Digital Taylorism

11. September 2015

Date: 10-09-2015
Source: The Economist: Schumpeter

A modern version of “scientific management” threatens to dehumanise the workplace

FREDERICK TAYLOR was the most influential management guru of the early 20th century. His “Principles of Scientific Management” was the first management blockbuster. His fans included Henry Ford, who applied many of his ideas in his giant River Rouge car plant, and Vladimir Lenin, who regarded scientific management as one of the building blocks of socialism. Taylor’s appeal lay in his promise that management could be made into a science, and workers into cogs in an industrial machine. The best way to boost productivity, he argued, was to embrace three rules: break complex jobs down into simple ones; measure everything that workers do; and link pay to performance, giving bonuses to high-achievers and sacking sluggards.

Scientific management provoked a backlash. Aldous Huxley satirised it in “Brave New World” (1932), as did Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” (1936). A rival school of managers argued that workers are more productive if you treat them as human beings. But a recent article about Amazon in the New York Times suggests that Taylorism is thriving. The article claimed that the internet retailer uses classic Taylorist techniques to achieve efficiency: workers are constantly measured and those who fail to hit the numbers are ruthlessly eliminated, personal tragedies notwithstanding. Amazon’s boss, Jeff Bezos, insisted that he did not recognise the company portrayed in the piece. Nevertheless, it provoked quite a reaction: the article attracted more than 5,800 online comments, a record for a Times article, and a remarkable number of commenters claimed that their employers had adopted similar policies. Far from being an outlier, it would seem that Amazon is the embodiment of a new trend, digital Taylorism. Read the rest of this entry »