Taylorism or the theory of scientific management was introduced by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early 20th century. Despite the strong criticisms that it has faced over the last century, Taylorism continues to exist in the modern workplace under different disguises and has shaped the field of Human Resource Management. This first part of the series article tries to analyse the different ways in which aspects of Taylorism is exhibited in the modern day workplace and its contribution to the field of HRM.
One of the most important movements that had ever taken place in the history of work is the Efficiency Movement that began in the early 20th century in the industrialised countries. Fredrick Winslow Taylor was the most prominent figure in the movement and stop clock was the very symbol of Taylorism, signifying its main objectives: optimisations of efficiency and maximization of profit in the workplace. Bravermann (1974) defines Taylorism as an attempt to apply the methods of science to the increasingly complex problems of the control of labour in rapidly growing capitalist enterprises. Gabor (2000) refers to Taylor as a “capitalist philosopher” as he perpetually observed and documented the activities of his workers.
The “principles of scientific management” remain highly relevant to everyday business operations in the present age (Payne, Youngcourt and Watrous, 2006). Despite its evil portrayal in different media like “Brave New World” (1932) by Aldous Huxley, “Hard Times” (1854) by Charles Dickens, and “Modern Times” (1936) by Charlie Chaplin, a century old principles of Taylorism still exists and flourishes.
Taylorism in the modern day workplace
Charles Maier (1970) argues that Taylorism has extended into areas of labour productivity, technological efficiency, and corporate organisations as well. However, the most direct and profound impact of Taylorism can be seen in sectors of manufacturing, construction, fast-food and also the call centers.
After the influence of Taylorism, manufacturing sector became compartmentalized and control centralised. The division of tasks among the different categories of employees and the compartmentalization of process among different sectors are defined so as to attain production goals, which is usually measured quantitatively (Mascia et al, 2000). Conti and Warner (1993) point Toyota as a successful example of the implementation of Tayloristic management practices because of the fact that there was considerable improvement in quality, elimination of waste, and reduction in costs in the manufacturing of cars.
Another sector that has attracted multiple studies in the Taylorism research agenda is the Call centre operations. This is because call-centres depict “significant developments in the Taylorisation of white-collar work” (Taylor and Bain, 1998) and scholars have identified call centres as a contemporary bastion of Taylorism (Hingst, 2006). Call centers rely on a combination of technologically driven measurements and human supervisors to exert control. Apart from the managerial control, the routinization and fragmentation of tasks consequent upon intensive IT/screen use and target-driven customer demand (Baldry, Bain and Taylor, 1998), call centres also use scripts to structure the speech of the workers (Taylor and Bain, 1998).
Taylorism can also be observed in the fast food industry. The mass production of standardised products, adoption of standardised and inﬂexible technologies (such as the assembly-line), the standardised work routines are based on a Tayloristic minute division and deskilling of tasks (Leidner, 1993 and Ritzer, 2000). For example, the successes of McDonald’s owe much to the efﬁciency, calculability, predictability and control this system provides both through technology and an elaborate set of formal rules (Ritzer, 2000 and Mayhew and Quinlan, 2002).
The emergence of digital Taylorism, which is defined as the potential of digitalisation to standardise elements of the labour process, aims to depress the wages of knowledge workers (Avis, 2009) It contributes to the degradation of work and the tendency of capital to deskill the workforce (Marx, 1976 and Braverman, 1974). For example, Michael McNally (2010) compares aspects of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems to Taylorism. He argues that it can be called modern Taylorism as the trends of increasing management control and routinization can be observed. Also, content management systems are likely to contribute to the deskilling of workers because of subdivision of the intellectual tasks into the smallest possible constituent parts and automation as many tasks as possible.
Medical doctors Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman (2016) argue that Taylorism has permeated into the culture of medicine. This argument is supported by that fact there have been initiatives to find an optimal time span for patient-doctor interactions and finding out “one best way of doing” it in order to standardise it.
