UniSA Business Magazine: sustainable business book article

The May 2013 edition of UniSA Business Magazine carries a feature, “Sustainability: does it all add up?” about my edited book, Sustainable Business: Theory and Practice of Business Under Sustainability Principles, published earlier this year.  In the article I summarise the main ideas of sustainable business.  Other contributions to the feature come from other authors of chapters in the book. The magazine edition is available here: the feature runs pages 30-36.

Publication: “Sustainable Business: Theory and Practice of Business Under Sustainability Principles”

I have edited a book in sustainable business, entitled “Sustainable Business: Theory and Practice of Business Under Sustainability Principles”, which has recently been published by Edward Elgar, the well-credentialled UK publishers in business, law and associated disciplines. Continue reading

‘Fractured Workplace’ Chapter 3: Purposes of the organisation–beyond function to people

Chapter Three

Purposes of the organisation: beyond function to people

In 1886 the founder of the Chesapeake Dry Dock and Construction Company, Collis P. Huntington, gave what he called a ‘motto’ to his new venture:

“We shall build good ships here. At a profit—if we can. At a loss—if we must, but always good ships.”

To most people this is an immediately attractive statement; and it’s worth thinking about why that should be.  It’s not strictly a vision statement, which typically is a kind of ‘foresighting’, in which the form of the organisation at some future point—perhaps ten or twenty years—is envisaged.  Vision statements are important, in being both formative and enabling, but that’s not what this is.  It’s closer, perhaps, to what modern managers would call a ‘mission’ or a ‘purpose’ statement.  It has, in fact, elements of all three; but it goes beyond them, too.  It speaks to the people  who are to work at this place, what kinds of values they hold.  The old craft commitment is clearly evident—pride in the quality of the work itself, on its own ground.  There is a commitment to the customer, to the quality of the product being offered; and this commitment is expressed as non-negotiable, placed even above financial outcomes (difficult to see any modern manager conceding as much).  And that speaks to values, even to character.  It is a statement of integrity in its key relationships.  Everyone knows, from their own experience of life, the value of integrity.

Of course intention is one thing and implementation another; and it may be that in practice this statement has been honoured in the breach rather than the observance.  Still, it’s a vigorous statement of purpose; and at least it seems to have contributed to a successful business, which still thrives, as the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, Newport News, Virginia, 126 years and 800 ships on.

One may contrast this statement with the purpose that has overwhelmingly characterized firms, particularly over the past three decades: shareholder value.  There are debates about how shareholder value can best be measured in both private and listed firms.  But the underlying principle is clear:  the primary purpose—indeed, the only purpose of any real significance— of the firm is to increase the financial wealth of its owners.

Now few will dispute the right of owners of firms (or providers of capital) to a reasonable return on their investment[i].  The difficulties arise when this is asserted to be the sole purpose of the firm, and the sole criteria of successful management.  This is a proposal identified particularly with a famous New York Times Magazine article written in 1970 by Milton Friedman, uncompromisingly entitled “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”  Friedman argued that the managers of a company had no business to be thinking about anything else but the business outcomes: that they were neither qualified nor authorized to do so; and that it was only through profitability that the benefits of businesses flowed to society at large. This, it is worth noting, is a proposition that has been implicitly adopted as a law of economic life in the policies of most modern governments, of whatever political persuasion.  It is also worth noting that it has been trenchantly criticised over the past several decades from such perspectives as corporate social responsibility[ii] and stakeholder theory[iii], and more recently of sustainability[iv].

Stakeholders of firms are held to be owners, managers, employees, suppliers, customers and the community at large.  Stakeholder theory holds that firms (and all organisations) must negotiate the allocation of their resources among the claims of the different stakeholders.  This is not always an easy task: for example, partiality to the interests of customers may impinge upon the interests of suppliers and distributors (think, for example, of supplier strong-arming by Walmart, or, in Australia, by Coles and Woolworths); partiality to the interests of shareholders (through dividend levels, for instance) may impinge upon the interests of all other stakeholders. There are no easy answers to these allocation decisions.  The principal value of stakeholder theory, however, was in insisting that there are other legitimate claims on the firm other than the shareholders.  That, in the context of modern assumptions about business, was a challenge of sufficient force to be regarded as radical.

