Work System Basics

Work System Basics

The following summary is based on  Work System Theory: Overview of Core Concepts, Extensions, and Challenges for the Future, which was published in 2013 in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems. The summary covers the following topics:

  1. Work system definition and special cases
  2. Work system framework
  3. Work system life cycle model
  4. Work system method
  5. Work system metamodel (an more detailed version of the work system framework)

Instructors, practitioners, and researchers who might find value in a set of FAQs about the work systems and the work system approach.

1. Work System Definition and Special Cases 

Definition.  The central idea in work system theory (WST) is that “work system” is a natural unit of analysis for thinking about systems in organizations. In organizational settings, work is the application of human, informational, physical, and other resources to produce products/services.

A work system is a system in which human participants and/or machines perform work (processes and activities) using information, technology, and other resources to produce specific products/services for specific internal and/or external customers.  Typical business organizations contain work systems that procure materials from suppliers, produce products, deliver products to customers, find customers, create financial reports, hire employees, coordinate work across departments, and perform many other functions. It is possible to think of an organization as a set of work systems.

Special cases. The work system concept is like a common denominator for many of the types of systems that operate within or across organizations. Special cases of the general category work system include information system, service system, project, supply chain, self-service work system, and totally automated work systems.

  • An information system is a work system whose processes and activities are devoted to processing information through activities including capturing, transmitting, storing, retrieving, deleting, manipulating, and displaying information. Many information systems, such as accounting systems, include human participants who perform important activities. Other information systems, such as search engines, are totally automated.
  • A service system is a work system that produces services for its customers. In typical business conversations service systems are assumed to be sociotechnical systems with human participants. Direct customer participation in sociotechnical service systems is often called co-production of services. Other service systems, such as search engines, may be totally automated.
  • A project is a temporary work system designed to produce a set of products/ services, after which it ceases to exist.
  • A supply chain is an inter-organizational work system devoted to procuring materials and other inputs required to produce a firm’s products.
  • In a self-service work system, such as selecting and purchasing products/services using an ecommerce web site, customers are primary participants who perform processes and activities by applying resources provided for their use in order to obtain information, make purchases, or achieve other goals.
  • A totally automated work system is a work system in which all of the processes and activities are performed by computer programs, physical machines, and other devices. People who create and maintain those programs, machines, and other devices are not participants in those automated work systems. Rather, they are participants in other work systems that create or maintain automated work systems.

The relationship between work systems in general and the special cases implies that many of the same basic concepts apply to all of the special cases, which also have their own specialized vocabulary. In turn, this implies that much of the body of knowledge for the current information systems discipline can be organized around a work system core.

Many different degrees of overlap are possible between an information system and a work system that it supports. Many specific information systems exist to produce products/services that are of direct value to their customers, e.g., information services and Internet search.  Other specific information systems exist to support other work systems, e.g., an information system that helps sales people do their work. For example, an information system might provide information for a non-overlapping work system, as happens when a commercial marketing survey provides information that a firm’s marketing managers use in market analysis and planning. In other cases, an information system may be an integral part of a work system, as happens in self-service work systems and in highly automated manufacturing. In those cases, the work system cannot operate properly without the information system, and the information system has little significance outside of the work system.

Covering structure and change.   As a complete perspective on work systems, WST needs to cover both a static view of a work system during a period when it is relatively stable and a dynamic view of how a work system changes over time. The work system framework (shown below) is a pictorial representation of a work system in terms of nine elements included in a basic understanding of the work system’s form, function, and environment during a period when it is relatively stable, even though incremental changes may occur during that period. The work system life cycle model (shown below) is a pictorial representation of the iterative process through which work systems evolve over time through a combination of planned change (formal projects) and emergent (unplanned) change involving adaptations, workarounds, and experimentation.

2. Work System Framework

The work system framework is a useful basis for describing and analyzing an IT-reliant work system in an organization because its nine elements are part of a basic understanding of a work system. The framework outlines a work system’s form, function, and environment. It emphasizes business rather than IT concerns. It covers situations that might or might not have a tightly defined business process and might or might not be IT-intensive. Of the nine elements in the work system framework:

  • Processes and activities, participants, information, and technologies are viewed as completely within the work system.
  • Customers and products/services may be partially inside and partially outside because customers often participate in the processes and activities within the work system and because products/services take shape within the work system.
  • Environment, infrastructure, and strategies are viewed as largely outside the work system even though they have direct and indirect effects within the work system.

work system framework

This slightly updated version of the work system framework replaces “products and services” with “products/services” and “work practices” with “processes and activities.”

