Eric Trist

British scientist

Eric Lansdown Trist (September 11, 1909June 4, 1993) was a British psychologist, organizational theorist, and leading figure in the field of Organizational Development (OD). He was one of the founders of the Tavistock Institute for Social Research in London.


  • We are moving towards another type of society than that to which we have become accustomed. This is sometimes referred to as a new service society, the society of the second industrial revolution or the post-industrial society. There is no guarantee of our safe arrival. Not only are the interdependencies greater – they are differently structured... The changes in the policy field [housing, health care, urban rehabilitation, education, etc.] demand a new mobilization of the sciences.
  • This paper introduces a concept of organizational ecology. This refers to the organizational field created by a number of organizations, whose interrelations compose a system at the level of the field as a whole. The overall field becomes the object of inquiry, not the single organization as related to its organization-set. The emergence of organizational ecology from earlier organization theory is traced and illustrated from empirical studies. Its relevance to the task of institution-building, in a world in which the environment has become exceedingly complex and more interdependent, is argued.
    • Eric Trist, "A concept of organizational ecology." Australian journal of management 2.2 (1977): 161-175. p. 161; abstract
  • We know from experience that technology can be changed. We have learned in the quality-of-working-life enterprise not to accept the technological imperative.
    • Eric Trist cited in: Alternatives. Vol 8 (1980). Trent University, University of Waterloo. Faculty of Environmental Studies, p. 146

"Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Long Wall Method of Coal-Getting", 1951


Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth, Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Long Wall Method of Coal-Getting, ín: Human Relations, Vol. 4, 3-38, 1951.

  • Faced with low productivity despite improved equipment, and with drift from the pits despite both higher wages and better amenities... a point seems to have been reached where the [coal] industry is in a mood to question a method it has taken for granted.
    • p. 5
  • The longwall method [can be] regarded as a technological system expressive of the prevailing outlook of mass-production engineering and as a social structure consisting of the occupational roles that have been institutionalized in its use.
    • p. 5
  • [The workmethods had] evolved from the experience of successive generations... Each other, often being members of the same family; supervision was internal, having the quality of 'responsible autonomy.
    • p. 6
  • The advantage of placing responsibility for the complete coal-getting task squarely on the shoulders of a single, small, face-to-face group which experiences the entire cycle of operations within the compass of its membership. [And furthermore], for each participant the task has total significance and dynamic closure .
    • p. 6
  • The outstanding feature of the social pattern with which the pre-mechanized equilibrium was associated is its emphasis on small group organisation at the coal face. [Indeed], under these conditions there is no possibility of continuous supervision, in the factory sense, from any individual external to the primary work group.
    • p. 7
  • Occupational roles express the relationship between a production process and the social organization of the group. In one direction, they are related to tasks, which are related to each other; in the other, to people, who are also related to each other.
    • p. 14
  • Every time the cycle is stopped, some 200 tons of coal are lost. So close is the task interdependence that the system becomes vulnerable from its need for 100 percent performance at each step.
    • p. 18

Organizational choice, (1963)


Eric Trist, G.W. Higgin, H. Murray and A.B Pollock (1963) Organizational choice.

  • Considering enterprises as "open socio-technical systems" helps to provide a more realistic picture of how they are both influenced by and able to act back on their environment. It points in particular to the various ways in which enterprises are enabled by their structural and functional characteristics (“system constants”) to cope with the “lacks” and “gluts” in their available environment.
    • p. 6

The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments (1963)


Fred Emery and Eric Trist (1963) "The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments". In: Human Relations, 18: pp. 21–32, 1965.

  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy's formulation enables exchange processes between the organism, or organisation, and the elements in its environment to be dealt with in a new perspective, it does not deal at all with those processes in the environment itself which are among the determining conditions of the exchanges. To analyse these an additional concept is needed - the causal texture of the environment.
    • p. 20, cited in: Academy of International Business, University of Hawaii at Manoa. College of Business Administration (1982) Proceedings of the Academy of International Business: Asia-Pacific Dimensions of International Business, December 18-20, 1982, Honolulu, Hawaii. p. 163
  • A main problem in the study of organizational change is that the environmental contexts in which organizations exist are themselves changing, at an increasing rate and towards increasing complexity. This point, in itself, scarcely needs laboring. Nevertheless, characteristics of organizational environments demand consideration for their own sake if there is to be an advancement of understanding in the behavioral sciences of a great deal that is taking place under the impact of technological change, especially at the present time.
    • p. 21

The evolution of socio-technical systems, (1981)


