The standard model of work: a clinical diagnosis
The way in which work itself is understood and organized determines, for better or worse, the human character of the workplace. In this chapter I will argue that the model of work that dominates modern workplaces is a vestigial oddity, now over a century old, that is incapable of meeting the demands of modern life, is wasteful of human capabilities, and is damaging to human well-being. That it maintains its prominence and is still accepted so widely and with so little questioning is one of the stranger facts of modern society; but so it is. By understanding its pathology we can look to its cure.
This model of work is associated with the American Frederick Winslow Taylor and his followers. His name is not now widely known, but his ideas have been—and, I would argue, remain—extraordinarily influential in modern workplace management, even if their source is forgotten. In 1911 Taylor wrote a book, The Principles of Scientific Management, which had an influence far beyond its immediate objectives. It was written to re-organize the work of industrial workshops, but it has defined, and continues to define, how modern organizations think about work and about the people who do it. Its damaging effects have been, and remain, incalculable, as we shall see.
Taylor wanted to make a clean break with the “craft” tradition of work that had developed in Europe over centuries. The craft tradition had been centred on the artisan model, in which knowledge and skills in a particular field, such as building or textiles, was developed in a series of well-defined ranks, from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman. The industrial revolution dismantled this system through its requirement for large numbers of people employed in factories (or outsourced) to produce large volumes of goods. Taylor—or, as his system became known, Taylorism—was designed to complete this historical upheaval by bringing work and the workforce into full industrial production.[i]
Taylor’s big idea was to break down work into its constituent tasks, small enough to be standardized. This was done in a ‘scientific’ way (hence ‘scientific management’): a number of workers experienced in the task were asked to perform it, their performance was measured, usually by a time and motion study, and a standard for that task was developed. Everything about the task was specified in the standard, “not only what is to be done, but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it.” This was, Taylor noted, “a science for each element of a man’s work, which replaces the old rule-of-thumb.” As Harry Braverman has observed, this effectively dissociated the labour process from the skills of the workers [ii].
Then followed some critical elements. First, because the skills associated with each task had been reduced, focused and standardized, it became much simpler, indeed necessary, for the firm to “scientifically select and then train, teach, and develop the workman” to carry out these tasks efficiently.
Second, conformity to the task standards was critical: it became essential “to insure all of the work being done in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed.” This is, Braverman points out, a monopoly over knowledge which is used “to control each step of the labour process and its mode of execution.”
Third, management emerges as a new and overriding element in the work structure: “The management take over all the work for which they are better fitted than the workman.” All of what Taylor described as “brain work” was to be removed from the shop floor and retired to the planning department—to quote Braverman again, “the separation of conception from execution.”
The impact of Taylor’s methods was immediate in the workshops of the twentieth century. The development of the production line is an obvious example, from the auto manufacturing of peacetime to the munitions manufacturing of wartime. “Operations” became one of the four pillars of management (the others are finance and accounting, marketing, and human resources—with ICT as the modern candidate for a fifth pillar).
However, it may be objected that Taylor’s industrial workplaces are hardly recognizable in those of today: handling pig iron by hand, the arena of his early work, seems to have little to do with computerized robotics. To that objection I would give two replies. Firstly, if you have been in modern manufacturing workplaces, such as auto manufacturers, you will find many still people doing standardized, repetitive, monotonous tasks along Taylorist principles; and the robust existence of sweatshops in regimes of low wages and lower work safeguards still damage the working lives of millions of people.[iii]
But secondly, I argue that the imprint of Taylorist principles remains unmistakeably dominant in assumptions about modern work and in the patterns of its organization. They may not be there in precisely the same form, but their intent and force is intact. This is not difficult to see if you take the Taylorist principles and look for them in current work practice.
To begin with, there is no doubt that, although time and motion studies may not be involved modern work is certainly segmented. This is evident from the simple idea of a “job”. Work is organized around the jobs or “positions” that are seen as necessary to carry it out. People are not in general hired as people, because of their broad personal base of knowledge and skills but in order to do a particular job. Knowledge, capabilities and skills are relevant not in themselves but in their application to a particular, well-defined piece of the total work. This is not after all very far from the Taylorist idea of a task: multiple tasks may be inherent in a job, but they are highly constrained, and together form one job in the array of jobs that make up the work.
Think of the “position description”. Typically it will first lay out the duties and responsibilities of the position. In modern human resources management, the process of developing this description has clear analogues to Taylor’s time and motion studies: it may involve interviewing workers or supervisors, observation, group interviews, technical conferences, critical incident analysis, questionnaires, checklists and so on. The goal is to develop a set of discrete tasks and responsibilities which define “the job” as precisely as possible.
