Maury Peiperl’s recent blog about the origins of the school in a work study group back in 1953 started me thinking about how much work has changed since then.
From the late 1880s to the start of the last century we had the earliest developments of management in Taylorism and the concept of scientific management. The focus here was on productivity and operational efficiency through job design, with the design of the “one best way” of doing a repetitive task. Work Study in many ways was a continuation of such an approach and it was a course taught on my undergraduate degrees in the 1980s.
Hasn’t the world of work changed? The whole idea of whether people are working efficiently has changed to are people working effectively? The idea that someone can design a job has been over taken by the idea that the best person to design a job is the person doing it. We have moved in most sectors from Douglas McGregor’s Theory X to his Theory Y view of the world.
And we do expect employees to bring their brains to work and not just be told what to do. Many of the old repetitious manufacturing jobs have been automated, so people are expected to think at work and exercise discretion. I remember some years ago getting into an argument with Michael Burke about this subject on a stage for the Red Meat Industry Forum. He was suggesting that people didn’t have to think at work and I was arguing that if they didn’t their job would be automated and disappear or be taken by someone else who did.
But that does give us some problems in society as those without qualifications and experience find it increasingly hard to get into work and into good jobs in particular. But it also gives management a problem. How do we manage? How do we get people to exercise discretion effectively?
The answer we are going to find is that we need to engage everybody’s brains again. Designing control systems isn’t the preserve of the accounts department, they need to engage people throughout the organisation. Target setting isn’t the preserve of top management as the targets won’t get delivered without much wider commitment and buy ins. Operations can be designed by Industrial Engineers (the modern day work study people) but they are so much more effective when continuously redeveloped by the people on the shop floor.
We all know organisations that work this way, and they are amongst the most effective organisations out there, but there are still wide swathes of industry where this doesn’t happen. Everyone understands the link between engagement and organisational performance, but how is this delivered? It is about the systems, practice and approaches we use, but it is also about the leadership style and the organisational culture these create. Command and Control still has a lot to answer for!