Frederick Taylor Scientific Management Meets Orwellian Surveillance

frederick taylor meets george orwell

Over a century ago, with the transformation to an industrial economy in full swing, engineer Frederick Taylor unleashed what was to be the first management revolution of the modern era. Taylor surmised that great increases in productivity could be realized by transferring the thought and decision making part of jobs from employees to management. Taylor’s “scientific management” entailed breaking down work into functions and tasks and discovering the most productive way to do each job.  Rather than allowing employees to gain expertise organically by performing the work, scientific management selected workers suitable for particular jobs and trained them to do the work in standard ways set out by management.

Scientific management represented a seismic shift in the organization of work and had lasting effects in economies around the globe.

Scientific management represented a seismic shift in the organization of work and had lasting effects in economies around the globe.  While it did lead to significant increases in productivity, de-skilling  and programming jobs often alienated workers,  boosting union participation and labor unrest.  Eventually other management models emerged as a counterforce to scientific management, acknowledging such problems as reduced worker motivation and job satisfaction, higher turnover, and a disruption in the social cohesion of the workplace.

At the same time as scientific management was transforming the workplace, another societal revolution was occurring with the rise of mass communication technologies.  Film, radio and later television, afforded powerful new ways of persuasion and influence on a mass scale.  Parallel advances such as telephone and audio recording held out the promise that mass communications could eventually become two-way.

In “Nineteen Eighty Four” George Orwell warned that mass two-way communication could make it possible to influence and control people on a scale previously unimagined.

In “Nineteen Eighty Four” George Orwell warned that mass two-way communication could make it possible to influence and control people on a scale previously unimagined. In Orwell’s novel surveillance microphones and “telescreens”, which both transmit and monitor, are found everywhere, from the workplace and public areas to the inside of private homes.  Although technology was only one dimension of Orwell’s dystopian police state it was the one which cemented the powerful ideological and repressive tools into a coordinated system.

While the monitoring and control that Orwell warned of has thankfully not overtaken society at large, it certainly is evident in the “platform-mediated” workplace that is rapidly becoming the norm.

While the monitoring and control that Orwell warned of has thankfully not overtaken society at large, it certainly is evident in the “platform-mediated” workplace that is rapidly becoming the norm.  Here workers are tethered to a live digital platform that regulates their activities, monitors performance, and provides feedback and motivational communication on a continual basis.  The platform-mediated workplace combines Orwellian surveillance and control with principles of scientific management and refinements developed in behavioral science in the decades following Taylor’s work.

At present most commonly identified with the “gig economy” ,  exemplified by firms such as Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, platform-mediated work is also becoming a central feature of other workplaces where work is managed by computer, such as transportation, financial services and call centers.

Platform-mediated work extends Taylor’s scientific management model of analyzing work into units that are combined to maximize productivity in a number of ways.  These include powerful goal setting techniques and, from the field of behavioral economics, decision framing.  Goal setting becomes a powerful tool in platform-mediated work because goals can be set and feedback presented to the worker on a continual basis.  Similarly with decision framing, choices like how long to work on a shift can be adapted to the worker and the situation. Decision making research has shown that subtle changes in how a choice is presented will influence the decision.

Platform-mediated work can also make use of the behavioral science of gaming, for example, using “ludic loops”, repetitive tasks that provide just enough reinforcement to maximize vigilance.  Another lesson from gaming psychology is that workers can be motivated by non-monetary symbolic rewards such as badges or “likes”. “Forward dispatch” is another powerful feature being incorporated in platform-mediated work – the practice of queuing the next unit of work just as the current one is being completed.  Forward dispatch further transfers control of work away from the worker to management.

Is the future of platform-mediated work an Orwellian nightmare of coercion and manipulation?

Is the future of platform-mediated work an Orwellian nightmare of coercion and manipulation?  Not necessarily. Orwell offered his vision as a warning about a possible future, not a prediction that it was inevitable. Taylor’s scientific management model caused a backlash over time as people recognized the negative consequences of over controlling work both on the individual and on the organization, as well as on society at large.  Eventually other management theorists like Peter Drucker and Henry Mintzberg showed there were ways to maximize productivity without dehumanizing the workplace.

Platform-mediated work can also be made to balance productivity, job satisfaction and a fair and dignified workplace. The platform could be programmed to allow workers to modify or turn off features such as forward dispatch, ludic loops and goal setting.  A big attraction of the platform-mediated workplace for workers is that it gives them the ability to adapt their schedules to balance work with other priorities.  This flexibility could be further developed.  The history of the workplace shows the control of work is part of an ongoing negotiation between workers and the organization where the needs of each side must be accommodated.