This description then generates a list of skills and capabilities that are required to carry out these tasks and responsibilities. These become the criteria which drive the selection process, which is supposed to look for as close a fit as possible between the job tasks and responsibilities on the one hand and the candidate’s skills and capabilities on the other. The candidate that is deemed to meet these criteria best will get the job.[iv]
(We may note in passing the ludicrous nature of most position descriptions. Not only are the tasks and responsibilities listed usually far more than the actual work requires but the skills, capabilities and experience listed are laughably excessive. Who, I have often asked, are they trying to hire? Superman? Wonder Woman? Moreover, my experience suggests, and research confirms, selection panels usually make their decisions on other grounds entirely: they may tick the boxes if they are required to, but in the end their decision is more likely to be based on a gut feeling as to whether the candidate in question is “one of us.” But more on that later.)
Moreover, the definition of work contained in the position description occurs within the context of the organization’s work as a whole. The idea is that these are the units of which the work of the organization is comprised. If they are carried out properly, according to the precise specification, in the right relationship to each other, the work as a whole will run smoothly and the organizational objectives will be achieved. All we need are people who are trained to carry out the units of work and will do it as they are told to. Isn’t this precisely the spirit of Taylorism?
We can go further. Who, it may be asked, designed this job? It must be someone who sits above it, in some way; in fact, someone who sits above the work as a whole, because all the jobs that constitute it have to fit with each other to produce the right outcome, so the designer can’t be embedded in any one level or part of it. The answer, it becomes apparent, must be Taylor’s: this is the “brain work”, the design work, which is the particular role of management, and for which they are held to be uniquely qualified.
Yet everyone knows that work designed in this way, from above, is often, even usually, woefully inadequate. Nearly always the people actually doing the work know how to do it much better. Here is a little story to that effect. Recently one of the four big Australian banks became concerned about one of its units: the outcomes of the unit’s work were seen as strong, but there was concern among management about whether the unit was controlling risks by following the work manuals (manuals are the modern tool of standardizing work; Taylor used cards). The management of the bank brought in a consulting firm to audit the unit. The consultants spent three months in the unit’s workplace, interviewing employees, reviewing documentation, observing work practice, and so on. At the end of the time they reported to management that 90% of the work being done by the unit was not in the manuals. Yet the outcomes were excellent.
What had happened, of course, was that people in the unit had simply taken control of their own work: where they saw a way to do it better, they did it. Those new practices were shared verbally. When new workers came in they were briefed by those around them. No one bothered much about the manuals. They just did the work themselves, together, and did it far better than the design developed by someone else and embedded in the manuals.
There is more to say about the lessons of this story and others like it, but let’s for the moment follow through the logic of work design and of position descriptions. If you have designed work along a trajectory of segments or stages; if you have identified those work segments with jobs; and if you have hired people to do those jobs; you now have to make sure they do those jobs, precisely as they are defined. Taylor recognised this requirement very clearly: each task had to be carried out “in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed.” The task is defined in outcomes and measures: you have to make sure they are being met. The belief is that only if every piece of work meets its required outcomes will the work as a whole be achieved.
Now if you are a manager who subscribes to modern people management principles, how do you ensure that people will do what they are, according to the design, supposed to be doing, at the level that is required by the overarching plan? You institute controls. You assume that there is no way people can be counted on to do the work without them. It wouldn’t be possible, for example, to discuss the work with them, come to some agreement about who is going to do what work, and when; first, because you couldn’t trust that these are the right decisions, since they operate at a low level of the hierarchy (non-brain work); and second, you couldn’t trust people to actually do what they say they are going to do. So you set up controls. Modern management is overwhelmingly about control.
I argue that the entire machinery of modern people management is designed to implement these controls. It is, to pick up the term of the previous chapter, fundamentally coercive in its intent. Legal coercion is applied through contracts, between the individual worker and the firm. Financial coercion is applied through reward, compensation and penalty structures (you can call these mechanisms ‘incentives’ but the underlying human reality doesn’t change). Performance management ensures conformity of the employee’s actions with the job’s stated tasks and responsibilities. Instruments such as these are the core of modern people management, and in later chapters we will look closely at them. Here I want simply to argue that they are all designed, ultimately, to achieve one primary outcome: that the segments of work will be performed according to specifications of “the plan”, under the assumption that this will produce the desired organizational outcomes. That is Taylorism, in its essential form. Here is one way of drawing it:
Here I’ve attempted to show the tight linkage between each unit of work, located in its place within the projected work sequence, and defined by the PD, and the specific control mechanisms which are applied to it. I’ve shown some of these mechanisms–which are, when applied to the person who does the job, coercive–but there are more that are not shown here. Some, such as 360 degree appraisal (boss-colleagues-staff-client-customer evaluations) are formal; others, such as organizational or workplace culture, are informal, but no less powerful. I argue that you can trace the controlling imprint of the standard model through all of them.
Of course I’m generalizing here, in order to bring out what I see as the underlying character of modern views of work. This is not to say that every workplace reflects these views, nor that some components of it are not carried out better in some places than in others. But it has been surprising to me, in my work of some decades, how widely the standard model of work and its control is held, often implicitly, not needing to be acknowledged; and, when challenged, how strongly it is defended. It appears in many forms in management theory and practice.
