MANAGEMENT, TECHNOLOGY AND DETERIORATION OF WORK

MANAGEMENT, TECHNOLOGY AND THE DETERIORATION OF WORK
THIS ESSAY IS PART SEVEN OF THE SERIES “HOW JOBS DESTROYED WORK”.
Work combined with technology can make for a wonderful union. Described by W. Brian Arthur as ‘a reprogramming of nature’, technology provides us with new tools and capabilities that can improve our lives and broaden our horizons. It was technological advance and the rise in productivity it enabled that lead to the likes of Keynes to predict a marked reduction in labour along with a rise in living standards as the 20th century marched toward the millennium.
But technology is a double-edged sword. Depending on how it is used, it can be a source of ill as well as good. When it comes to jobs, technology can be used to cause the deterioration of work. 
To understand why anyone would want to do such a thing, one must understand why businesses exist in the first place. Their only real purpose is to generate wealth for their owners. They do not exist in order to provide work for anybody, nor do they exist to produce anything for anybody other than the owners. Rather, both of those things are what businesses have traditionally had to do in order to achieve their one and only true purpose. 
Because their one and only purpose is to enrich their owners, businesses are motivated to increase sales and lower costs. One of the commodities that count among a business’s costs is labour power. Work that achieves that highest of aspirational standards- the ‘calling’- more than likely requires judgement, flexibility, challenge, and autonomy for employees who occupy such positions. The problem is, employees who possess the skillsets such work requires tend to be in a better bargaining position and can therefore negotiate greater benefits compared to less autonomous and creative labourers. Since employers would prefer to pay their workers less so that they can gain more, they strive to reduce the amount of judgement, flexibility and challenge required of their employees, thereby allowing them to hire cheaper labour. 
DESKILLING MANAGEMENT
In “The Electronic Sweatshop”, Barbara Garson explained the techniques which achieve that objective. “A combination of 20th century technology and 19th century scientific management [turn] the office of the future into the factory of the past”. In other words, employers seek out technologies and management techniques that will enable production to be arranged in such a way so that minimum skill is required to do the job. The goal is to make the workplace smarter so that employees will not need to be as autonomous, flexible and creative as they otherwise would need to be. Put another way, bosses are motivated to move control away from the managed and toward the managers. In ‘What Do Bosses Do?’, Stephen Marglin wrote about how the assembly-line division of labour gives control to whoever constructs the assembly line while simultaneously removing it from whoever actually works on it.
The more employers rely on production-line techniques, the more employment resembles the factories of the past. Take service-based jobs for example. Employers in call centres are micromanaged, provided with such detailed scripts they don’t really need to know anything about the product or service they are talking about. Airlines have standardized reservation. American Airlines, for example, divided a two-minute reservation conversation into segments of ‘opening’, ‘sales pitch’, ‘probe’ and ‘close’. A set of interchangeable modules was provided for each segment. As Garson explained, “an acceptable conversation could now be put together like a mix and match outfit for a Chinese dinner- one from column A, two from column B”. This standardization of the reservation conversation meant that the airline needed less dependency on the agents’ own experience and judgement. That made them more easily replaceable, which lowered their bargaining power, which meant their labour could be hired at lower cost. It would not surprise me, in fact, if such employers were replaced by artificial intelligence by now, something which is always a possibility if work is dumbed down enough and AI becomes smart enough.
The reader is reminded that while techniques to reduce judgement, flexibility and challenge in work saves money for the owner classes by lowering the cost of labour, it also reduces engagement and meaning and so prevents such work from being a ‘calling’. Consider this extract from an application letter written by an aspiring teacher:
“I want to manage a classroom where children experience the thrill of wonder, the joy of creativity, and the rewards of working hard. My objective is to convey to children in their formative years the sheer pleasure in learning”.
Well, that certainly sounds like the kind of employment that offers the chance to exercise one’s creativity and gain tremendous satisfaction from work, doesn’t it? Alas, the actual job was rather different. School administrators had broken teaching down into several dozen observable behaviours and then set about micromanaging teachers. For example, another teacher was required to use a script that was twice as long as the book she was reading to her Kindergarten class. She was not at liberty to invent lessons for teaching, say, the letter ‘B’ to her pupils; instead she had to follow a script which laid out, in excruciating detail, every step of the lesson from where she should have the class sit (“assemble students on the rug”) to what she should say to them (“Say, ‘listen very carefully as I read the story’”). 
In every case, the overall objective is the same. If the system can be made smarter, that reduces the skills employees need. That makes them cheaper to train, less special, easier to replace and therefore more expendable. The more technology and management techniques can decrease the importance of human judgement, discretion, creativity, autonomy and flexibility in any process, the more owners are able to capture a share of their company’s income. 
In part eight we will continue our investigation into how technology and management techniques can deteriorate working conditions.

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