"Tayloristic work practices are a thing of the past"
Critical appraisement of this statement in the context of the growth of the services organisations
Essay 2013 11 Pages
In today’s competitive environment improving efficiency and elevating organisational performance is critically important to remain competitive in the global marketplace. In the late nineteenth century Frederick W. Taylor developed one of the earliest conceptions of management in order to maximise firm productivity. He argued that performance can only be improved by the application of scientific practices and established his ‘principles of scientific management’ (Taylor, 1998). However, due to the Human Relations movement in the 1930s which emphasised the impact of the social context of the workplace on firm productivity, Taylor’s theory of ‘scientific management’ became obsolete (Legge, 2005; Thompson & McHugh, 2009).
Conversely, many researchers believe that Taylorism is revived and argue that Tayloristic ideologies are still dominant in workplaces today (Bain et al., 2002; Bell & Martin, 2012; Braverman, 1998). More importantly, the continuing relevance of Tayloristic methods in organising work is no longer restricted to the traditional manufacturing industry, but can also be found to a greater degree in the rapidly growing service industry (Braverman, 1998; Crowley et al., 2010). In this context, most notably the nature of work processes in telephone call centres (Taylor et al., 2002; Zapf et al., 2003) and the fast food industry (Ritzer, 1996 & 1998) has aroused a great deal of attention. For instance, a BBC News article raises the question “Are call centres the factories of the 21st Century?” (Hudson, 2011) and thus underpins the controversial debate about the working conditions in call centres. Accordingly, it is worthwhile to scrutinise this argument in more detail. With that said, the objective of this essay is to critically appraise the statement ‘Tayloristic work practices are a thing of the past” in the context of the growth of the services organisations. First, in order to set the scene for the examination of this proposition, the concept of ‘Taylorism’ will be outlined. After that, by means of primarily call centre organisations, and fast food restaurants, occurrence of Tayloristic work practices in the service sector will be investigated. Finally, based on these expositions, the main findings will be summarised and evaluated.
To begin with, Taylor assumed that there is ‘one best way’ of organising work and hence believed in ‘clearly defined rules, laws and principles” (1998:iv). In order to examine the presence of Tayloristic work practices in the service industry, it is essential to understand the main underlying assumptions of Taylorism. For that reason, the four principles of scientific management will be presented as follows. First, the old ‘rule of thumb’ techniques need to be replaced by application of scientific methods for each element of work. Fragmentation and specialisation of job tasks are key elements in this context. Secondly, scientific selection of the right people for the appropriate task and their subsequent training play a crucial role to ensure high performance and represent another obligation of the management. The reason for this lies in Taylor’s belief that differences between employees exist in terms of work efficiency. The third principle highlights the required cooperation between management and workers to ensure compliance with the developed scientific principles. Lastly , complete separation of conception and execution and thus a strict division of labour constitutes another core feature of scientific management (Knights & Willmott, 2012; Littler, 1982). In Taylor’s view, managers are responsible for the planning and organisation of work. Workers, on the other hand, have to carry out the manual work in the form of narrow, routinised tasks. To ensure their abidance of procedures laid down by management, close managerial monitoring and controlling of each step of the labour process is vital (Boreham, 2003, in Boreham et al., 2003; Knights & Willmott, 2012). In this context, Braverman (1998) refers to a monopolisation of knowledge by management which was used to specify and control each segment of the work process. In a more critical vein, Sheldrake (2003:23) points out that Taylorism aimed “to analyse and control activities of people in the same way that engineers analysed and controlled machines”.
Moreover, Tayloristic work practices rest on the assumption of the universal prevalence of ‘soldiering’ (Taylor, 1998). In other words, according to Taylor, people are inherently lazy and motivated only by economic rewards. For this reason, he introduced individual piece-rate systems as an incentive for higher employee efficiency and consequently greater profitability. Team work and collective bonuses, on the contrary, were undesirable as Taylor believed that they will promote workers’ laziness: “when workmen are herded together in gangs, each man in the gang becomes far less efficient than when his personal ambition is stimulated” (1998: 36). To summarise, key elements of Tayloristic work settings are strict managerial surveillance of the labour process, objective performance measures in form of individual pay rates and clear distinction between the work of conception and execution. Furthermore, Tayloristic systems are characterised by task fragmentation, job specialisation and low levels of employee discretion.
