On the decline and resurrection of Taylorism
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.
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.