Job Analysis Tools: DOT and O*Net Online

job analysis tools- DOT and Onet Online

Many job analysis tools are available to the human resource practitioner.  One valuable free resource that has been available since the 1930s and has been brought into the digital age is the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, or its digital descendant,  O*Net Online.

The Dictionary of Occupational Titles or D-O-T (DOT) refers to a publication produced by the United States Department of Labor which helped employers, government officials, and workforce development professionals to define over 13,000 different types of work, from 1938 to the late 1990s. The DOT was created by job analysts who visited thousands of US work sites to observe and record the various types of work, and what was involved.

The DOT was later replaced by an online database called the Occupational Information Network or the O*NET.The entire O*NET database is available free of charge to the general public for job analysis and workforce planning via a searchable web-based application O*NET Online.

The readily accessible data from O*Net Online is a treasure trove for HR professionals in large and small organizations and can be applied to a multitude of purposes beyond job analysis, including, performance appraisal ( job dimensions, standards), compensation (external equity), and career management.  For the latter the online tool has built-in career breakout options.

O*net Online is a terrific free resource in a small business setting, where there may not be any HR professional on duty. Easily accessible and intuitive it can be a “go-to” guide for the entrepreneur who wants to inject a bit of  HR professionalism to his/her entrepreneurial skill set.

The Platform-Mediated Workplace

The platform-mediated workplace combines Orwellian surveillance and control with principles of scientific management and refinements developed in behavioral science in the decades following  Frederick Taylor’s seminal work more than a century ago.

In this piece in the New York Times we see the mechanics of the Platform Mediated Workplace in one of it’s most sophisticated versions.

How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons

Iceland To Mandate Pay Equity

In many jurisdictions, just because the law prohibits pay discrimination does not magically make it disappear.

In Iceland, where the concept of gender equity is widely accepted, pay inequity persists despite being illegal. As the Guardian notes:

‘“It has been illegal for decades, for jobs that are worth the same, to pay people differently because of gender, but still it happens – it’s simply been allowed,” says Valdimarsdóttir, who is now the chair of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association.’

To correct the persistent inequity Iceland will  become the first jurisdiction in the world to legally enforce equal pay.

Within four years from January 2018, any public or private body in Iceland employing more than 25 people that has not been independently certified as paying equal wages for work of equal value will face daily fines.

The Iceland experience seems to suggest that the durability of systemic discrimination means that it doesn’t simply evaporate over time but rather can be corrected only by specific active intervention.

Read the Guardian article here.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole

Pay Equity: Both Sides Now

In the Pay Equity area of compensation one encounters HR, compensation and ideological arguments for and against pay equity interventions. Admittedly, teasing out causality in gender based pay gaps from covariants such as education, age and race is never straight forward, but some of the major positions against pay equity interventions seem consistent over time. Here are a few and their counter-arguments.

Argument 1 Against Pay Equity Intervention:
In a democratic society, wages are set by the free labour market. Pay equity makes the price of a job dependent on subjective value judgements, depriving workers and employers alike of the freedom to decide how much labour is worth.

This argument is based on the theoretical model of a free labour market where employers compete on an equal basis for workers and workers compete with each other for jobs. This model assumes that workers have information about and access to job opportunities, geographic mobility, the ability to upgrade their skill as required, freedom to choose whether to work or not. In such a market wages would be determined by supply and demand.

As anyone who recruits and hires personnel knows, however, there are all kinds of labour markets for all kinds of jobs. In reality, large employers in a community set their own market, and, smaller employers who are unwilling or unable do not pay the market rate. Job seekers do not have the information or options required by a free market. The idea of the free market allocating resources might be fairly strong when it comes to the purchase of foods, housing or transportation, and even for some highly specialized jobs for which there is high demand. It is highly questionable, however that the market is as free, unbiased and open to individual choice when it comes to most people making decisions about where they work and how much they will work for.

Further, you cannot assume the labour market operates the same way for men as for women. Men are not socialized into preparing for low-paying work before they enter the labour market; men are not excluded from high-paying work once they are in the market; and men are not directed into a restricted set of occupations. The value of labour may be its price in a free market, but women are not part of a free market. For women, the labour market is segmented, with women directed to the secondary segment, hired into lower-paying jobs while equally qualified men are hired into high paying jobs with greater opportunities for advancement. How many men have been excluded from apprenticeship and on-the-job training because of gender? How many men have been refused consideration for promotion to supervisory or managerial positions because of gender? How many men with years of experience have trained a newly hired woman and six months later seen that woman preferred for promotion? Women may participate in a competitive labour market, but their competitors are other women and the jobs for which women compete are artificially limited. The price of women’s labour is not the result of supply and demand but of bloated supply and strangled demand.