In this connection, Batt (1999:540) observes that a wide range of service organisations are adopting mass production techniques these days and describes the work of employees in, for example, the customer service, sales or telemarketing, as “individualized, repetitive, scripted, and machinepaced by expert systems rather than assembly lines”. As already noted above, particularly call centres, but also fast food chains, are affected by these approaches based on notions of Taylorism and Fordism and will due to this relevance more closely investigated as follows.
Call centres are “specialised offices that are established by organisations in order to deliver a variety of services to customers over the telephone” (Belt et al., 2002:21). In line with the rise of the service economy (Markit/CIPS, 2013), a massive growth of call centres over the last few decades can be recorded. According to the Labour Market report (Skills CFA, 2012) in year 2011, more than one million people in UK were employed by call centres. One of the main drivers for this development is the increasing organisational pursuit of competitive advantage (Taylor & Bain, 1999). However, as already stated above, the working environment still seem to resemble that of factories. Similarly, Braverman (1998:239, emphasis added) ascertains a “conversation of the office routine into a factory-like process in accordance with the precepts of modern management and available technology”.
Bain, who has contributed to a large part to the research on the labour process in call centres, and his co-authors (2002) observed in their analysis of working conditions in Scottish call centres that target-setting is still a widespread practice of management in order to measure employees performance. Though, it can be stated that thereby the focus is placed not only on the quantitative outcomes such as the amount of answered calls or the average handling time, but also on the quality of the employee-customer interaction. Variations have been noted between the different examined sectors. For example, the management in the call centre based in the finance sector established primarily annual monetary targets for every employee. In addition, employees’ annual individual pay award was mainly dependent on their performance which was measured on the basis of the three following categories: “not met targets”, “met targets”, or “exceeded targets” (Bain et al., 2002:175). The call centre in the media organisation, in contrast, aimed in the first place to improve the quality of the service.
Moreover, Bain et al. (2002) found that call centre agents in the financial sector received training in order to increase their performance, followed by intensive supervision during the first conducted customer interviews. Further, it becomes clear that the nature of the working conditions and the extent of managerial control vary greatly, not only between sectors, but also across different departments within the organisation. For instance, employees specialised in unsecured loans experienced in many ways the most demanding working conditions in the financial call centre. Statements from a conducted interview, such as “any call lasting ten minutes would provoke supervisory intervention” or “when the [call centre’s] annual targets are set at the beginning of the year, no allowance is made for holidays or sick leave” (Bain et al., 2002:175) underpin the described highly controlled working environment . In this regard, Table 1 provides further support for the great extent of different monitoring measures of employee performance. In addition to this, pressure to attain the targets was reinforced by technical means such as different signals on the dial keypad standing for the number of queuing calls. Overall, these study excerpts clearly show the continuing application of Tayloristic work practices in the call centre service. Strict surveillance and measurement of the output, payment based on individual performance in some call centres and extremely thorough and intensive training are some of the identified managerial methods used to raise productivity.
In a similar vein, Belt et al. (2002) underline the strict supervision at the workplaces of call centres and the ‘robotic’ work processes which resemble those at the factory assembly-line. More importantly, findings of their call centre study in European countries illustrate the high concentration of women in this particular occupation. This is most notable in the financial sector, where the female proportion of employees ranges between 70 and 91 per cent (Belt et al., 2002). Although deviations exist between different sectors, on the whole it can be stated that the majority of the call centre agents consists of women. Referring to Tayloristic ideologies in the beginning of the 20th century, a shift in the workforce composition can be noticed. Even if Taylor maintained that his scientific principles are not confined to the manufacturing industry and can be applied “to all kinds of human activities” (1998:iv), the traditional workers those days were male blue-collar workers in full-time employment. Compared to this, call centre employees are in the majority of the cases young, female and often employed on a part-time basis (Belt et al, 2002; Taylor & Bain, 1999). The reason for this lies mainly in the assumption that women are more likely to possess social competencies such as ‘communication skills’ and ‘people skills’ required for the job as a call centre agent. Additionally, Belt et al. (2002) have revealed that call centre managers tend to believe that women are more able to deal with pressure, permanent monitoring and the monotonous and repetitive nature of job tasks in the call centre.