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October 24, 2020

Reincarnation of Taylorism

Opinion

October 24, 2020

Artificial Intelligence, which many believe is a force for good in the world, has actually a dark side for consumers, citizens, and especially for the workers – which then outweighs its benefits.

AI is reviving an atmosphere of distrust of workers, typical of the early 20th century, with more controls imposed on what they do and how they do it. This may be done for more efficiency but it kills creativity and the spirit of belongingness and sense of ownership. What modern organizations and governments need to do is balance optimization/efficiency with employees’ welfare and empowerment in adopting the emerging technologies.

The history of traditional management, set in motion by F W Taylor in the US, suggests that workers’ performance is essentially an engineering issue that can best be addressed by treating workers as cogs of a large machine in designing organizations.

The challenge for managers is to identify functions/activities that are necessary for achieving an organization’s goals and to find ‘one best way’ through experimentation for carrying out those functions. Remuneration is linked to performance, with the assumption that man is an “economic being” and is primarily motivated by economic incentives.

This approach, initially implemented in the US, was not only opposed by factory workers for its reductionist focus but was also questioned by scholars such as Elton Mayo of Harvard University for being counter-productive in the long-run both for organizations as well as workers.

It was empirically established that workers’ productivity was affected more by psychological (the need for achievement and recognition) and social factors (the need for belongingness and social cohesion) than economic incentives. Subsequent studies by McGregor and others proved that employee empowerment/ autonomy had a greater impact on performance (innovation and efficiency) than bureaucratic and technological controls.

Artificial Intelligence and other monitoring mechanisms including biometric systems and CCTVs are on the way to snatch away employees’ power over their jobs. At present, AI tools are employed to make marketing, investment, and HR decisions.

Software such Slack and Microsoft Outlook is used to monitor employees who they meet, what projects they work on, and how they spend their time. Sensors, cameras, and indoor-mapping software are used to monitor activities, resources, and even conversations in real time. This ‘big-brother-is-watching’ phenomenon may catch free riders but it is killing creativity and initiative in the process as well. Employees withdraw emotionally if they fail to game such a suffocating system.

Now Covid-19 has brought about a new world of work in its wake. Most organizations have shut down their operations and have started experimenting with the work-from-home paradigm. This raises the centuries old question again: will they trust employees to be productive or will they introduce AI-based systems to monitor them even more closely? It seems that Covid-19 is pushing us all into the world of robots and online interactions. The era of emotional display in work places is fast approaching its end.

To strike a balance between control and autonomy (personal space and discretion), some organizations are experimenting with new structures and policies. Flexitime and stock options are now in vogue in many companies such as Ali Baba and Microsoft with considerable benefits to both employees and organizations.

Similarly, lean production, which in essence is the mix of optimization and empowerment, seems to be a better alternative to Taylorism and bureaucracy in this era of Artificial Intelligence and online business operations.

The writer teaches at SZABIST, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]