Taylor’s scientific management doesn’t apply to knowledge work

When Frederick Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, it made sense.

Taylor thought management could be rationalised. He invented the time and motion study. He taught managers to develop clear and repeatable workflow processes. He saw industrial era workers as machines. It took a while, but his ideas were picked up by people like Henry Ford. Industries were revolutionised and fortunes were made.

Scientific management helped the west win a world war and continued as a powerful influence well into the 1970s and 1980s. It lives on today in industrial workplaces. Maybe it still has a place in factories and sweat shops. Yet, as Helen Whitehead from the Reach Further website explains, it certainly doesn’t have a place in the knowledge economy.

You can’t hurry or streamline true knowledge work in the same way you can automate car manufacturing. This hasn’t stopped managers from trying.

Whitehead’s story mentions dehumanising digital surveillance technologies  like keystroke logging  and email monitoring as examples of digital taylorism. They are all nasty and ultimately counter-productive.

What often looks like slacking; long conversations in the tea room, café meetings and even leaving the office early for drinks with colleagues and customers can be as productive as slaving over a hot computer. Building relations, shooting the breeze and exchanging ideas are often important aspects of creative knowledge work. What’s more, it’s rich for an employer who expects staff to work unpaid overtime, accept business calls and deal with email at all hours of the day and night to object to personal phone calls. Make that rich and counter-productive.

2 thoughts on “Taylor’s scientific management doesn’t apply to knowledge work

  1. Pingback: The Hawthorne effect « Knowledge Workers

  2. You should read Peter Drucker’s paper about applying Taylor to knowledge workers, its pretty interesting

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