among the stakeholders that need it. It is concluded that improving situational awareness will improve SoS performance, or at least reduce the risk of failures at the SoS level. Thus, the principles which govern the organization of the SoS should support sharing information effectively across the network; in essence, ensuring that every level of the interoperability spectrum is adequately serviced. Operators need insight into the effect that their own local decisions may have on the changing SoS or environment; similarly they need to understand how external changes will affect the systems that they own.


Works Cited

Court, G. (2005) Validating the NEC benefits chain in 11th ICCRTS. Cambridge, UK. Retrieved from

Dahmann, J. S. & Baldwin, K. J. (2008) Understanding the Current State of US Defense Systems of Systems and the Implications for Systems Engineering, 2nd Annual IEEE Systems Conference, 1–7.

Endsley, M. R. (1995) Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems, J. Human Factors and Ergonomics Soc., 37(1), 32–64.

Fovino, I. N., & Masera, M. (2007) Emergent disservices in interdependent systems and system-of-systems, in Proc. IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, Vol. 1, pp. 590–595.

Henshaw, M. J. de C., Siemieniuch, C. E., & Sinclair, M. A. (2013) Technical and Engineering Governance in the Context of Systems of Systems, in NATO SCI Symp. Architecture Assessment for NEC (pp. 1–10). Tallinn, Es. NATO STO.

Henshaw, M. (2014) A Socio-Technical Perspective on SoSE, in Lecture Series in Systems of Systems Engineering for NATO Defence Applications (SCI-276). NATO CSO.

Klein, L. (2014) What do we actually mean by ‘sociotechnical’? On values, boundaries and the problems of language, Appl. Ergon., vol. 45, no. 2 PA, pp. 137–142.

Maguire, M. (2014) Socio-technical systems and interaction design - 21st century relevance, Appl. Ergon., vol. 45, no. 2 PA, pp. 162–170.

Rasmussen, R. E. (2007) The Wrong Target, MSc thesis, Joint Advanced Warfighting School, Norfolk, VA. Retrieved from

Rittel, H.W.J., and M.M. Webber. 1973. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc. p. 155–169, in Developments in Design Methodology, edited by N. Cross, 1984. Chichester, West Sussex, England, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. p. 135–144.

Sauser, B., Boardman, J., & Gorod, A. (2009) System of Systems Management, in System of Systems Engineering: Innovations for the 21st Century, M. Jamshidi (Ed.), (pp. 191–217) Wiley.

Siemieniuch, C.E. & Sinclair, M.A. (2014) Extending systems ergonomics thinking to accommodate the socio-technical issues of Systems of Systems, Appl. Ergon., V 45, Issue 1, Pages 85-98

Van der Laar, P., Tretmans, J., & Borth, M. (2013) Situational Awareness with Systems of Systems. Springer.

Primary References

Checkland, P.B. 1981. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. Chichester, West Sussex, England, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Hubbard, E-M., C.E. Siemieniuch, M.A. Sinclair, and A. Hodgson. 2010. "Working towards a Holistic Organisational Systems Model." Presented at 5th Int. Conf. Systems of Systems Engineering (SoSE), 22-24 June, 2010, Loughborough, UK.

Rittel, H.W.J., and Webber, M.M. 1973. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," in Policy Sciences 4. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc. p. 155–169. In Cross, N. 1984. Ed. Developments in Design Methodology. Chichester, West Sussex, England, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. p. 135–144.

Additional References

Bruesburg, A., and G. Fletcher. 2009. The Human View Handbook for MODAF, draft version 2, second issue. Bristol, England, UK: Systems Engineering & Assessment Ltd. Available:

IFIP-IFAC Task Force. 1999. "The Generalised Enterprise Reference Architecture and Methodology," V1.6.3. Available:

ISO. 1998. ISO 14258:1998, Industrial automation systems — Concepts and rules for enterprise models. Geneva, Switzerland: International Organization for Standardization.

ISO. 2006. ISO 19439:2006, Enterprise integration — Framework for enterprise modelling. Geneva, Switzerland: International Organization for Standardization.

ISO. 2007. ISO 19440:2007, Enterprise integration — Constructs for enterprise modelling. Geneva, Switzerland: International Organization for Standardization.

Miller, F.P., A.F. Vandome, and J. McBrewster. 2009. Enterprise Modelling. Mauritius: Alphascript Publishing, VDM Verlag Dr. Müller GmbH & Co. KG.

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