The definitions of the 9 elements of a work system are as follows:

Processes and activities include everything that happens within the work system. The term processes and activities is used instead of the term business process because many work systems do not contain highly structured business processes involving a prescribed sequence of steps, each of which is triggered in a pre-defined manner. Rather, the sequence and details of work in some work systems depend on the skills, experience, and judgment of the work system participants. In effect, “business process” is but one of a number of different perspectives for analyzing the activities within a work system. Other perspectives with their own valuable concepts and terminology include decision-making, communication, coordination, control, and information processing.

Participants are people who perform the work. Some may use computers and IT extensively, whereas others may use little or no technology. When analyzing a work system the more encompassing role of work system participant is more important than the more limited role of technology user (whether or not particular participants happen to be technology users). Customers are participants in many work systems, e.g.,  (e.g., patients in a medical exam, students in an educational setting, and clients in a consulting engagement).

Information includes codified and non-codified information that is used, created, captured, transmitted, stored, retrieved, manipulated, updated, displayed, and/or deleted by processes and activities.  Typical informational entities include orders, invoices, warranties, schedules, income statements, reservations, medical histories, resumes, job descriptions, and job offers. The distinction between data and information is not important for understanding a work system since the only data/ information that is mentioned is information that is created, used or processed by the work system. Information within a work system includes information that is processed by computers and other information that is never computerized, such as the content of conversations, verbal commitments, and other unrecorded information/ knowledge that work system participants use as they perform processes and activities within the work system.

Technologies include tools (such as cell phones, projectors, spreadsheet software, and automobiles) and  automated services (i.e., hardware/software configurations that perform totally automated activities). This distinction is crucial as work systems are decomposed during analysis and design activities into successively smaller subsystems, some of which are totally automated.

Product/services consist of information, physical things, social products such as agreements, intangibles such as entertainment or peace of mind, and/or actions produced by a work system for the benefit and use of its customers. The term “product/service” is used because the controversial distinction between products and services in marketing and service science  is not important for WST even though product-like vs. service-like is the basis of a series of valuable design dimensions for characterizing and designing the things that a work system produces.

Customers are recipients of a work system’s product/ services for purposes other than performing work activities within the work system. Since work systems exist to produce product/services for their customers, an analysis of a work system should consider who the customers are, what they want, and how they use whatever the work system produces. External customers are work system customers who are the enterprise’s customers, whereas internal customers are work system customers who are employed by the enterprise, such as customers of a payroll work system.

Environment  includes the relevant organizational, cultural, competitive, technical, regulatory, and demographic environment within which the work system operates, and that affects the work system’s effectiveness and efficiency. Organizational aspects of the environment include stakeholders, policies and procedures, and organizational history and politics, all of which are relevant to the operational efficiency and effectiveness of many work systems. Factors in a work system’s environment may have direct or indirect impacts on its performance results, aspiration levels, goals, and requirements for change. Analysis, design, evaluation, and/or research efforts that ignore important factors in the environment may overlook issues that degrade work system performance or even cause system failure.

Infrastructure includes relevant human, informational, and technical resources that are used by the work system but are managed outside of it and are shared with other work systems. From an organizational viewpoint rather than a purely technical viewpoint, infrastructure includes human infrastructure, informational infrastructure, and technical infrastructure, all of which can be essential to a work system’s operation.

Strategies that are relevant to a work system include enterprise strategy, department strategy, and work system strategy. In general, strategies at the three levels should be in alignment, and work system strategies should support department and enterprise strategies. Unfortunately, strategies at any of the three levels may not be articulated or may be inconsistent with reality or with beliefs and understandings of important stakeholders.


3. Work System Life Cycle Model

The dynamic view of a work system starts with the work system life cycle (WSLC) model, which shows how a work system may evolve through multiple iterations of four phases: operation and maintenance, initiation, development, and implementation. The names of the phases were chosen to describe both computerized and non-computerized systems, and to apply regardless of whether application software is acquired, built from scratch, or not used at all.