I believe this model to be fundamentally misconceived, and damaging both to organizations and to individuals. On the organizational level, in the modern business environment the best firms know this model to be sclerotic and regressive. Companies like Google, for example, sitting at the forefront of unprecedented change, have understood that the work can’t be designed from on high, that it has to be handed over to teams in a flattened organizational structure; that no amount of managerial knowledge can effectively direct the work of organizations in complex environments under rapid change; and that the knowledge required rests not with a small coterie of senior managers but with their people. I argue that this principle applies not just to organizations under this kind of pressure, but to all organizations. It is in the creativity and energy of their people, their willingness to undertake discretionary work, their aspirations for themselves and for the organization, that real organizational achievement rests. It is in this capacity of their people for creative and innovative solutions that the ability of the organization to respond to a rapidly changing and challenging environment resides. The sorts of control that come from the Taylorist view work against organizational achievement, by shutting down these qualities—qualities which, I argue, otherwise naturally emerge, given even the briefest opportunity.
On the individual level, as Braverman points out, the dismantling of the “craft” structure of knowledge tends to reduce the satisfactions and fulfillment people have in their work, in moving from a complex of skills and capabilities across different levels of responsibility, to a single level. Wider cognitive or intellectual tasks—Taylor’s “brain work”—is separated out and relocated to upper management, a justification, apparently, for arguably excessive levels of compensation. I recall vividly, in entering a strategy development project for a big manufacturing firm, being visited on the first day by the director of the plant. “I hear you’re doing some strategy,” he said. “Can I help? I think about those things all the time, but I never get a chance to talk about them.”
In the standard model, ownership of work is located somewhere else: this is not my work, it is formulated and designed by someone else. It’s difficult to take pride in work you’ve had little part in designing, for which you’ve been unable to share your knowledge and insights, work which is essentially developed and owned by someone else. Here the scope of individual work is tightly constrained: the last thing the manager wants is individual creativity and innovation, which loosens control and throws the design into question. The requirement is rather for conformity, for meeting the standards laid out for the job.
Most importantly, this is a model which is built on suspicion and distrust. The basic assumption is that people can’t be trusted to do their work properly, that without the array of coercive mechanisms in place the firm will be taken advantage of by their employees for their own personal ends. This is insulting, disrespectful and clearly untrue. The fact is that, as we all know in our own experience, and as research confirms, most people want to do their work well; indeed, given the opportunity most will find ways to do it better. There are exceptions, of course, but mostly this is true. Under coercive mechanisms respect disappears, trust is dismantled, and the springs of creativity, innovation and collaboration, which are the normal attributes of people working together, dry up. Work becomes individualized: the economizing principle—that the individual acts according to her evaluation of the costs and benefits to herself—is brought to the fore. Fear becomes a paramount instrument of management: fear of failure, fear of consequences, fear of not meeting standards, fear of thinking differently. The individual becomes alienated from her work, and the potential human value of perhaps one third of her life is diminished. These losses to life are incalculable.
Of course there will be those who will object that Taylor developed his system over a hundred years ago, and that it can’t possibly be relevant today. Taken literally it’s a valid objection; but the underlying framework of Taylorist assumptions is, I argue, in robust good health. Thinking about the Taylorist model has the value of exposing the underlying assumptions that run so deep in our modern workplaces and their management, and that engender management practices so crude in their view of human thought, feeling and behaviour that it is difficult to take them seriously. Indeed, presented anywhere else in society—in a community or social group—they would be unceremoniously dumped. Yet that is the reality we are facing.
It is in considering this pathology of organization that the direction of a remedy can be seen. As we will see in later chapters, it is precisely in reversing systematically the Taylorist assumptions that the way out can be constructed. The counter assumptions we will explore rest on such ideas as the integrated nature of work, broadly conceived; the human value good work can bring to lives; the intrinsic desire of people to take their work forward, to grow and expand it; the natural capabilities of people to work together, and to conceive of new ways of doing things; the view of people as mature, intelligent, forward-looking associates in the workplace; the view of people as intrinsically worthy of trust and respect. These ideas shouldn’t be shocking. Perhaps it’s a mark of how far the pathology of the modern workplace has reached that they are.
[ii] Braverman, H. (1974) Labor and monopoly capital: the degradation of work in the twentieth century, Monthly Review Press, New York. A ground-breaking and influential account of the modern workplace.
[iii]Even after the Nike sweatshop disclosures, high profile UK companies, including Gap, Next and Marks & Spencer have been reported as continuing these practices in India–with pay rates as low as 25 cents per hour: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/08/gap-next-marks-spencer-sweatshops . And questions about the ethics of Apple’s operations in China remain: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/apple-admits-it-has-a-human-rights-problem-6898617.html .
The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies by Geoffrey Wells is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.