Digital Taylorism – Why our Jobs are Getting Worse

This brilliant article from the Grauniad absolutely hit a nerve with me. It describes the reasons why I hate the management edifice around what my job has become, though at the moment what I do is okay – if only the blasted System would let me get on an do it with death-by-bureaucracy.

When I started work at my current company as a lowly grunt Assistant Engineer, I had the authority to fill in a purchase requisition for up to £500 without higher level authorisation, and that was about right for the level of work. It wasn’t generally abused, either.

Now I have to get authorisation from the next level up simply to buy a rail ticket, and that next level has to get the okay and a reference number from some other part of Business Operations. I don’t know what you have to do to buy pens and paperclips these days. The company’s perfectly entitled to introduce all this bureaucracy, but it was all snuck in while talking about employee empowerment and BS like that.

Software development used to be a creative process. It is now a revolting straitjacketed system where an idea gets posted to s Star Chamber whose purpose is to destroy anything that is innovative or potentially risky, then fire anything that gets through into another bureaucratic process to make sure it fits in with a morass of process and policy definitions. Presumably the original purpose of the Star Chamber was something else but my description fits the most obvious results. For some reason we seem to take longer to get anything involving software to market, so we outsource more of  it to India. The main advantage the Indian guys have is they don’t seem to have to go through this process, though they don’t always have the gumption to apply common sense to the results, ending up with some classic howlers. This isn’t a Daily Mail-esque rant on Indian IT people – the contracts seem to be written in some peculiar way that almost prohibits initiative. These guys are bright enough but their hands are tied. You gets what you pays for, and we don’t want to pay for them to think. So we or our customers end up debugging the results, but hey, the cycle time is shorter, and Agile development is all about failing fast and frequently. Well, that’s how we seem to do it, it is meant to work differently.

Fortunately I got out of software into a one-off hardware project that will hopefully see me out 🙂 I’d have throttled one of the process monkeys by now if I were in software now.

The problem is that technology has allowed bean-counters to micromanage our jobs at arm’s length. Taylor introduced ‘scientific management’ as a way of getting the American worker to do as they were told; it had the side effect of deskilling workers and de-humanising the workplace. As the Philip Brown from Praxis puts it

the twentyfirst century is the age of digital Taylorism. This involves translating knowledge work into working knowledge through the extraction, codification and digitalisation of knowledge into software prescripts and packages that can be transmitted and manipulated by others regardless of location.

The Graun follows on:

From now on, believe Brown and his colleagues, “permission to think” will be “restricted to a relatively small group of knowledge workers in the UK”. The rest will be turned into routine and farmed off to regional offices in eastern Europe or India.

Nice. I want out of that sort of environment. Working without thinking is like living without breathing to me.

The actual paper itself is a fascinating read. Basically, we are hosed.

Companies are using the very latest
technologies to produce high value-added goods and services
in the midst of third world poverty as they no longer require the
full array of institutional supports to provide the skills base that
we are accustomed to in the West.

Fasten your seat belts, folks, and adopt the brace position. If these guys are right we are stuffed in the West – there is nothing we can do to compete in the race to the bottom. As the Philip Brown et al say on page 15

The growth of this high end capacity in emerging economies is
likely to cause a serious challenge to the West as differences in
productivity and quality narrow, contributing to a reverse (Dutch) auction, reflecting a weakening in the trading positions of large numbers of middle class professionals, managers and technicians in OECD economies.