What’s the opposite of ‘digital Taylorism’?

An Industry Epoch

Taylorism is also known as the theory of ‘Scientific Management’ established by Frederick Taylor in the 19th century:

Scientific management was a theory of management that analyzed and synthesized workflows. Its main objective was improving economic efficiency, especially labor productivity. It was one of the earliest attempts to apply science to the engineering of processes and to management… Although scientific management as a distinct theory or school of thought was obsolete by the 1930s, most of its themes are still important parts of industrial engineering and management today. These include analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or merely to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation. (Wikipedia)

Why Taylorism is A Bad Thing

Although Frederick Taylor did try and remedy his system, the effects on human labour were mostly negative:

[Taylor] failed to leave room in his system for the workers who did have talent or intelligence. Some of them would be duly utilized during the early phases (the studying and designing), but what about smart workers in years afterwards who would start out among the ranks of the drones? What opportunities would they have for career advancement or socioeconomic advancement? He also failed to properly consider the fate of the drone-ish workers themselves. Maybe they did lack the ability for higher-level jobs, but what about keeping them satisfied or placated in their existing roles? Taylorism took some steps toward addressing their needs (for example, Taylor advocated frequent breaks and good pay), but Taylor nevertheless had a condescending view of less intelligent workers, whom he sometimes compared to draft animals. (Wikipedia)

One of the reasons why some people are anti-PRINCE2 as a project management methodology is due to an unthinking application of its management products (as opposed to contextualising the principles of PRINCE2). This is a form of Taylorism. Unfortunately, many promising initiatives and methods are disfigured on the Procrustean bed of top-down management ‘solutions’.

What is digital Taylorism?

If the twentieth century brought what can be described as mechanical Taylorism characterised by the Fordist production line, where the knowledge of craft workers was captured, codified and re-engineered in the shape of the moving assembly line by management, the twenty- first century is the age of digital Taylorism. This involves translating knowledge work into working knowledge through the extraction, codification and digitalisation of knowledge into software prescripts and packages that can be transmitted and manipulated by others regardless of location. (Phil Brown, UKCES – PDF)

Whilst honing workflows to be more productive is definitely a good thing, doing so at the expense of judgement, creativity and autonomy is not:

Digital Taylorism enables innovation to be translated into routines that might require some degree of education but not the kind of creativity and independence of judgement that is often associated with the knowledge economy. In order to reduce costs and assert proprietary rights, companies are experimenting with new ways to move from knowledge work to working knowledge; that is, from the idiosyncratic knowledge that a worker has and applies, to working knowledge, where that knowledge is codified and routinised, thereby making it generally available to the company rather than being the ‘property’ of an individual worker. (Phil Brown, UKCES – PDF)

In other words, anything that can be mechanised, routinised and outsourced, will be. It’s akin to the famous quotation by Arthur C. Clarke: “Teachers that can be replaced by a machine should be.”

What’s the opposite of digital Taylorism?

Most of the important things in life and work can’t be measured and quantified. However, there are measures which pertain to something secondary to the important things. Take online ‘engagement’, for example. Whilst the number of visitors and time spent on each web page aren’t directly linked to engagement, they do serve as a secondary indicators. Getting to the nub of the matter would mean qualitative data (through interviews and the like) rather than hard, impersonal, quantitative web stats.

During my time in schools I saw digital Taylorism and over-quantification entering what used to be called ‘the teaching profession’. Students are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet and expected to show ‘progress’ (whatever that means) in a linear fashion. Teachers end up conspiring by fudging the numbers so as not to look bad. A similar situation pervades the roles of people I deal with in my current position: they’re constrained by top-down micro-management and a false sense of ‘accountability’.

I’m fortunate that my role at JISC infoNet is the opposite of digital Taylorism. I’m encouraged to network, follow serendipitous connections and think about the ways in which what I’m doing (or could be doing) relates to the core mission of my organisation, the wider role of JISC, and helps the sector more widely. As with the ‘engagement’ example, organisational culture is difficult to measure directly but the large beanbags, sofas, flexible working practices and Investors in People Award serve as secondary indicators!

Image CC BY-NC-SA Tobias Higbie


6 thoughts on “What’s the opposite of ‘digital Taylorism’?

  1. Simple work is being automated and complicated work is getting outsourced. What was complicated last year is now simple and it is now being automated. The opposite of digital Taylorism is a workplace that understands the need to constantly learn and focus on work of higher value. This is work that’s complex, requires creativity and is often done collaboratively. However, it’s a constantly moving target.

  2. While I also rant about Taylorism in today’s workplace (“You are not paid to think” is my favorite whipping boy), Fred was not a bad guy at heart.

    I spent a number of hours in the library reading Taylor’s Scientific Management in the original. His concept was that a more efficient workplace would produce more value, some of which would be shared with the productive workers. Perhaps he was naive, but he was not mean-spirited.

    Fordism was not pretty. Goons never are. But… his workers received what at the time seemed like astoundingly high pay. Thank heavens those time are behind us.

    I attribute the downfall of the USSR to buying into Taylorism lock, stock, and barrel. They never realized that outside of a rigid factory environment, everybody is better off by betting on human ingenuity and giving workers latitude to think up what’s best.

    The major problem I see in business today is old-style managers clinging to vestigial Taylorist beliefs that are irrelevant in today’s world of worker democratization and knowledge-sharing.

  3. Hi Doug, Interesting, and I think relates strongly to the way managers and others are responding ‘in the present economic climate’. What was missed with Taylorism, and is being missed by people focused purely on short term cash flow and self-interest, is everyone needs purpose, and to have purpose, you need a picture of the ‘whole’ and an understanding of yours, and other people’s contribution to it. You need to ‘own’ the work you do. Will read more carefully and follow some of links. Thanks

    • Thanks for the comment, Marcus. You made me think of two things:

      1. Last week’s BBC Radio 4 ‘Thinking Allowed’ programme which talked about
      the Taylorism of Indian call centre workers (=bad)
      2. My own practice of recording stuff I do on a WordPress+P2-powered blog

      There’s very few things that are entirely good or entirely bad. Some of
      Taylor’s principles make sense in terms of efficiency savings but only, I
      would suggest, if the hearts and minds of the workforce are won (as you
      implied). :-)

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