This model encompasses both planned and unplanned change. Planned change occurs through a full iteration encompassing the four phases, i.e., starting with an operation and maintenance phase, flowing through initiation, development, and implementation, and arriving at a new operation and maintenance phase. Unplanned change occurs through fixes, adaptations, workarounds, and experimentation that can occur within any phase. The phases include the following activities:

Operation and maintenance

  • Operation of the work system and monitoring of its performance
  • Maintenance of the work system (which often includes at least part of the information systems that support it) by identifying small flaws and eliminating or minimizing them through fixes, adaptations, or workarounds.
  • On-going improvement of processes and activities through analysis, experimentation, and adaptation


  • Vision for the new or revised work system
  • Operational goals
  • Allocation of resources and clarification of time frames
  • Economic, organizational, and technical feasibility of planned changes


  • Detailed requirements for the new or revised work system (including requirements for information systems that support it)
  • As necessary, creation, acquisition, configuration, and modification of procedures, documentation, training material, software, and hardware
  • Debugging and testing of hardware, software, and documentation


  • Implementation approach and plan (pilot? phased? big bang?)
  • Change management efforts about the rationale and positive or negative impacts of changes
  • Training on details of the new or revised information system and work system
  • Conversion to the new or revised work system
  • Acceptance testing

As an example of the iterative nature of a work system’s life cycle, consider the sales system in a software start-up. The first sales system is the CEO selling directly. At some point the CEO can’t do it alone, several salespeople are hired and trained, requiring production of marketing materials that can be used by someone less expert than the CEO. As the firm grows, the sales system becomes regionalized and an initial version of sales tracking software is developed and used. Later, the firm changes its sales system again to accommodate needs to track and control a larger sales force and predict sales several quarters in advance. A subsequent iteration might involve the acquisition and configuration of CRM software. The first iteration of the work system starts with an initiation phase. Each subsequent iteration involves deciding that the current sales system is insufficient; initiating a project that may or may not involve significant changes in software; developing the resources such as procedures, training materials, and software that are needed to support the new version of the work system; and finally, implementing the new work system.

The pictorial representation of the work system life cycle model places the four phases at the vertices of rectangle. Forward and backward arrows between each successive pair of phases indicate the planned sequence of phrase and allow the possibility of returning to a previous phase if necessary. To encompass both planned and unplanned change, each phase has an inward facing arrow to denote unanticipated opportunities and unanticipated adaptations, thereby recognizing the importance of diffusion of innovation, experimentation, adaptation, emergent change, and path dependence.

The work system life cycle model is fundamentally different from the frequently cited system development life cycle (SDLC), which actually describes projects that attempt to produce software or produce changes in a work system. Current versions of the SDLC may contain iterations but they are basically iterations within a project. More important, the system in the SDLC is a basically a technical artifact that is being programmed. In contrast, the system in the WSLC is a work system that evolves over time through multiple iterations. That evolution occurs through a combination of defined projects and incremental changes resulting from small adaptations and experimentation. In contrast with control-oriented versions of the SDLC, the WSLC treats unplanned changes as part of a work system’s natural evolution.

4. Work System Method

The work system method (WSM) was developed as a semi-formal systems analysis and design method that business professionals (and/or IT professionals) can use for understanding and analyzing a work system at whatever level of depth is appropriate for their particular concerns. It evolved iteratively starting in around 1997. At each stage, the then current version was tested by evaluating the areas of success and the difficulties experienced by MBA and EMBA students trying to use that version to produce a management briefing and tentative recommendation about a work system in an organization that employed them or one of their teammates. Many versions of a work system analysis template have been used by universities as part of the basic explanation of systems in organizations, to help students focus on business issues, and to help student teams communicate.

Results from analyses of real world systems by typical employed MBA and EMBA students indicate that a systems analysis method for business professionals should be much more prescriptive than approaches such as Checkland’s soft system methodology, but less complex than high-precision notations and diagramming tools for IT professionals. While not a straitjacket, it must be at least somewhat procedural and must provide vocabulary and analysis concepts. At the same time, it should encourage performing the analysis at whatever level of detail is appropriate for the task at hand.

A problem solving approach. WSM is organized around a general problem-solving outline that includes the following:

  • Identify the problem or opportunity
  • Identify the work system that has that problem or opportunity (plus relevant constraints and other considerations)
  • Use the work system framework to summarize the work system
  • Gather relevant data.
  • Analyze the situation using  measures of performance, key incidents, root cause analysis, implications of structural characteristics, work system principles, and other factors.
  • Identify possibilities for improvement.
  • Decide what to recommend
  • Justify the recommendation by explaining how work system performance should improve, expressed in terms of relevant metrics, principles and other factors.