We may, however, go further.  Among the list of stakeholders I would argue that employees clearly have a special place and a special claim to consideration.  Their lives are bound to the fortunes of the firm.  It is their work which is creating the products and services that are of value to other stakeholders.  They have fully committed their working lives and capabilities to the firm as no other stakeholders have.  They live one third of their lives in the workplace in which these products and services are developed.  I argue, therefore, that along with the purposes of the organisation which are embodied in its services or products are a set of purposes of equal status: the well-being and growth of the organisation’s own people, in their own right.  These are purposes which can’t be ignored, put aside, or diminished.  If the organisation is to flourish in any sense, they must be fully and equally honoured.

This way of thinking arises from a fact which ought to be so obvious as not to need stating at all:  employees are, indeed, people, with all the complex and rich dimensions, and particularly the rights, that are part of any person.  In this I am thinking of the alternative description, in modern management, of people who work in firms and organisations as ‘human resources’.  This, I would suggest, is an insulting term, deeply repugnant, and inherent in the antiquated and damaging model of work that I’ve outlined in chapter 2.  It derives from an old concept in economics, the idea of factors of production: such things as machinery, buildings, raw materials, energy—and labour.  The factors of production are the inputs that are needed to produce any given output.  The economic challenge is one of efficiency, seeking the least waste and the greatest productivity of any combination of production factors.  Labour is like any other factor: it plays its part as an input in generating output, and is to be made as efficient as possible. Among all the factors, or resources, that are brought together to accomplish the firm’s work, human elements are like any other factor, a resource; hence ‘human resources’.  It is precisely this view that is embedded in the Taylorist model of work.

This is clearly nonsense.  Human beings are not raw materials, or machines, or even energy:  they are fundamentally different from all of these, and any attempt to reduce them to a set of production factors—in particular, to units of labour—will fail, just because they are human.  Tony Watson acerbically remarks:

“Many managers would undoubtedly like to be able directly to ‘manage people’ and thus straightforwardly exploit the ‘resources’ which those people bring to the organisation.  It would make life easier for managers if the workforce could be tended like a herd of cattle which, with careful husbandry, produces a regular supply of milk, butter and meat.  The human animal, however, is fundamentally different from all others.  ‘Managing people’ is an impossibility.”[v]

Watson goes on to discuss the ways in which people are active, rather than passive, in their work; an important topic which we will take up later in the book.  Here let us focus on what changes in terms of purposes, once one explicitly insists on the human character of work and the people who do it.

A first, and basic, observation is that as human beings employees have explicit rights at work.  This is given unambiguous expression in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone has the right. . .to just and favourable conditions of work”. Employment (as against unemployment), freedom from discrimination, freedom of association in trade unions, and reasonable working hours and paid holidays are all specified rights under the Declaration.  And it is important to note that underpinning these specific rights are held to be more general human rights, which derive from the concept of the intrinsic dignity and worth of every human being[vi].  Make no mistake, despite the general character of the language, these are powerful statements which carry concrete obligations for governments, in legislating and regulating, and on organisations in structuring and managing work.  They underscore in the most emphatic manner that if you employ people you have real obligations to them as human beings which go well beyond the labour units they provide to the organisation.  I wonder how many employers even know of the existence of these formally stated human rights, let alone systematically embed them in their organisations and regularly audit their consistent application.

The word ‘dignity’ is the most powerful of all the rights terms.  It occurs, in the first sentence of the Preamble of the Declaration, and in the first Article:  “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  Dignity is often associated with Immanuel Kant’s “respect for persons” principle:  always treat humanity in a person as an end, never as a means.  Applied to work, the implication is direct: people are never only units of labour (means to the organisation’s ends, or purposes) but always an end in themselves.

