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Integrating values, organizational structures and individual goals in sociotechnical system design

A model that can distinguish explicitly between the aims of an organization and the agents who act within it enables the dynamic combination of organizational, social and interactive elements.

As a result of globalization and the use of new technologies, the structure and purpose of organizations is changing. The design and engineering of applications for these settings must take into account the complex, dynamic and constantly evolving interactive and adaptive nature of the environment. This is particularly the case regarding sociotechnical systems, in which the interaction between people and artificial systems is essential for their aims. In these environments, individuals with different goals, requirements and cultural backgrounds enter and interact with both the environment and each other. It is increasingly accepted that adopting a sociotechnical approach to system development leads to the creation of systems that are more acceptable to end users and deliver better value to stakeholders. However, design methods generally ignore the specific requirements of these complex settings. Design frameworks are therefore required that can describe and analyse social coordination and collective-intelligence phenomena.

Moreover, there is a rising trend in system development (for both public and private organizations) for the focus to be on solutions that combine services (potentially provided by others) into value-added systems. Organizations and their systems reflect all sorts of values, such as legal norms (e.g., privacy) or societal values (e.g., being environmentally friendly). Yet no existing development methodology explicitly handles values in the design process.[1] Ensuring the compliance of business structures and processes to organizational values (e.g., regulations, visions and industrial standards), such that interactions can be guaranteed to comply with these values, is an increasingly important issue in the design of software applications.

Figure 1: OperA can distinguish explicitly between the aims of the organization and the agents who act within it, enabling the development of sociotechnical software systems that take values, structure and behaviour into account.

Assessing whether the business practices and software systems of an organization follow standards and conform to laws and regulations (i.e., compliance governance) represents a complex and costly task. In highly regulated domains such as healthcare or energy distribution, there is a need for comprehensive and objective ways to assure that the system requirements and their implementation conform to the values that guide regulations and visions. We propose a system development framework that integrates service-oriented computing, value-sensitive design techniques and organizational modelling.[2] This framework facilitates the elicitation and alignment of stakeholder values and is able to link software design decisions to both organizational requirements as well as to the values held by stakeholders.

There are a number of particularly important aspects that must be taken into consideration in the design of complex sociotechnical systems: requirements and functionalities are not fixed a priori; components are not designed, nor controlled by a common entity; and unplanned and unspecified changes may occur during runtime. The modelling of organizations in dynamic and unpredictable scenarios gives rise to critical issues concerning the design, implementation and validation of their behaviour.[3][4] Modelling such as this should therefore be guided by two principles. First, sufficient representation of the institutional requirements must be provided, so that the overall system complies with the norms, and second, there must be enough flexibility to accommodate heterogeneous components.

The organizational structure is in fact independent from that of the participants and is determined by the designer of the organization. From an organizational perspective, the main function of an individual agent is the enactment of a role that contributes to the global aims of the organization. These goals determine which roles and interaction norms must be specified. Agents are subsequently seen as actors that perform roles described by the organizational design.

We have developed a model (OperA)[5] that proposes an expressive way to define open organizations. that proposes an expressive way to define open organizations. Our model is capable of distinguishing explicitly between the aims of the organization and the agents who act within it. OperA therefore enables the specification of organizational structures, requirements and objectives, and at the same time allows participants the freedom to act according to their own capabilities and demands. At an abstract level, an OperA model describes the aims and concerns of the organization with respect to its social system. These are described as the externally observable objectives of an organization, that is, the desired states of affairs. The OperA framework consists of three interrelated models: the organizational model; the social model; and the interaction model.

The OperettA development environment is an open-source solution created on the basis of these requirements[6] to support developers in the design and maintenance of organizational models. OperettA enables the specification of OperA models and provides separate editors for analyzing the social, interactive, normative and communicative structures of an organization. OperettA (as well as additional documentation, examples and tutorials) can be downloaded from our website.[7]

OperA, a modelling framework tool,[6] can support the design of sociotechnical systems operating in complex and dynamic environments by providing modelling concepts to represent organizational structure, stakeholder values and the inherent need for participant autonomy. OperA has been used in EU and national research projects (for flexible service architectures, for the simulation of sociotechnical systems and for regulation compliance), and in several knowledge transfer projects (e.g., IBM, NedTrain and Vanderlande Industries). The framework is also increasingly used by research groups in France, Denmark, the United States, Portugal and the Netherlands.

On the basis of our OperA model, which describes the behaviour of agent-based organizations, we have developed an environment called OperettA that enables the creation of sociotechnical software environments. OperettA has been implemented in many projects, including the European project ALIVE, which combines cutting-edge coordination technology and organizational models to provide a flexible, high-level means of modelling the structure of interactions between Web services in an environment.


  1. J. van den Hoven, ICT and value sensitive design, IFIP 233, pp. 67–72, 2007.
  2. Huib Aldewereld, Virginia Dignum, Yao-Hua Tan, Design for values in software development, 2015.
  3. D. Grossi, F. P. M. Dignum, M. M. Dastani and L. Royakkers, Foundations of organizational structures in multiagent systems, pp. 690–697, 2005.
  4. H. Weigand and V. Dignum, I am autonomous, you are autonomous, Lect. Notes Comput. Sc. 2969, pp. 227–236, 2004.
  5. M. V. Dignum, A model for organizational interaction: based on agents, founded in logic, Utrecht University, 2004.
  6. H. Aldewereld and V. Dignum, OperettA: organization-oriented development environment, Lect. Notes Comput. Sc., pp. 1–18, 2011.
  7. OperettA: Organisational Oriented Development Enviroment.

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