· 2 min read · Features

New technology has not just set people free but has had the capacity to enforce, to de-skill and monitor.


Frederick Winslow Taylor and the principles of industrial efficiency he pioneered is said to have unleashed the 20th century productivity miracle. But he is also seen as man who reduced the worker to an automaton. He saw the employee as another cog in the production machine, emphasising the precise measurement of work efficiency that managers tightly controlled. The organisation should be seen as a machine rather than as an organic network of relationships as we like to think it is today.

But Taylorism still casts a long shadow - and unless we understand why and how, some of what is happening in the workplace now is hard to comprehend.

Take the central finding of the interim report of the Good Work Commission. There is some startling challenging of the consensus view about work - for example, we find little evidence of casualisation or of shortening job tenures. But the most startling of all is the finding on workplace autonomy. Today, the ability of workers to exert influence over how they do their job is much less than it was 20 years ago. This decline has not just affected the lower levels of the hierarchy, but all groups to some degree, and particularly women in the public sector.

This is not what we should have found, given the avalanche of human resource literature showing the link between engaged, empowered people, performance and alleged workplace trends in the so-called knowledge economy. We are more skilled, both technically and emotionally. We have a dazzling array of technology at our fingertips that enables us to work in more flexible ways. As consumers we are told our whims are sovereign and corporations and governments must acquiesce or perish. So how can it be that our modest micro-freedoms to organise our work as we see fit have been diminished?

We must be a bit sceptical about statistics and surveys. It may be that, because there is rising expectation of autonomy, respondents believe they have less of it. Yet I think it unlikely that expectations could have been so revolutionised since the 1992 benchmark result that the 14% reported fall is a statistical aberration. Something more serious is at play.

First there is the power of the client. Today it is not supervisors cracking the whip or demonic machines speeding up the work that are felt to be the predominant sources of control. Control comes primarily from outside the boundaries of the employing organisation. Rigid contract specifications, key performance indicators, service-level agreements and default clauses: the apparatus of service enforcement amounts to an externalisation of control.

Second is the 'proceduralisation' of working life. Sorry about the word but what it is trying to capture is the growing intrusion of the state into ever more aspects of the employment relationship. There has been an avalanche of policies, procedures, processes and guidelines that serve to tell workers how to do their jobs.

And third we must realise new technology has not just set people free, but has had the capacity to enforce, to de-skill and to monitor. Digital Taylorism is the process of using technology to extend efficiency in existing practices by removing actions from determination by the employee. This could be the use of work-flow and performance management systems, or the standardisation of processes to enable cheaper training and fewer worries about skill retention.

This is not a warning about an imminent doomsday. The knowledge economy and the skill rises that have gone with it are real phenomena; and innovating around the great general purpose technology of the internet will drive competitiveness across the developed world. But the ghost of Taylor is still with us - twitchy, stop-watch in hand and chiding us not to get carried away with assumptions about higher skilled work neatly translating into higher quality work.

- Will Hutton is vice executive chair of The Work Foundation