08 April 2008

Blogging and Taylorism: Blogger as Pig Iron Shlepper

Frederick Winslow Taylor was the father of Scientific Management, captured in his landmark 1911 work, Principles of Scientific Management. He was also, arguably, a fraud (Wrege and Hodgetts, 2000) - the first cynical management consultant - and the father of all of our modern and contemporary management abuses, dysfunctions and problematics.
Taylor’s 1911 Principles of Scientific Management outlined his basic precepts: (1) Decompose work into tasks, or “elements” and develop “a science” for each one; (2) Select and train workers according to a scientific approach; (3) Create cooperation between workers and managers to ensure the work is being done according to the developed science; and (4) Divide the work between managers and workers, so that each performs the tasks to which they are respectively suited.

Taylor’s scientific management principles were a result of the need created for “professional managers” when ownership separated from management control in the late nineteenth century. Its apparent effectiveness became legendary worldwide: For the first half of the twentieth century, Taylor’s American "way" of doing business was seen as superior to all others.

Taylor’s methods were applied to even lowly jobs such as loading pigs – standard, 92-pound blocks of iron – into shipping gondolas. Many authors, relate the anecdote of the productivity improvements achieved by encouraging workers at Bethlehem Steel in 1899 to work harder and faster in exchange for a higher daily wage, based on piece-work incentives. Taylor’s pig iron loading experiment is characterized as accomplishing tremendous productivity gains: loading a standard of 45 tons per worker at an incentive-fuelled daily rate of $1.69 – for those that made the quota – compared to the average 12 tons loaded at a fixed daily rate of $1.15. However, Charles Wrege and Richard Hodgetts (2000) investigate this now-fabled justification for scientific management by reviewing some of the original logs and journals kept at the time. They discover that the anecdotes were incomplete as retold by Taylor, and subsequently canonized in management folklore and textbooks.

The deficiencies they identify centre on Taylor’s reporting of productivity gains that occurred only under ideal conditions of pig placement and location, perfect weather conditions, and permission given to the workers to toss the pigs into the gondola cars, rather than stacking them neatly. As one might expected, this resulted in significant damage and shorter life for the cars and therefore, higher overall costs to the company. Additionally, workers choosing incentive pay could not sustain the higher production rates for longer than several days per month because of the physical strain.

The total savings achieved through Taylor’s methods were minimal, compared to a completely non-incentive, “rule-of-thumb” method, and neither included, nor compensated for, the additional costs of gondola damage. Despite the unsurprising fact that none of Bethlehem Steel’s competitors took up Taylor’s approach, his principles entered management folklore as a “best practice” of the time.
So why do I recite this history (which is from an unpublished paper of mine, Frederick Taylor is alive and well and living in management process), and what does it have to do with bloggers?

On the weekend, the New York Times ran an article that describes professional bloggers as contemporary sweatshop workers. "A growing work force of home-office laborers and entrepreneurs, armed with computers and smartphones and wired to the hilt, are toiling under great physical and emotional stress created by the around-the-clock Internet economy that demands a constant stream of news and comment." In fact, two pro pay-for-post bloggers have died recently of causes that can well be linked to the mental and physical stresses of their chosen way of earning a living. As the NYT article describes their 24-hour-a-day drive to produce more posts, faster than any other blogger with whom each competes, I am reminded of Schultz, the hapless "best worker" in Taylor's experiment who was driven by economic incentive to shlep more pigs, regardless of the ultimate outcome. But Schultz was smarter than some of today's bloggers: he knew that such exertion could not be sustained, and backed off.

danah raises the issue of work/life balance for all so-called knowledge workers. But for those of us who do not fully appreciate that we, as a society, aren't really in the Industrial Age any more, we're essentially tied to Taylor. We have been well-taught by schools, governments, and the general Western discourse that competition, winning, status and economic success are what matter, possibly despite one's concurrent sensibilities that might paradoxically suggest otherwise.

When (if?) people realize that these often self-imposed imperatives to succeed - almost always measured against a predominantly economic rubric - are throwbacks to the early 20th century and before, they may decide to change their ways. Good ol' Frederick Winslow Taylor taught us how to be paid for piecework, and follow best practices before they were so named. And despite the fact that many aspects of our society are no longer in the industrial age, modern institutions remain stubbornly mired in their Dickensian workhouse roots.

It is, I think, incumbent on those of us to claim to understand the effects of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity - that to my mind describes the world as we wittingly or unwittingly experience it - to consciously enact a change to the imposed paradigm of constant competition, continual economic expansion, and the myth that there is some sort of dichotomy between work and life.

Ideally (and yes, I understand the critical and problematic issues surrounding what I'm about to say), what one does to maintain one's economic viability should be entirely entwined with living integrally and authentically. The more apparent the issue of co-called work/life balance becomes, the less integrated it is with one's life, suggesting that a reconsideration might be called for.

Took me (what I estimate to be) half my (total) life to figure this out and begin to enact it for myself. Losing the paradigm of "money as scorecard" helps. So does being entirely present and engaged in whatever it is one is doing or with whomever one is at the moment, as well as embracing one's uncertainty with as much gusto as embracing one's passion.

I do have one thing for which to thank all the neo-Taylorists throughout the business world. It was the realization from that Alive and Well paper that inspired me to create my Valence Theory of Organization, that emphasizes balance among economic, socio-psychological, identity, knowledge, and ecological valence relationships for organizations to be most effective.

  • Wrege, C.D. & Hodgetts, R.M. (2000). Frederick W. Taylor's 1899 pig iron observations: Examining fact, fiction, and lessons for the new millennium. Academy of Management Journal, 43(6), 1283-1291.

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1 comment:

Joan Vinall-Cox said...

Fascinating. I really appreciate learning that "best practices" is a concept based on "mis-spoken" manipulative reporting, masquerading as scientifically derived information.