Bill Bennett


Taylor, scientific management and 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.

Taylor saw industrial era workers as machines. Today we might say: ‘robots’.

It took a while, but Taylor’s ideas were picked up by people like Henry Ford. Industries went through revolutions. Industrialists made fortunes. Workers were miserable and unions gathered power.

World wars and sweat shops

Scientific management helped the West win a world war. Production soared and, when essential, it could be cranked up. Taylor’s ideas continued as a powerful influence well into the 1970s and 1980s. It lives on today in the worst, old-fashioned 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 modern 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.

Dehumanising tools

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. Employees don’t hang around in those workplaces if they have alternatives.

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.