Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for August 2013

On the decline and resurrection of Taylorism

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A couple of years ago  Paul Culmsee and I wrote a post on the cyclical decay and recurrence of certain management concepts. The article describes how ideas and practices bubble up into mainstream management awareness and then fade away after the fad passes…only to recur in a morphed form some years later.

It recently occurred to me that this cycle of decay and recurrence is not restricted to good ideas or practices: ideas that, quite frankly, ought to remain consigned to the dustbin of management can also recur. Moreover, they may even do better the second time around because the conditions are right for them to flourish.  In this post I discuss  how the notion of scientific management, often referred to as Taylorism, after its founder Fredrick Winslow Taylor, has ebbed and flowed in the century or so since it was first proposed.

Taylorism and its  alleged demise

The essence of Taylorism  is summarised nicely in this quote from Taylor’s monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management:

This paper has been written…to prove that the best management is a true science, resting upon clearly defined laws, rules and principles, as a foundation. And further to show that the fundamental principles of scientific management  are applicable to all human activities, from our simplest individual activities to the work of great corporations, which call for the most elaborate cooperation. And briefly, through a series of illustrations, to convince the reader that whenever these principles are correctly applied, results must follow which are truly astounding…

According to standard storyline of management, Taylorism had its heyday in the first few decades of the 20th century and faded away after the notion of the worker as an individual emerged in 1920s.  In his wonderful paper, Understanding Taylorism, Craig Littler summarises this mainstream view as follows:

From 1900-20 Taylorism provided the dominant ideas about the worker and worker motivation. But money was not enough and  ‘a great new ideas was taking root. The view of the worker as an individual personality emerged strongly around 1920 to command the stage.’ From 1920-1940 the worker was seen as a psychological complex, but then ‘Psychological Man’ (sic) faltered and sociology entered industry: Man (sic) had neighbours!

In short, the official story is that Taylorism was declared dead, if not quite interred, some ninety years ago.

But as we shall see, its ghost still haunts the hallways of the modern, knowledge-based corporation…

The ghost of Taylorism

The standard storyline views Taylorism as a management ideology – a set of ideas that guide management practice.  However, as Littler tells us, it is more instructive to see it primarily as a means of organizing work, in other words as a management practice. As Littler tells us,

If we look at Taylorism as a form of work organization then we can proceed to analyse it in terms of three general categories: the division of labour, the structure of control over task performance, and the implicit employment relationship.

To elaborate: Taylorism emphasised a scientific approach to enhancing worker productivity through things such as time and motion studies. In practice this lead to a  rigid fragmentation and division of labour coupled with time/effort measurements that enabled top-down planning. Although these efforts were focused on increasing production by improving worker efficiency, they also had the effect of centralising control over task performance and skewing the  terms of employment in management’s favour.

…and its new avatar

Even from this brief summary one can see how Taylorism sneaks into the modern workplace. As Martha Crowley and her co-workers state in the abstract to this paper:

The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen an erosion of job security in both manual and professional occupation…employee involvement schemes in manual production and the growth of temporary employment, outsourcing and project-based teams in the professions have influenced working conditions in both settings…these practices represent not a departure from scientific management, as is often presumed, but rather the adoption of Taylorist principles that were not fully manifested in the era of mass production.

Indeed, there is a term, Neo-Taylorism, that describes this newly resurrected avatar of this old ideology.

The resurrection of Taylorism is in no small part due to advances in technology. This is indeed an irony because the very technology that gives us “cognitive surplus” (if one believes what some folks tell us) and enables us to inform the world  about “what we are doing right now” also makes it possible for us to be monitored at the workplace in real time.  A stark manifestation of this the call centre  – which Phil Tailor and  Peter Bain refer to  as an electronic panopticon and, in a later paper an assembly line in the head.

Of course, one does not need to work in a call centre to see Neo-Taylorism at work;  the central ideas of scientific management permeate many modern workplaces.    The standard HR cycle of goal-setting, review and performance evaluation, familiar to most folks who work in organisation-land,  is but a means of evaluating and/or ranking employees with a view to determining an appropriate reward or punishment. This often does more harm than good as is highlighted in David Auerbach’s critique of Microsoft’s stack ranking process: there is nothing more effective than the threat of termination to ensure a compliant workforce…but engendering team spirit and high performance is another matter altogether.