In reality, then, there is not a single free labour market but a segregated or dual labour market. Access to the highest paying jobs is limited to men because women lack information, mobility and the necessary training because of socialization and discrimination. In a dual labour market, employers can pay women less than their true value to the firm, and women are not wooed away by hypothetical non discriminatory employers. The result is that the market does not punish discriminatory employers, despite what economic theory dictates.

Argument 2 Against Pay Equity Intervention:
If the labour market is operating imperfectly with respect to certain jobs, the answer is not to subvert the market but to correct the imperfection through Employment Equity initiatives. Even if there is a certain amount of systemic discrimination in the labour market, why should an innocent employer pay for discrimination over which the firm has no control?

Employment Equity is a necessary but insufficient remedy because it does not benefit women who are already in the labour force and who are being underpaid. At best, only entry level jobs are truly part of the labour market. Internal promotions are immune to the forces of supply and demand because the only demand comes from within the firm and the only supply is current employees. Employment equity only benefits new entrants into the firm.

Argument 3 Against Pay Equity Intervention:
Job evaluation does not establish the worth of jobs but only approximates the market value of a job. A job has no inherent worth, but only a market value. Job evaluation should not be used as a substitute for the labour market.

While job evaluation may not reveal the absolute value of jobs, it does reveal the relative worth of jobs to the organization. In the past, job evaluation was not used correctly and systematically undervalued women’s work. This does make it a matter of rights versus interests because the undervaluing was the result of built-in prejudice.

Argument 4 Against Pay Equity Intervention:
Setting wages through Pay Equity is an inefficient allocation of resources and will eventually require that government regulates pay across the board. Further, pay equity is a matter of interests not rights. Women simply want more money for the work that they do. This is likely true of any other group in society. As long as women are free to become computer engineers and choose to become admin assistants, they have no right to demand engineer’s pay for admin assistant work.

Pay Equity will not lead the government to price and allocate labour. Once the value of women’s work is fairly determined, the market should once again be used to set wages. Until the market is corrected for gender discrimination it cannot be used as a legitimate reference point.

Pay equity is no different from 19th century American abolition movement, which sought to better black’s position in society. The important question is the justice of the effort. Women ask only to be paid what they contribute to a firm. To extent that they are paid less than they are worth, who can deny that they are being exploited? Ending exploitation cannot be painless, and those who now benefit the most from it are likely to cry the loudest about its end. If righting a wrong has some undesirable side effects (e.g., increased inflation) the answer is not to ignore the wrong but to remedy the side effects equitably.

Performance Feedback: Five Ways Feedback Systems Fails Due To Organizational Misalignment

Feedback is an essential adaptive mechanism of all biological and social systems, from single celled organisms to human beings, from non-profit community associations to multinational organizations. Feedback from others and from the environment is what allows a child to learn a language, an athlete to win an Olympic Gold, an army to win a battle, and a CEO to lead a cutting edge business. Feedback is a fundamental way that individuals and organizations learn and grow, dropping unproductive behaviors and attitudes and aligning efforts with the goals that lead to individual and collective success.

So why is this natural and constructive process frequently viewed with loathing and suspicion in many organizations? The answer is that the performance review systems used by many organizations do not meet their objective of providing useful feedback because the feedback system is not aligned with management systems, organizational culture, other HR systems, or the needs of individual employees. A feedback system that is out of alignment cannot achieve its goal of balancing individual and organizational energy.

Misalignments in Feedback Systems

There are many ways in which performance feedback can be misaligned with management systems:

