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Taylor’s scientific management, AI and knowledge work

Taylor’s scientific management, AI and knowledge work

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

Taylor thought management could be rationalised. To get there he invented the time and motion study. He taught managers to develop clear and repeatable workflow processes. He saw industrial era workers as machines.

You can probably already see where this is going with today's excitement about AI, but read on.

It took a while, but Taylor's ideas were picked up by people like Henry Ford. Industries were revolutionised and fortunes were made.

How the war was won

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; those 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. And the best knowledge work is creative.

On a side note, 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.

Misapplying AI

Artificial intelligence has its place in the modern workforce. There are tasks it can do better than humans. Some results are impressive. You can apply it to many types of knowledge work.

Yet too many managers, raised on Taylorism, and its digitally fuelled descendent philosophies, see it as an opportunity to double down on dehumanising the workplace. Which misses the point.

Take AI chat-bots. They appear to be revolutionary, in fact they are little more than a refinement of a more than a decade-old technology. Yes, AI-powered chat-bots can answer many more questions, but the key difference between today's AI chat-bots and their less intelligent ancestors is the modern ones are more likely to serve up incorrect answers.

If history teaches us anything about technology and productivity, the human part of the equation is the difficult bit. AI is here. It is already disrupting entire sectors, but the biggest winners will not be the managers and businesses who view AI through Frederick Taylor's lens.