Concluding remarks

To conclude: the resurrection of Taylorism is no surprise. For  although it may have become an unfashionable ideology in the latter part of the first half of the 20th century, its practices and, in particular, the forms of work organisation embodied in it live on.  This is true not just in industry but also in the academic world. Indeed, some of the research done in industrial engineering departments the world over serves to burnish and propagate Taylor’s legacy. Taylorism as an ideology may be dead, but as a management practice it lives on and flourishes.


Thanks to  Greg Lloyd for his pointer to David Auerbach’s critique of Microsoft’s stack ranking process.

Written by K

August 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm

The DRS controversy and the undue influence of technology on decision-making

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The Decision Review System (DRS) is a technology that is used to reduce umpire errors  in cricket.  It consists of the following components:

  1. High-speed visualisation to  track the trajectory of a ball as it goes past or is hit by a batsman
  2. Infra-red and sound-based devices to detect whether or not the bat has actually made contact with the ball.

There were some misgivings about the technology when it was first  introduced a few years ago, but the general feeling was that it would be beneficial (see this article by Rob Steen, for example).  However, because of concerns raised about the reliability of the technology, the International Cricket Council did not make the use of DRS mandatory.

In the recent Ashes series between England and Australia, there have been some questionable decisions that involved DRS. In one case, a  human umpire’s decision was upheld even though DRS evidence did not support it and in another an umpire’s decision was upheld when DRS evidence only partially supported it, See the sidebar in this news item for a summary of these decisions.

Now, as Dan Hodges, points out in an astute post,  DRS does not make decisions – it only presents a human decision-maker (the third umpire) with more, and allegedly better, data than is available to another human decision-maker (the on-field umpire). This is a point that is often ignored when decision support systems are used in any kind of decision-making, not just in sports: data does not make decisions, people do. Moreover, they often reach these decisions based on factors that cannot be represented as data.

This is as  it should be: technology can at best provide us with more and/or better data but, in situations that really matter, we would not want it making decisions on our behalf. Would we  be comfortable with machine diagnoses of our X rays or CT scans?

Taking a broader view, it is undeniable that technology has influenced the decisions we make: from the GPS that directs us when we drive, to Facebook, Linkedin and other social media platforms that  make suggestions regarding  who we might want to “friend” or who “connect with.” In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here,  Evgeny Morozov argues that this is not a positive development. He takes aim at what he calls technological solutionism, the tendency to view all problems as being amenable to technology-based solutions,  ignoring other aspects such as social, human and ethical concerns.

Morozov’s interest is largely in the social and political sphere so many of his examples are drawn from social networking and search engine technologies. His concerns relate to the unintended consequences of  these pervasive technologies- for example, the loss of privacy that is the consequence of using social media or the subtle distortion of human behaviour through the use of techniques like gamification.

The point I’m  making  is rather more modest:  it is that technology-based decision-making tools can present us with more/better/refined data, but they cannot not absolve us of our responsibility for making decisions.  This is particularly evident in the case of ambiguous issues. Indeed, this is why decision-making on such matters  has ethical, even metaphysical implications.

And so it is that sports needs human umpires, just as organisations need managers who can make decisions that they are willing to stand by, especially when  situations are ambiguous and data is open to interpretation.

Written by K

August 14, 2013 at 7:46 pm

On the contradictions of consulting (and management) rhetoric

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Successful management consultants are often seen as experts and trendsetters in the business world. The best among them are able to  construct convincing narratives about their expertise and experience, thereby gaining the  trust of senior managers in large organisations.

Have you ever wondered how they manage to pull this off?

In a paper entitled, The Invincible Character of Management Consulting Rhetoric: How One Blends Incommensurates While Keeping Them Apart, Jonas Berglund and Andreas Werr discuss how consultants, unbeknownst to their clients, often draw from two mutually contradictory forms of rhetoric to construct their arguments: rational (scientific or fact-based) and practical (action-based). This renders them immune to potential challenges from skeptics.  This post, which is based on the work of Berglund and Werr, is an elaboration of this claim.