Focus on work systems, not IT. . In contrast to systems analysis and design methods for IT professionals who need to produce a rigorous, totally consistent definition of a computerized system, WSM has the following characteristics:

  • WSM encourages the user to decide how deep to go in the analysis. It is not necessary to specify everything that is needed to produce software because that will be done by IT professionals.
  • WSM makes explicit use of the work system framework and work system life cycle model, thereby providing an organized vocabulary for describing and analyzing a work system.
  • WSM treats the “as is” and “to be” systems as work systems, not IT systems, thereby providing more of a management and business focus than typical IT-oriented methods.  Recommended changes and requirements are changes and requirements for the work system, not just the IT system.
  • WSM treats work system participants as part of the system (not just users of the software)
  • WSM makes explicit use of characteristics and metrics for the work system and its elements.
  • WSM includes codified and non-codified information
  • WSM includes IT and non-IT technologies.
  • WSM suggests that recommendations specify which work system improvements rely on IS changes, which recommended work system changes don’t rely on IS changes, and which recommended IS changes won’t affect the work system’s operational form.

5. Work System Metamodel

The Figure below is the sixth version of a metamodel that reinterprets elements of the work system framework to support more detailed analysis and design of work systems than is supported directly by the work system framework. Earlier versions were presented at conferences and published in the journal Service Science.. The need for the metamodel became apparent when users of the work system framework found it very helpful for discussing a work system’s scope, but not as helpful for explaining in detail exactly what information and other resources are used by each step in a business process.

Since the metamodel itself looks quite complicated, an explanation below will summarize some of the individual ideas and relationships that it expresses. It won’t seem as complicated when viewed piece-by-piece.

Work system metamodel - Dec 7, 2015


Starting at the top, the metamodel (version six) says the following:

  • Enterprises and value constellations (value streams that cross enterprises) consist of work systems.
  • Work systems always contain at least one activity. They may contain one or more business processes if a set of activities is sufficiently interrelated and sequential to qualify as a process.
  • Activities use resources to produce one or more product/service from activity  that may be used as a resource for subsequent activities and/or may contribute to a product/service offering for a customer. A product/service offering may combine multiple product/services from activities. Thus, only some of the product/services from activities are included in product/service offerings that are received or used by customer work systems, and hence by customers.
  • Product/service offerings may or may not be governed by a service level agreement. Formal service level agreements are essential in some situations, especially for service offerings defined through extensive negotiations, but are unnecessary in other situations.
  • Customer work systems create value for customers using their own resources plus product/service offerings produced by the provider work system. (Different views of value and value creation are discussed in this website’s section on research papers related to service systems).
  • Resources used by an activity may include human resources (participants), informational resources, technological resources, and other resources. The metamodel includes specific types within each resource type to minimize the likelihood of omissions in an analysis.
  • Activities are performed by actor roles.
  • Actor roles can be performed by three types of entities, noncustomer participants, customer participants, and encapsulated services. In medicine, a doctor is a noncustomer participant, the patient is a customer participant, and software that automatically identifies drug interactions is an encapsulated service. 
  • Encapsulated services may be automated services like (totally automated) search engines or sociotechnical services that happen to be encapsulated, such as performing pathology evaluations. The computer science idea of encapsulation is important because it says that a service is launched based on a specific service request and that the person or automated entity that made the request receives a response to the request but has no interaction with its execution by the encapsulated service.
  • The outcome of activities that use human resources (participants) depends on attributes of those participants, such as knowledge/expertise, skills/capabilities, performance metrics, and motives.
  • Technological resources used in an activity may include tools used directly by participants (e.g., a truck) or automated services that perform work autonomously after being launched (e.g., a search engine).
  • Informational resources may include many types of informational entities such as transaction records, plans, forecasts, goals, guidelines, rules, structures, commitments and other information such as documents, video, images, messages, and even conversations.
  • Other resources used by an activity may include physical entities; time; resources from the environment such as organizational culture, laws, standards, regulations, and policies; and resources from shared infrastructure including shared human resources, shared informational resources, and shared technical resources.
  • Both the work system and customer work system may interact with other work systems with positive and/or negative impacts on the operation of either work system.





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