One hundred years of solitude

So last year how many of you attended the myriad of street parties, parades, exhibitions and cocktail receptia, or found yourself swept up in the excitement of the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management? None of you? As I thought. There were no events, and there was no excitement.

Yet for the last hundred years Taylor’s Principles have provided the prevailing management philosophy and practice in most industries and professions. Invisible and unknown to many, his ideas are ubiquitous, his reach global. He has influenced both the purveyors of free markets and planned economies alike. His ideas more than any other have created the fundamental infrastructure on which the ever-changing superstructure of our social relations are lain, and despite perennial criticism, have proved resolute and stubborn.

For those unfamiliar, a summary. Believing that workers naturally “soldiered” (worked at a lesser capacity to protect jobs) under the prevailing autonomous “rule-of-thumb” methods, he set about measuring productivity through the study of time and motion, believing that there was only “One Best Way” (the “optimum” – don’t we love this word today?) to complete any task. The only benefits that could be measured, or were important, were quantitative. To ensure that this ultimate efficiency was possible, control was to be passed from workers to management to ensure the strict standardisation of methods, conditions, processes, tools and co-operation: the antithesis of trust. “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first”.

If we are not aware of the underlying philosophy, we certainly recognise the language. Through the revolving doors, it is in everyday use.

It can be argued that without Taylorist principles we would not have the prosperity we enjoy today, despite the odd global financial meltdown or two. It is not the purpose of this post to debate the matter, nor is it the intention to be critical of his thinking: all influential ideas have – and are, initially at least of – their time.

It is my intention however to challenge the fashionable belief that we are in the midst of a “revolution” in work or the workplace. As I have previously argued, revolution can only take place within the infrastructure – whereas at this time, while some cracks are appearing therein, the activity being referred to (within technology, the workplace and how we work) is taking place in the superstructure, a place that is entirely comfortable with, and expectant of, change.

The fundamental – revolutionary – change will occur when we finally dispense with the hegemony of efficiency. The increasing socialisation of all aspects of our life and work has started this process. We are beginning to understand that the complexity and connectedness of the world of today, as compared to a hundred years ago, is creating opportunity from accident and inefficiency that can be rapidly turned to commercial advantage without significant investment – and that without continual adaptation to circumstances, will have both the immediate beauty and lifespan of a dragonfly. We are realising that circumstances shift continually, and that the operating models imposed on them may often be empty shells. We are once again recognising the importance of the unusual and extraordinary individual over and above “the system”. In such environments, as typified by many start-ups, the distinction between managers and workers breaks down, and control is dispersed. The “One Best Way” becomes whatever way works at that particular time, under those conditions.

I would argue that we are in the final stages of the enlightenment of the vanguard. We will probably enjoy experiencing, partaking in, and talking and writing about the interesting yet superficial changes that occur, while the deeper change takes root and becomes more significant. It may yet take another decade, even two, for Taylorist principles to finally slip quietly into history, acknowledged for their contribution yet no longer relevant. In the meantime we must never underestimate how deep they lie in the collective unconscious of organisational management.

Recognising them when we see them is one significant step forward.

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