Contribution of Taylorism to the field of Human Resource Management
The legacy of Taylorism can be witnessed in quality control, quality assurance (Juran, 1973), operation research (Bertrand and Fransoo, 2002), operation management (Schmenner and Swink, 1998) and total quality management (Boje and Winsor, 1993 and Jones, 1997). The use of CCTV cameras and employee monitoring software in the workplace to ensure the presence and observe the performance of employees are also different forms of modern Taylorism.
It can be argued that the most distinguishable contribution of Taylorism is in creating two broad models of HRM practices: soft HRM and hard HRM. One can argue that the Tayloristic management practices are mostly observed and conspicuous in organisations or workplaces that adopt hard HRM practices, thus suggesting that hard HRM is the legacy of Taylorism (Cornelius, 2001). On the other hand, it can be argued that it is the adoption of Taylorist management practices influences these organisations to comply to and adopt hard HRM practices.
The important principle of Taylorism is the scientific selection of right workers (who are highly motivated and controllable) and development of the selected workforce (Taylor, 1911). This focuses on the HR function of recruitment of the right people for the right job and training of the selected employees for the better performance and efficiency of the organization. Thus, it can be argued that Taylorism has immensely contributed to development to the primary functions of the HRM. Taylor’s scientific selection of candidates has led to the use of wide range of selection techniques like aptitude tests, interviews, in-tray experiments, personality test etc by the HR department to recruit the right person for the job (Turan, 2015). Scientific training emphasises on the role of the organisation to train its workers scientifically to optimise their productivity. One can argue that Taylorism focuses on “one best way” of doing work, thus, limiting the scope for training and development. Thus, it can be argued that Taylorism focuses on the need to train workers, but tries to use limited resources and minimal time in training them.
Another contribution of Taylorism to the field of HRM is the introduction of performance management and pay and reward system. Williams (2004) argue that performance measurement systems were historically developed as a means of monitoring and maintaining organisational control so as to ensure better productivity and attainment of organizational goals and objectives in the workplace. F.W Taylor adopted methods like incentives schemes that suited the style of the work of his workers and piece per rate system on production management as early reward systems (Ratnayake, 2009). He linked pay to performance, gave incentives and monetary benefits to high performers and dismissed the under performers. A number of workplaces today use performance appraisal to measure and quantify the work done by the employee, this has led to a practice termed “rank and yank”, where low performers in the organisation are dismissed and high performers are awarded incentives (Taylor, 2014).
One can argue that because of deskilling and routinization of tasks, Taylorism has resulted in a number of jobs that are described as “low in uniqueness and value”(Lepak and Snell, 1999). Outsourcing is the most profitable way for the organization to manage these works. For instance, Carol Upadhaya (2009) argues that Taylorism has led to the outsourcing of a number of IT tasks, from software design and development, coding and testing to back office. These operations are outsourced by clients in advanced economies primarily to IT firms in India. Cornes (2016) argues that Taylor’s four principles of scientific management, measurement of task, specialisation of labour, performance related pay and separation of conception and execution are clearly evident in the practice of outsourcing. Outsourcing functions which are less important to management will help the HR department to reduce its workload and concentrate on strategic core functions (Harrison, 1996).
Target setting practiced by a number of organisations is also a contribution of Taylorism to the field of HRM. Bain et al (2002) argued that Taylorism has led to imposing targets on workers and subsequent measurement of their qualitative and quantitative performance to motivate them to attain the targets. Hence, target setting can be seen as a means to exercise control or to improve performance (Gregory, 2007). Target setting is an important part of talent management in an organisation is a key function of HR department (Sahai and Srivatsva, 2012).
Today, the legacy of scientific management is found wherever machine-like precision in an operation is essential to optimize profitability (Bell and Martin, 2012). Having said so, Taylorism is not just limited to physically demanding and strenuous low-end jobs like manufacturing, construction and fast-food industry but is prevalent to a large extent in a number of high-end jobs and the service sector jobs, contributing to the de-skilling of intellectual labour. One can argue that the reason for this is because efficiency is a “cherished administrative value” (Schachter, 2007) and profitability is the primary goal of any business organisation (Atkinson, 1998).
It is important to understand that Taylorism is present in almost all sectors but in different forms and different degrees. Taylorism has been creating different impact at workplaces and it has made a profound contribution to the field of Human Resource Management from the time of its inception.
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