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Business & Leadership

Published on February 26th, 2015 | by Jonathan Gifford

Is your organisation stuck in the industrial era?


Is your organisation stuck in the industrial era? Find out now by taking our quick, twenty-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis. The results that you will be given online on completing the survey are slightly light-hearted, but the issue is very serious.

Managers think; workers do

Back in the heady days of the Second Industrial Revolution, when the United States was busy applying the technologies developed in the first Industrial Revolution to create a burgeoning consumer economy, the principles of Frederick Wilmslow Taylor’s Scientific Management were seen as a blast of bracing fresh air; a glimpse of modernity.

In the bad old days, said Taylor, workers would muddle along, using their gumption and initiative, rules of thumb and accumulated wisdom. But this would not do. This was inefficient. A new breed of managers would be recruited to systematise what had previously been a woefully haphazard state of affairs.

As Taylor wrote in The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911:

The managers assume … the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae which are immensely helpful to the workmen in doing their daily work. In addition to developing a science in this way, the management take on … other types of duties which involve new and heavy burdens for themselves.

These new ‘rules, laws and formulae’ would, under Taylorism, not merely be ‘immensely helpful’ to the workers, they would come to rule the workers’ lives.

The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.

The workers, relieved of the ‘burden’ of all of the thinking that had previously been required of them, were now able to get on with the business of being as efficient as possible.

Monsters in our organisations’ collective unconscious

It is easy (and enjoyable) to parody Taylor, mainly because he is beyond parody. He genuinely believed in a rigid distinction between workers and management and that it was the job of managers – not workers – to think, analyse and plan.

It should be said that Taylor believed that workers should be rewarded for the greater productivity that resulted from the efficiencies of the new system and that his approach of breaking any activity down into its component parts – the basis for later ‘time and motion studies’ – is a useful way of analysing and streamlining any repetitive process.

The problem with Taylorism – and it is a very big problem – is that it crept into the psyche of the modern organisation back in the early twentieth century and has stayed there ever since, like an unresolved childhood trauma, creating inappropriate and damaging behaviours.

Most organisations unwittingly still behave as if manager’s think and plan and workers just ‘do’. While these organisations pay lip service to ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ this is, in fact, unwelcome or merely impractical: things are to be done in ‘the one best way’ because to do anything else risks ‘inefficiency’ (and because old-fashioned managers don’t want workers wasting their and everyone else’s time by running around having bright ideas).

In our new book, My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, Dr Mark Powell and I attempt to haul some of the monsters from the modern organisation’s collective unconscious out into the light of day. We argue that the modern organisation is like a steam engine that modern leaders keep trying to fix, when what is needed is a complete replacement. We explore deep-seated, knee-jerk management obsessions with control, measurement and efficiency, and the typical modern organisation’s woeful approach to such vital issues as communication, leadership and innovation.

We are all knowledge workers now

We are, in fact, all ‘knowledge workers’ now. If a task is literally mindless and repetitive, then it will and should be automated. What human beings bring to any task is, or should be, their ingenuity; their innate sociability; their willingness to rally to a cause, bouncing ideas off each other in a search for the best solution to the common problem.

But few organisations have cultures that genuinely encourage these uniquely human talents.The pull of old, steam engine, industrial-era habits is too strong. We categorise and control; appraise and retrain; dictate and confine; manage and demotivate.

Is your own organisation stuck in the industrial era?

Find out now by taking our quick, twenty-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis.

The results that you will be given on completing the survey are slightly light-hearted, but the issue is very serious.

Please visit mysteamengineisbroken.com , join the debate with #howsteamareyou and follow us on Twitter @MySteamEngine

Work needs to be fit for this century, not for the last.

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About the Author

I write and blog about the human aspects of business and leadership, with an interest in the lessons that we can learn from history, including recent history. Please do leave a comment if anything occurs. You can sign up for my occasional newsletter, highlighting some recent blogs. I live in Oxfordshire, England.

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