Eric Trist (1981) The evolution of socio-technical systems. Occasional paper,

  • Socio-technical analysis is made at three levels - the primary work system; the whole organization; and macrosocial phenomena.
    • p. 6
  • The socio-technical concept arose in conjunction with the first of several field projects undertaken by the Tavistock Institute in the coal-mining industry in Britain. The time (1949) was that of the postwar reconstruction of industry in relation to which the Institute had two action research projects.(2) One project was concerned with group relations in depth at all levels (including the management/labor interface) in a single organization - an engineering company in the private sector. The other project focused on the diffusion of innovative work practices and organizational arrangements that did not require major capital expenditure but which gave promise of raising productivity. The former project represented the first comprehensive application in an industrial setting of the socio-clinical ideas concerning groups being developed at the Tavistock.
    • p. 7
  • Coal being then the chief source of power, much industrial reconstruction depended on there being a plentiful and cheap supply. But the newly nationalized industry was not doing well. Productivity failed to increase in step with increases in mechanization. Men were leaving the mines in large numbers for more attractive opportunities in the factories. Among those who remained, absenteeism averaged 20 percent. Labor disputes were frequent despite improved conditions of employment. Some time earlier the National Coal Board had asked the Institute to make a comparative study of a high producing, high morale mine and a low producing, low morale, but otherwise equivalent mine.
    • p. 7
  • Fellows were encouraged to revisit their former industries and make a report on any new perceptions they might have. One of these Fellows, Ken Bamforth, returned with news of an innovation in work practice and organization which had occurred in a new seam in the colliery where he used to work in the South Yorkshire coalfield. The seam, the Haighmoor, had become possible to mine "shortwall" because of improved roof control.
    • p. 8
  • The work organization of the new seam was, to us, a novel phenomenon consisting of relatively autonomous groups interchanging roles and shifts and regulating their affairs with a minimum of supervision. Cooperation between task groups was everywhere in evidence, personal commitment obvious, absenteeism low, accidents infrequent, productivity high. The contrast was large between the atmosphere and arrangements on these faces and those in the conventional areas of the pit, where the negative features characteristic of the industry were glaringly apparent. The men told us that in order to adapt with best advantage to the technical conditions in the new seam, they had evolved a form of work organization based on practices common in the unmechanized days when small groups, who took responsibility for the entire cycle, had worked autonomously.
    • p. 8
  • What happened in the Haighmoor seam gave to Bamforth and myself a first glimpse of the "emergence of a new paradigm of work" (Emery, 1978) in which the best match would be sought between the requirements of the social and technical systems. Some of the principles involved were as follows:
    1. The work system, which comprised a set of activities that made up a functioning whole, now became the basic unit rather than the single jobs into which it was decomposable.
    2. Correspondingly, the work group became central rather than the individual jobholder.
    3. Internal regulation of the system by the group was thus rendered possible rather than the external regulation of individuals by supervisors.
    4. A design principle based on the redundancy of functions rather than on the redundancy of parts (Emery, 1967) characterized the underlying organizational philosophy which tended to develop multiple skills in the individual and immensely increase the response repertoire of the group.
    5. This principle valued the discretionary rather than the prescribed part of work roles (Jaques, 1956).
    6. It treated the individual as complementary to the machine rather than as an extension of it (Jordan, 1963).
    7. It was variety-increasing for both the individual and the organization rather than variety-decreasing in the bureaucratic mode.
    • p. 9
  • Socio-technical studies needed to be carried out at three broad levels - from micro to macro - all of which are interrelated:
    1. Primary work systems. These are the systems which carry out the set of' activities involved in an identifiable and bounded subsystem of a whole organization - such as a line department or a service unit...
    2. Whole organization systems. At one limit these would be plants or equivalent self-standing workplaces. At the other, they would be entire corporations or public agencies. They persist by maintaining a steady state with their environment.
    3. Macrosocial systems. These include systems in communities and industrial sectors, and institutions operating at the overall level of a society. They constitute what I have called "domains". (Trist, 1976a; 1979a). One may regard media as socio-technical systems. McLuhan (1964) has shown that the technical character of different media has far-reaching effects on users. The same applies to architectural forms and the infrastructure of the built environment. Although these are not organizations, they are socio-technical phenomena. They are media in Heider's (1942) as well as McLuhan's sense.
    • p. 11

Quotes about Eric Trist

  • One major figure in the (Tavistock) institute and its chairman for many years was Eric Trist, who is the primary author of sociotechnical systems theory. Trist was joined in his theoretical efforts and in his research by others who were either employed by the institute or strongly influenced by it. Thus in many respects sociotechnical systems theory is a product of the same kind of group interaction on which the theory itself focuses. Trist remains the prime contributor to the theory, even though he left the institute after some twenty years.
    • John B. Miner (2005) Organizational Behavior Two: Essential theories of process and structure. p. 170
  • Trist both pioneered and embodied action research – an interplay between his deep interaction with real problems in organisations, and the forefront of academic thought in social science. through coal mines in Yorkshire to an entire manufacturing town in New York State – he was an active contributor to both theory and practice. He said that “I used to look with longing at what I called the ‘white-coated peace’, the tranquillity of the white-coated scientists working in the lab. But that was not for me. I didn’t have a white lab coat. I was in the messy, ambiguous, problematic stuff that you have to endure if you are going to be a psychologist”.
    • Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp (2009) Systems Thinkers. p. 268
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