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. 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 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. 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? 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.