Enterprise management: the new Taylorism

I am currently reading a very interesting little book called ‘Breaking Things at Work‘ by Gavin Mueller1.

I am also trying to make sense of the Workday (human resource) computer system which has engulfed almost everyone at McGill to some extent. Workday is a fairly standard – if clunky and ill-adapted to universities – example of the widespread practice of enterprise management, i.e. the ‘rationalisation’ of business and organisational processes by AI and software.

In Mueller’s book, I came across a passage describing Taylorism (also known as scientific management). Things suddenly clicked : the passage, in describing Taylorism, basically describes enterprise management. As such, it helps me make sense of what is happening as enterprise management software imposes its task-based algorithms on what were previously (somewhat) human and humane systems.

For those of you wondering, Taylorism is a system devised by Frederick Taylor in the late nineteenth century to make factory work more efficient. It consists in breaking down work into small component tasks, timing workers as they perform each task, and then optimising this performance by adjustments to gait, position of tools, etc…

Once tasks are defined and adjustments made, they are codified into standards that workers are then obliged to follow: ‘efficiency’ becomes discipline.

So, here is the passage:

“Scientific management, for all its pretensions, was less about determining ideal working methods and more about shattering this tremendous source of worker power [RS: workers’ knowledge of the production process, and their capacity to humanize it by pacing themselves]. By breaking apart each work process into carefully scrutinized component tasks, Taylor had cracked the secret of labour’s advantage, thereby giving management complete mastery over the productive process. The modernizing terminology of “science” and “efficiency” masked the prerogatives of discipline and control of workers…

…Scientific management was, then, less a science of efficiency and more a political program for reshaping the worker as a pliant subject…” (Mueller, 2021, p33).

Workday is just one example of the wider trend towards enterprise management. This ‘new’ technique, which breaks down tasks and imposes discipline through algorithms and AI, is basically 21st century Taylorism adapted for service and management work (no great insight, but this continuity with Taylorism helps me frame things!).

Like Taylorism, enterprise management is cloaked in the discourse of progress, science and efficiency (and AI – let’s not forget the new frontier!) – which serve as foils to questions and critical appraisal today, just as they did a century ago. Just what a University needs.

1 Mueller’s book develops the brief point I make in this blog in far more depth. I have not yet finished his book, but I read the passage on Taylor just before signing on to dreaded Workday … I am putting off my unavoidable abandonment of common sense and judgement to algorithmic whim (algorithms that have been designed and written by people – so someone is responsible!) by writing this post.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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