Social Science History Bibliography
I: Employment and manpower planning techniques - …
While critical literature on ECM systems and their deskilling of workers is absent, one central component of such systems, workflow software, has been critiqued for the deleterious effects it has on workers. In the early 1990s there was considerable interest in what was then called Business Process Reengineering (BPR). BPR was conceived in management and business schools (Davenport and Short, 1990: 11), and found its intellectual roots in Taylorism (Davenport, 1993: 316). Its early proponents stressed that it empowered workers and increased their skill base (Hammer and Champy, 2001: 245); however, they also emphasized BPR’s ability to deliver cost savings in the form of staff reductions. Michael Hammer highlighted that Ford Motor Company used reengineering to reduce its North American accounts payable division from 500 to 125 employees (Hammer, 1990: 106), while Taco Bell was able to cut the number of area supervisors it employed by two-thirds even while increasing the number of restaurants (Hammer and Champy, 1993: 250). Unsurprisingly, academic criticism followed. Iden noted BPR had the potential to limit the flexibility and creativity of workers (1995:76). Vanderburg labeled BPR the ‘intellectual assembly line’, and noted that the literature on BPR empowering workers was contradicted by the Taylorist and Fordist principles embodied in BPR (2004: 333). Grey and Mitev argued that BPR inevitably resulted in layoffs for some workers, while remaining workers would be subject to intensification (1995: 11). Several scholars noted that BPR was particularly threatening to middle management as their duties would be automated and the managers themselves made redundant (Vanderburg, 2004: 336; Grey and Mitev, 1995: 11). While Abbott and Sarin did find that while some users benefited from BPR, these outcomes were not universal, and that BPR had the potential to exacerbate problems in some workflows (1994: 113). These criticisms were not lost on Hammer, who when profiled by Time in 1996 noted that reengineering had been misinterpreted and hijacked by CEOs who achieved ‘efficiencies’ through staffing reductions (Time, 1996). While Evans (1994) contends that the majority of attempts at BPR failed due to worker resistance, a major empirical study of corporations that attempted BPR projects found that the primary source of failure was the inability of management to effectively plan for change (Grover et. al., 1995: 139). Willmott (1994: 40) noted that BPR proponents and management adopted an overly simplistic view of workers as passive commodities stating:
Although his seminal 1974 work, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, was focused primarily on physical/industrial labour, the framework he provides can still be used to examine intellectual labour. Braverman highlighted several nascent trends in the deskilling of intellectual work. He noted that in the 1970s the trends toward rationalization and mechanization, so prevalent in industrial labour, were starting to emerge in office work, and were coupled with increasing rates of dissatisfaction among white collar workers (1998: 23-4). Much of Braverman’s criticism of the deskilling of office work was focused on the increasing numbers of low paid, female clerical workers, who were needed to help management coordinate its increasing control over the production process (1998: 90, 170). He noted that the increased mechanization of offices facilitated greater supervision of employees by management, which in turn allows the machine-pacing of office work (1998: 230). Focusing specifically on secretarial work, Braverman noted that it was increasingly being routinized. He argued that work in stenographic pools had shifted from the drafting of documents, to simply the arrangement of pre-written paragraphs (1998: 238). Surveillance and routinization reinforced the subdivision of office work into ever smaller tasks. The result was the deskilling of clerical work, and increased alienation among clerical workers as they lost their personal relations and connections with management (1998: 239). Braverman emphasized that one important factor limited the deskilling trends at play in office work, noting that
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While there is no academic consensus on the deskilling thesis (Littler and Innes, 2003: 73; Carey 2007: 94), some authors have suggested that the criticism of Braverman reflects a trend of increasing political conservatism (Meiksins, 1994: 46; Spencer, 2000: 239). Furthermore, Braverman did not posit that deskilling was an invariant law of capitalist labour processes (Spencer 2009: 63). The primary value of Braverman’s thesis lies not in objective tests of whether it is invariably correct, but as an analytical tool for the examination of the dynamic interaction between management policy, technology and workers skill (Huws, 2003). Despite a considerable volume of literature on content management, there is a lack of literature scrutinizing content management systems using Braverman’s insightful and applicable framework.
As the techniques of Taylor and Ford became increasingly popular last century, criticism of the Taylorist/Fordist work paradigm also flourished. One of the most thorough and insightful critiques that emerged was Harry Braverman’s deskilling thesis. Though Braverman did explore some trends in office work, his work predated the emergence of technologies that could pervasively expand management’s control over intellectual labour. With the 21st century poised to be dominated by prevalence of the intellectual/knowledge worker it is clear that ECM systems possess the potential to revolutionize such work. It therefore becomes necessary to analyze whether such systems present the same threat of deskilling for the intellectual labour using the framework provided by Braverman.
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