  1. The feedback system can be misaligned with corporate strategy so that what is being measured and evaluated at the individual level does not relate to the big picture. This can be particularly problematic where reviews are static once-a-year events, instead of being part of a continuous data gathering cycle.
  2. When political considerations override valid performance feedback in organizational decision-making, or when achievement does not drive the organizational reward structure, employees readily perceive the lack of alignment and are quick to write off the feedback process as unfair and biased.
  3. Performance feedback can be out of alignment with organizational culture if the unique values of the culture are not explicitly brought into the measurement process. In developing an executive feedback system for the Board of Directors of an organization in the agriculture sector, we quickly learned that the roots of the organization as a farm-based cooperative had to be incorporated into the system by including measures that assess the extent to which executives promote cooperative values throughout the organization. Alternatively, it was imperative that the feedback system that we developed for a first-nations band reflect their strong focus on community and heritage if band members were going to invest their energy into the feedback process.
  4. Performance feedback systems are frequently not aligned with other HR systems. While conducting an audit of HR functions for a large urban police organization, we were quite surprised when we examined what was the role of performance reviews in promoting officers through the ranks. The answer was “none” – performance reviews were not considered in promoting police officers. This is a somewhat extreme example, but it is all too common to find that no direct link exists between performance feedback data and such HR functions as recruitment, promotion, compensation, absence and turnover management and training and development. Is there any wonder that employees perceive such performance feedback as irrelevant?
  5. At the individual user level, a feedback system can be misaligned with the needs of the individual employee if the system is overly complex and time consuming, does not contain valid, job-related measures or if no user training is provided. Alternatively a system, particularly when it is computer-based, can suffer from feature overkill, with bells and whistles that distract the reviewer from the main task of providing meaningful feedback. In designing performance feedback systems we must always remember that a system that fails to meet ease of use requirements or distracts the reviewer will create an immediate energy blockage, even if the feedback process is aligned at higher levels.

Next: Aligning Performance Feedback Systems with Organizational Energy

The Gender Pay Gap in the US

The current median salary for women working full-time is about 80 percent of men’s reports the Washington Post in an article by Xaquín G.V., an author described as an “interactive, data and visual journalist”. If you are a data wonk with a love of cool data displays ( and you must be if you are interested in compensation issues) you will enjoy this presentation.

The jist of the article is that the gender pay gap is real but that the causes of the gap are many and more nuanced than just individual choices or corporate discrimination. The pay gap varies depending on occupation, working hours, education, experience, and geography.

The piece delves into the arguments that women choose lower-paying jobs and part-time work and that the pay gap is not present for younger, more educated women.


The Tao of Performance Feedback

Feedback is an essential process that allows individuals and organizations to learn and grow, dropping unproductive behaviors and attitudes and aligning efforts with the goals that lead to individual and collective success. As we have seen in the previous post, a feedback system that is out of alignment with the energy flow fo the organization cannot achieve its goal of balancing individual and organizational energy.

So how can organizations benefit from a Taoist perspective on performance feedback?

1. Promote the view that performance feedback is a positive and natural process by which individuals and organizations ensure that their energy stays focused on achieving their missions. Recognize that top performing individuals and organizations of all types continually seek out meaningful feedback to retain their edge. This positive view of feedback has immediate intuitive appeal and counters the view of feedback as a controlling and limiting bureaucratic exercise. Getting everyone in the organization to see the positive potential of feedback is a major first step.

2. Ensure that the performance feedback system is aligned with management processes such as strategic decision-making and reward structures. There are many ways to promote this alignment. For example, feedback to high-level executives can include upward input from subordinates. Alternatively, feedback to rank and file employees should incorporate elements of the organizational mission and strategy to forge a link to the big picture. Examine the link between rewards such as compensation and promotion and performance as measured by the feedback system. If they do not correlate, find out why. Conduct a formal or informal survey examining employee’ trust in the system and their perception of whether performance feedback influences organizational decision-making.

3. Take the unique cultural aspects of your organization into account when designing your feedback system. I often start a performance feedback system development workshop with a cultural audit designed to bring cultural values to the conscious attention of participants. Organizational culture can be incorporated into a feedback system either explicitly, by assessing the employee’s contribution to promoting cultural values, or implicitly in the feedback components used in the feedback system (e.g., ratings or narrative feedback).

4. Ensure that the performance feedback system is aligned with other HR systems such that performance data inform functions such as recruitment, promotion, compensation, absence and turnover management and training and development. It is worth examining each human resource function individually and asking whether data from the feedback system is being used to drive that system. If performance data are not informing an HR function, find out why.

5. Ensure that the performance feedback system is aligned with the needs of individual users. Listen to users when designing or selecting a system with particular attention to validity of measurement, ease of use, time requirements, and training needs. Maintain a benefit vs. feature orientation, rejecting bells and whistles in favor of features that genuinely enhance the natural value of meaningful feedback. The greater the alignment of feedback with individual and organizational energy, the more that energy can be directed towards achieving individual and collective goals. As Lao Tse said of the Tao nearly three thousand years ago:

“If kings and lords could harness it, heaven and earth would naturally obey.”