Background and case study

Typically management consultants are hired to help organisations formulate and implement strategic initiatives aimed at improving organisational performance.  On the ground, such initiatives usually result in large-scale change initiatives such as organisation-wide restructuring or the implementation of enterprise systems.  Whatever the specific situation, however, consultants are generally brought in because clients perceive them as being experts who have the necessary knowledge and practical experience to plan and execute such transformations.

A typical consulting engagement consists of many interactions between consultants and diverse client-side stakeholders.  Berglund and Werr begin their paper with a description of an example of such an interaction drawn from their fieldwork in a large organisation. In brief: the  example describes a workshop that was aimed at redesigning business processes in an organisation. The two-day event was facilitated by the consultants and involved many stakeholders from the business.  I reproduce their description of the event below so that you can read it in its original form:

The event begins with a plenary session. The 25 participants—a selection of key persons on different levels in the organization—sit around a u-shaped table in a large room. Three consultants sit at one end of the table. One (a bit older than the others) is Ben, the project manager.

At 9 am sharp he rises and enters the stage. A nervousness is reflected in his somewhat impatient movements and way of talking. This is an important presentation. It is the first time since the ‘kick off’ of the project, that it is being delivered to a larger audience. Ben welcomes the participants and briefly introduces himself: ‘I am a consultant at Consulting Ltd. My specialty is BPR [Business Process Reengineering]. I have worked extensively with this method in the telecom industry.’ He also briefly introduces the two colleagues sitting at the end of the table. But the consulting team is not complete: ‘We are waiting for Alan, a portal figure and innovator concerning BPR.’

Ben suggests beginning the seminar with a brief introduction of the participants. After this has been completed, he remarks: ‘we clearly have a massive competence here today’. Thereafter, he leaves the floor to Ken, the CEO of the company, who says the following:

‘There are many reasons why we are sitting here today. The triggering factor has been the rapid growth rate of the market. But why should we start working with BPR? I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made—we focused on the current situation instead of being creative.’ Following this introduction, the importance of the project is further stressed. ‘The high growth rate of the market demands a new way of working . . . The competitive situation for the company is getting harder; the years when the customers just came to us are over. Now we have to start working for our money . . . The reason for this project is that we want to become the best from our owners’, customers’ and employees’ perspective.’

After this presentation, Ben takes over the floor again: ‘I have something to tell you. I want to report what we have done in the project so far . . . We have worked in four steps, which is a quite typical approach in reengineering’, he says, showing a slide headed ‘Method for Implementation’, which depicts four project phases arranged in the form of steps from the lower left to the upper right. The more detailed exploration of these phases, and the related activities occupy the group for some minutes.

Thereafter, a sequence of transparencies is shown. They describe the overall situation of the company using well-known business concepts. The titles of the slides read ‘Strategic Positioning’ (the model presented under this title has strong similarities with the BCG [Boston Consulting Group] matrix), ‘SWOT Analysis’, ‘Core Competencies’, and ‘Critical Success Factors’.

I expect many readers who work in organisational settings will be able to relate elements from the above extract to their own experiences with management consultants.

Although the case-study is dated,  the rhetoric used by the consultant is timeless. Indeed, in such plenary sessions, the main aim of  consultants (and client-side senior management) is to justify the proposed changes and convince client-side staff to get involved in implementing them.  This is as true now as it was a decade ago, the rhetoric used has hardly changed at all. What’s more interesting, though, is that their arguments taken as a whole are often inconsistent. To see why, let’s take a closer look at two kinds of rhetoric employed by consultants.

The rhetoric of reason

Consultants often legitimize their proposed actions by claiming to use “established” or “proven” methods. At the time of the case study (remember this was in the 90s), BPR was all the rage and, as a consequence, there were a number of contemporary books and articles (both in research and trade journals) that consultants could draw upon to legitimize their claims.  Indeed, many of the articles about BPR from that era delved into things such as critical success factors and core competencies – the very terms used by Ben, the consultant in the case study.  By doing so, Ben emphasised that BPR was a logically justifiable undertaking for the client  organisation.

However, that’s not all:  by referring to a stepwise “method for implementation,” Ben makes the process seem like a rational one with an “if we do X then Y will follow” logic. Of course, real life is never that simple, as evidenced by the statistics on failed BPR projects. Consultants often confuse their clients by presenting the map which is the idealised process as being equivalent to the territory that is organisational reality.

