Monday, 12 October 2009

Taylorism and ITSM's Obsession With Process

Many recent theories and studies within occupational psychology have been positive about the role that autonomy plays in achieving beneficial workplace outcomes. By ‘beneficial outcomes’ I’m referring to stuff like motivation, performance, innovation, job satisfaction, well-being, receptivity to change, and proactivity to name a few. There are some however, who argue that the field’s preoccupation with autonomy is a reaction to Fredrick W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management. It’s a pretty famous book which influenced millions of working lives (probably including yours). It was published in 1911 and contained the then new technique of time-and-motion studies, and an approach that argued for a reducition in worker decision latitude, and work variety. In total this constituted a major restriction on the freedoms that workers enjoyed at the time. Taylor argued that his approach resulted in increased efficiency from the enterprise point of view, and greater pay (due to greater output) for the employee. The philosophy was based upon the idea that the role of managers is to understand the most efficient method (best practice – sounds familiar?) of achieving a task, and to then to exercise control over the workers to ensure that the task is subsequently performed in this manner. His ideas caught on spectacularly and remained popular throughout the twentieth century. Scientific management is epitomised in the production line that the Ford Motor Company introduced and which we are all familiar with today.

While this mechanistic approach to work did demonstrate some efficiency gains, the criticisms of Taylorism (as scientific management is often described) are legion. Staff satisfaction takes a massive hit as does innovation and receptivity to change, in the view of some writers. It has also been suggested that in circumstances where there is much turbulence in the commercial environment, or where staff have greater knowledge than managers, performance may suffer. You want more? Well, complexity theorists and other relativists argue that managers’ attempts to step outside an organisation and to design a system ‘objectively’ are doomed to failure because managers are also part of the system and cannot separate themselves from it. Indeed long before complexity theory was conceived - in 1939 - the Hawthorne researchers found this out the hard way. The results of Hawthorne indicated that performance in a department improved simply through the observation of the staff by researchers. This was explained thus: the workers were made to feel special and important by the presence of the academic team.

Hawthorne neatly indicated that human issues are not straightforward or manipulable by process or technology. Perhaps this is why work psychologists often prove useful in organisations. Such knowledge may be especially pertinent for the ITSM field which has perhaps ignored these subtle yet profound human effects for far too long. Indeed the fetishisation of process through frameworks such as ITIL and CoBIT, is indicative of this in my view. Note that I wish to make it clear at this point that I am certainly not suggesting that these frameworks are without merit. I’m long enough in the tooth to have been around before the common language and the efficient methods of ITIL were introduced. And yes, I was a fan when I first encountered ITIL and I still am. However it is when I see organisations revering process (be it ITIL or anything else) as the only non-technological lever with which to drive great service that I click on the ‘create new blog’ button.

So back to autonomy and Taylorism; although scientific management is nearly at its centenary, many of the ideas are still firmly entrenched in our organisations. Some would argue that much of the best-practice / process discourse could have been lifted directly out of the pages of Taylor’s 1911 tome. Indeed in a large well known technology PLC, managers recently instigated a time-and-motion study of some of their ITSM procedures which felt a bit like being in a time warp. Also Taylor was an engineer. Like many of his IT descendents, he believed that applying epistemologies that have been successful in the sciences of the inanimate, to the animate (i.e. people) would yield great results for organisations. The flaws in Taylor’s approach signpost the failings of the obsession with process in the ITSM industry. Furthermore many companies in the post-modern era that have departed form the Tayloristic method have seen great success (e.g. Google, GoreTex, Semco). I am firmly of the belief that this is where differentiation and competitive advantage within the ITSM domain now lies. Companies that are brave enough to move beyond the accepted script and to implement a new paradigm may experience a quantum leap of progress over their rivals

For me this paradigm revolves around autonomy, and a theory that emerged from the Tavistock Institute in the 1950s. However this blog entry is far too long as it is. More about these next time (maybe)!

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