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The Dehumanized Employee

The Dehumanized Employee

IT's dark side lies in its tendency to encourage bosses to see people as bits and bytes.

In the 1936 film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin is fed by an assembly line and almost eaten by one. The idea that machines consumed people was a common complaint in the age of heavy industry. Human beings, went the popular critique, had become the slaves of machines, and in the case of Chaplin's character, twitching automatons. Chaplin's movie reflected the factory world created by Frederick W Taylor (1856-1915), the most influential management guru of the machine age. Taylor transformed factories from fairly plodding places into models of economic rationality where capital intensive machinery ran full and fast in order to maximize return on investment. Since the machines had to be driven hard, so did the people who ran them. Taylor used the stopwatch and piece-rate pay to squeeze the last ounce of effort out of workers. Despite his tyrannical methods, Taylor managed to sell himself, at least for a time, as a prophet of democracy, out to enrich the working class rather than enslave them. Chaplin disagreed.

History seems to be repeating itself in the information age. Today's management gurus have long promised that information technology would deliver a new birth of freedom for corporate employees. Contemporary prophets of management often predict that information technology will flatten hierarchies, empower employees and shrink giant companies into human communities. In his recent book, The Future of Work, MIT's Thomas Malone argues that IT is pushing out authority to the fringes of the organization and empowering workers to have more autonomy and decision-making power. To a significant degree those prophecies are being fulfilled, especially for well-educated employees with knowledge and skills in high demand.

Reducing Employees to Bits and Bytes

It is increasingly clear, however, that for many other employees, the management gurus prophesying that IT will democratize today's workplaces are just as wrong as Taylor was. IT can be used not only to liberate human beings but to control them. In industries employing unskilled workers, such as retailing, IT has created top-down control to a degree that Taylor could only have dreamed of. Instead of working for small organizations, many retail employees work for giant firms that dwarf even the behemoths of the industrial era.

Management by Remote

Just as the machine age made Chaplin's character a faceless automaton, the information age can make employees invisible to managers who may be tempted to think of them as mere bits of data. Thanks to IT and the instantaneous global reach of today's large companies, many of the management decisions affecting employees are made from a great geographical and organizational distance, which offers managers the temptation to ignore the human beings affected by their decisions. As long ago as 1995, Thomas Davenport, my colleague at Babson College, warned that management gurus were in danger of treating employees "as if they were just so many bits and bytes".

Where workers in Taylor's time at least knew the managers who profoundly affected their lives, employees in large organizations today often have no human connection to managers who exert enormous control over them. A century ago it was unusual for corporate headquarters to make a decision that affected employees' daily lives. It took a big decision with big consequences - the decision, say, to open or close a factory. Workers' routine operations within the factory were still controlled by immediate, highly visible supervisors.

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