The rhetoric of action

To be sure, those who run organisations care more about results than models or methodologies. As a result,  consultants have to portray  themselves as being practical rather than theoretical. This is where the rhetoric of action comes in.

Ben’s reference to his “extensive experience in the telecom industry” and his invocation of   “Alan, the portal figure and innovator” are clearly intended to emphasise the consulting organisation’s experience and “innovative approaches” to  implementing BPR initiatives. Notice there are no references to reason here; there is only the implicit, “trust me, I’ve done this before”, and (if not that, then), “trust Alan, the portal figure and innovator.”

Ben’s spiel is backed up by the CEO;  consider the CEO’s line, ” …I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made…

The boss heard the BPR Gospel According To Alan and had an epiphany; everything just “fell in place.”


The short case study illustrates how consultants shift back and forth between two essentially incompatible modes of rhetoric when speaking to clients: a rational one which assumes the existence of objective management models and a normative one which appeals to human behaviours and emotions. This enables them to construct narratives that, on the surface, seem plausible and convincing, and more important, are hard to refute.

Although the rhetoric of reason refers to an idealised world of management models, its power and appeal  cannot be overstated. As the authors state:

The belief in experts and their techniques is firmly anchored in the modern belief in rationality. In our culture ‘the notions of ‘‘science’’, ‘‘rationality’’, ‘‘objectivity’’, and ‘‘truth’’ are bound up with one another’. Knowledge is power, and formalized knowledge is praised as the only legitimate form of knowledge, offering hard and objective truth in correspondence to reality.

Indeed, consultants play a huge role in the diffusion of new knowledge and models in the wider business world, thus perpetuating the myth that management models work.

On the other hand, consultants must show results. They have to portray themselves action-oriented and hence Ben’s attempt to establish his (and his organisation’s) credibility via credentials. This mode of rhetoric downplays scientific-rational thinking and highlights  wisdom gained by experience instead. As the authors state:

The chain of argument usually goes like this: merit always prevails over privilege; management knowledge is often contrasted with scientific, theoretically informed knowledge, which is regarded with suspicion by managers; and a persons’ track record and ‘hands-on’ experience is regarded as more important than expertise in general management skills acquired through extensive education.

Another facet of the rhetoric of action is that it emphasises the uniqueness of each situation. This is based on the idea that things in organisations are subject to continual change and that the lack of a stable configuration and environment makes it impossible to employ management models. The implication being that the only way to deal with the mess is to create a sense of collectivism – a “we’re in this together” attitude. The  concept of  organisational culture plays on this by portraying an organisation as this unique, wonderful place in which everyone shares the same values and deep sense of meaning. As the authors state:

The management literature discussing corporate culture is filled with religious and magical metaphors of the leader stressing the less rational sides of the organization, emphasizing the role of ceremonies, rituals, sagas, and legends (to mention only a few), in creating a system of shared values in the organization.

Seen in this light, the CEO’s references to Alan’s epiphany-inducing presentation, the “competitive situation,” and the need to “start working for our money” are attempts to generate this sense of collectivism.

The foregoing discussion highlights how consultants and their allies draw upon incompatible modes of rhetoric to justify their plans and actions. This essentially makes it difficult to refute their claims: if one tries to pin them down on logical grounds, they can argue based on their track record and deep experience; if one questions their experience, they can point to the logic of their models and processes.

…but we are all guilty

Finally, I should emphasise that management consultants are not the only ones guilty of using both forms of rhetoric,  we all are: the business cases we write, the presentations we deliver, the justifications we give our bosses and staff are all rife with examples of this. Out of curiosity, I re-read a business case I wrote recently and was amused to find a couple of contradictions of the kind discussed in this post.


In this post I have discussed how consulting rhetoric frequently draws upon two incompatible kinds of arguments –rational/fact-based and practical/action-based. This enables consultants to present arguments that are hard to refute on logical grounds.  However, it isn’t fair to single out consultants: most people who work in organisation-land are just as guilty of mixing incompatible rhetorics when attempting to convince others of the rightness of their views.

Written by K

August 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm

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