The purposes of firms and organisations thus always include the dignity and well-being of their people.  This purpose—the human purpose—sits alongside the functional purpose represented by the organisation’s products and services.  The human purposes of the organisation can never be subordinated to its functional purposes: that is the whole point of human rights—they are non-negotiable.  They must be explicitly provided for in any work and in any workplace.

Here is one way of drawing the linkages I’m suggesting:


Rights are defined both negatively (freedom from discrimination) and positively (just and favourable conditions of work).  On the positive side we can go further. Here are three important areas of obligation over and above the fundamental human rights which, I would argue, also come with the people a firm or organisation employees:

Ethical behaviour:  The firm must act ethically with its own people (and also with its suppliers, customers, and so on).  Francis proposes four ethical principles of corporate behaviour:

  1.  Preserve from harm.
  2. Respect the dignity of all persons.
  3. Be open and honest except in the exceptional cases where privacy and silence are clearly ethically preferable.
  4. Act so as to preserve the equitability of relationships.

These are linked to practical principles such as equitability, honesty, openness, goodwill, and alleviation of suffering[vii].  One doesn’t need the Declaration of Human Rights to see the sense and rightness of these principles: they are part of everybody’s life experience.  All ethical systems are underpinned by common morality.  In the end, it’s usually not the direction of a particular ethical decision that is the quandary, but rather the decision to act ethically at all.  Firms should simply, as Francis suggests, decide always to act ethically, as a basic principle, particularly with their own people.  There should be no recourse to ‘business is business’ or ‘nothing personal, just business’—craven retreats.  If you employ people, or work with them in any way, you should act ethically towards them; no ifs, no buts.  If you can’t make the business work with a commitment to ethical behaviour, then you’re in the wrong business: make a living by working at something else where you can act like a decent human being.

Growth, learning and development:  People have a right to growth.  That is recognised in the Declaration as rights to education; but it doesn’t end with completion of formal education.  Lifelong learning is well known to be a cornerstone of a healthy life, and nowhere is there greater opportunity for continuous learning, growth and development than at work.  Under the standard model describe in chapter 2 this is anathema: people are hired to do the work attached to a specific job, not to grow out of it.  The idea of people growing and moving on or up directly threatens the model, the last thing the manager of modern management theory would want.  The exception is where development is called training; which means, the development of skills and capabilities that are of direct relevance to the work—the shaping of an individual peg to fill the job hole.  One doesn’t want to exclude this kind of learning—it may be that an individual will find it relevant to the things she wants to develop in herself—but relevance to the firm’s work is not the only or even the best criteria for continuing training or education.  People have all kinds of aspirations for growth and achievement, and it’s up to the firm to understand them and support them as far as it can.  People are always employed as whole people, growing and developing and aspiring, never as only units of labour, and firms should work with and support them in their learning and growth.  It comes with the human territory.

Respect:  Respect is one of those overarching principles of living  which really, when you think about it, includes almost everything we know about the right and best way to behave with other people. Respect and dignity go together in the Declaration: to respect someone is to act so as to uphold their human dignity.  Note the word ‘human’.  There are other grounds for respect: you can respect someone for specific knowledge or a specific capability or skill.  Typically, though, that kind of respect doesn’t survive outside the specific context in which it arises.  But respect in terms of human dignity is something altogether different.  Respect here is something that every person as a human being deserves from everyone, and is asked to give to everyone as human beings, regardless of what they know or what they can do.   Respect covers a lot of ground.  It means acting so as to respect basic human rights.  It means acting ethically.  It means not discriminating.  It means treating people as mature, intelligent, creative individuals.  It means assuming that people want to work with you, not that they are waiting to take advantage of you.  It means listening and understanding.  It means supporting and legitimising difference.  Respect is the ground of all living relationships, no more clearly than in the workplace.

My argument, then, is that the purposes of every organisation, including firms, include human purposes that sit alongside, and are equal to, their functional purposes.  The human purposes arise just because the organisation is made of its people, who are not simply units of labour or resources but whole people who must be treated as such.  That treatment rests on fundamental human rights, but extends beyond them, to the ground of common morality, consideration and decency that characterizes all relationships at their best.  These are not optional actions; they are not costs that have to be managed down; they are not impediments to, or distractions from, the organisational tasks.  They are in themselves legitimate and important outcomes sought by the organisation’s work.  The organisation is a primary arena of human life: the life purposes of its people therefore become part of its own purposes.

