Chris Dillow wonders whether managerial control has stifled innovation:
Could it be that the spread of managerialism and the pursuit of “efficiency” in the static sense of trying to maximize output for given inputs has squeezed out innovation?
Two things suggest an affirmative answer. One is casual empiricism: the growth of managerialism has been followed by a decline in trend labour productivity growth. The other is a paper from David Audretsch and colleagues, which shows that since the late 70s innovation has tended to come less from incumbent firms and more from new ventures.
I will leave the second bit of this, productivity and innovation, for another day. For now, though, I’m not convinced that we have seen a growth in managerialism, if we define that as hierarchy, control and the close management of people.
For at least the past 100 years, firms have employed professional managers with the aim of making their organisations more efficient, productive and profitable. This development is often associated with the godfather of scientific management, FW Taylor. Since the 1970s, there has been a shift away from Taylor’s ideas or, at least, there has been in management theory. Ever since I joined the corporate world in the late 80s, most of the talk has been of empowering employees and getting rid of layers of management.
Evidence for the benefits of management delayering is patchy, to say the least, and, despite the vogue for it in the 1990s, it doesn’t seem to have reduced the number of managers in the UK. According to UKCES, managers, directors and senior officials accounted for about 8 percent of the workforce in 1992. The ONS figure for May 2015 is around 9 percent. Allowing for the growth in the workforce, then, the number of managers hasn’t changed much. If the proportion of managers is anything to go by, we are no more or less managed than we were at the end of the 1980s.
How far the day-to-day supervision and control of employees has changed over the past three decades or so is also difficult to assess. The experience is probably different depending on the sort of work people do. There has been a big expansion in the number of professional and technical roles. It is this, rather than managerial employment, that has created the cocktail glass effect. I couldn’t find much evidence of this but, anecdotally, I would say that close supervision of these employees has diminished over the past decade. For example, I know of a number of employers who no longer require people to clock in and out. Many of those in technical and professional roles are given more freedom to work away from the office and the emphasis on presenteeism is no longer as strong.
Certainly most of the offices I see these days don’t feel as regimented as they did when I started work. Then again, these days my relationship with the hierarchy is different. I’m usually there as an advisor to someone senior so I’m not experiencing the power and status differences as acutely as someone who works there all the time. As ever, I suspect that the more layers there are above you on the organisation chart, the more heavy the hierarchy feels.
None of this is to say that close supervision is a thing of the past. In some occupations it is as prevalent as it ever was and there are examples of places more tightly controlled than ever they used to be. Briefly, in the 1980s, I worked in a warehouse and it was nothing like this. In some call centres there is a war of attrition between Big Brother managers and slacking employees. But many of the routine jobs that used to be subject to strict time management have been automated or offshored.
To look at the articles that appear in my Twitter timeline, the future of work is all about technology driven collaboration, Teal organisations, self-managed teams and working from anywhere. Management is a busted flush and bureaucracy must die. Oh and, of course, there’s holacracy.
Yet there is also a lot of talk about software that will predict who is likely to leave the organisation and companies using wearables to monitor not only their workers’ whereabouts but also their health. There are even systems which claim to be able to spot rogue employees by analysing emails, texts and social media activity.
Arguments about the need for supervision versus the benefits of worker autonomy have been going on for centuries. They probably had them when they were building the pyramids. This is from Roman landowner Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella in the first century:
Nowadays I make it a practice to call them into consultation on any new work and to discover by this means what sort of ability is possessed by each of them. Furthermore, I observe that they are more willing to set about a piece of work on which they think that their opinions have been asked and their advice followed.
The history of work, though, is mostly one of compulsion. Some sort of vassalage and work obligation existed in almost all agrarian societies. In Britain, as soon as people began to break the chains of feudalism, new laws were brought in to keep them in line. The desire to control people and make them work runs deep.
I don’t think that this will change. The zeitgeist among management theorists may advocate worker autonomy but technology offers so much scope for monitoring and controlling people that the temptation to do so will be too great for some. Forms of control may change with technology and social norms but I doubt that we will see the death of management that some predict.
Are we more closely managed at work now than we were twenty of thirty years ago? I’d say no more but probably not a lot less, it’s just that the ways of controlling people have changed. Technological developments will offer new possibilities for both autonomy and control. Expect the battle between Theory X and Theory Y to go on for some time yet.