Avoiding Scientific Management 2.0

Seth Godin is one of those people who isn’t always right, but is always worth reading. He proposes the coming of Scientific Management 2.0, the application of Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific management to white collar work:

White collar workers, the people who get to sit down at a desk, the folks with a keyboard not a hammer, can now be measured more than ever. And in competitive environments, what can be measured, often is.

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How many keystrokes per hour?

How many incoming customer service calls handled per day?

What’s the close rate, the change in user satisfaction, the clickthroughs, the likes?

There’s no doubt that big data and the trend towards more comprehensive analytics about organisational activities will lead to improved systems awareness. However, the availability of this data needs to be tempered against the strong evidence that setting targets using this kind of systems data is nearly always counterproductive and often actively harmful.

The first time around, Scientific Management failed because those implementing it failed to take into account that the agents in organisations were in fact intelligent and self-aware people with complex desires and responses — including a sense of pride and justice if they were mistreated. Managers saw Taylorism as a way to extract maximum profits from workers, not as a partnership for joint benefit.

Ironically, Taylor himself foresaw many of these problems. His original proposals required managers to treat workers with respect, requesting staff to operate in a certain way in exchange for sharing the benefits of increased productivity through higher wages. While his theories have dated given a modern society where average education levels are much higher, to the extent that the theories of Taylor failed it was due to a naivety about people’s tendency to prefer short-term gains over long-term gains, and not the principles espoused themselves.

Scientific Management 2.0 will fail for the same reason as Scientific Management 1.0. You cannot exploit people and expect them not to try and exploit loopholes in your organisational structures in return, or failing that, to simply act maliciously against your organisational interests. But that’s not to say that organisations have not or will not continue to adopt these practices, regardless of the evidence against it.

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Stephen Bounds

Stephen Bounds is an Information and Knowledge Management Specialist with a wide range of experience across the government and private sectors. As founding editor of RealKM and Executive, Information Management at Cordelta, Stephen provides clear strategic thinking along with a hands-on approach to help organisations successfully develop and implement modern information systems.

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