It should be emphasised that I am not mounting a business case for approaching people in organisations in this way.  That is, I’m not claiming that the justification for treating your people in this way is that they will be more productive, or better able to deliver organisational outcomes in some way, as a result.  My firm position is that people should be treated with respect because that is always the right way to treat people, at any time or in any place.  At the same time, it is clearly true that if people are treated properly they are likely to contribute to better organisational outcomes. In particular, they are more likely to approach their jobs creatively, with greater energy and application.  The standard model applies a metric driven by the job unit mentality to an individual’s work: just that work is demanded, no more, no less.  Where the fundamentals of relationships are routinely damaged—by breaching human rights, by unethical behaviour, by quashing aspiration, or by lack of respect, and the like, all driven by the standard model—the natural response of an employee will be, work to rule, at the minimum level possible.  Organisations don’t thrive on such repression; they thrive when people’s capabilities are freed by respect and decency.

These are not arcane arguments but practical wisdom, the truths that life experience brings to us all.  It’s not hard to make them the truths of our workplaces, too, once the strangely artificial rigidities of modern people management have been, as they should be, let go for good.

[i] This statement brings into play complex matters of social and political philosophy; and there are contrary views, on grounds of fairness and equity which deserve a respectful hearing (see Baran, P and Sweezy, P (1966), Monopoly capital: an essay on the American economic and social order, Monthly Review Press, New York).  However, that is a wider debate I don’t take up here.  I think current Fabian or other left-leaning social philosophies would accept the statement as it stands.

[ii] Carroll, A. (2008), ‘A history of corporate social responsibility’, in A. Crane, A. McWilliams, D. Matten, J. Moon & D. Siegel (eds) The Oxford handbook of corporate social responsibility, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[iii] Freeman, R. (1984), Strategic management: a stakeholder approach, Pitman, Boston.

[iv] Moscardo, G, Lamberton, G, Wells, G (eds) (2012), Sustainability in Australian business: principles and practice, John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd., Milton, Queensland.

[v] Watson, T (2009), ‘Organisations, strategies and human resourcing’ in J Leopold & L Harris (eds.), The strategic managing of human resources, 2nd edn., Pearson Education, Harlow, Essex.

[vii] Francis, R. (2000), Ethics and corporate governance: an Australian handbook, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

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The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies by Geoffrey Wells is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies: Chapter 2

Chapter Two

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.



[i] Thompson, E.P. (1963), The making of the English working class, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK.  A wonderful social history of this momentous transformation in work and the workplace.

[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  .

[iv] Newell, S (2009), ‘Assessment, selection and evaluation’ in J. Leopold and L. Harris (eds), The strategic managing of human resources’, 2nd edn, Pearson Education, Harlow, UK.


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The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies by Geoffrey Wells is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Publication: “Sustainability in Australian business: fundamental principles and practice”

Here is a little book I recently wrote for Wiley, on Sustainable Business, published in 2010.  The idea was to ‘map’ the emerging sustainable business space, and to connect it where possible to Australian business practice.  Wiley is distributing it in the Australasian market alongside its academic business textbooks.

Here is the back cover summary:

“Sustainability is moving from the margins of business to the centre. Key factors and major global events transforming the business environment include climate change, renewable energy, oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Timor Sea, Asian sweatshops, patterns of global poverty, and indigenous rights. A new paradigm of business – sustainable business – is emerging: firms are accepting a wider responsibility for environmental and social wellbeing. At the same time, sustainable business offers enhanced business value: better management of risk and new market opportunities. Firms that actively engage with it are positioning themselves for globalmarket leadership.

This work presents a map of the new principles of business and a guide to their application in core disciplines: accounting, finance, marketing, operations and organisation. It presents a challenging and stimulating view of contemporary business for undergraduate university studies. It is a guide to business in the sustainability age.”