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New U. of I. study program seeks to match workers, technology

Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor
217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

Betty Barrett
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Betty Barrett is the director of the new Socio-Technical Systems program, sponsored by the university’s Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations and College of Engineering. 

Released 10/8/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —  Clunky typewriters gave way to computers, and space-age robotics now help run assembly lines that once relied on hand tools and elbow grease.

But high-tech advances are just part of the equation as American businesses try to keep pace in a rapidly changing global workplace, says the head of a unique study program launched this fall at the University of Illinois.

To succeed, businesses need to factor in the wants, talents and needs of workers, not just the ever-growing capabilities of the equipment they use, said Betty Barrett, director of the new Socio-Technical Systems program, sponsored by the university’s Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations and College of Engineering.

“The premise of the whole thing is to get people to look at how the social aspects of work and the technical aspects of work are interdependent and work together. And what is that going to mean in terms of how they do their jobs as technology increases, as it inevitably will,” Barrett said.

Barrett says graduate students in human relations will initially be teamed with engineering students when the hands-on program kicks off in January, linking them with private businesses to work on specific, semesterlong projects.

One project could involve examining a construction company’s plan to implement a new three-dimensional computer-aided design and manufacturing system, Barrett said.  Engineering students would evaluate hardware and software, while human resources students consult employees for suggestions and potential drawbacks.

Ultimately, the program will pair human resources students with students from other departments, such as biology students who could assist on projects involving hospitals or science laboratories, Barrett said.

Barrett says only a handful of companies now weigh staff feedback against technology needs as they develop business plans, a concept first advanced a half-century ago when English coal miners took it upon themselves to reshape their jobs to match new technology.

But she predicts others will follow as more businesses use the still-fledgling system to boost both efficiency and morale.

“In my book, if you can engage the hearts and minds of the workforce at every level to do what they know is good and you can accept that kind of cooperation, then you’re in better shape,” Barrett said.

Barrett says considering employee feedback is especially important in an increasingly competitive global business world where technology is changing rapidly, making innovative thinking as important as production.

“Today’s world has become so small and so fast that you have to be able to innovate really quickly. If you don’t, your bottom line will suffer,” Barrett said. “I see this as a way of helping people innovate more quickly because they have taken into consideration many, many more of the obstacles to innovation than you ordinarily might if you had only looked at one perspective.”