Think of the workers

Originally posted November 2003

The fine people at iSociety, the Work Foundation’s research project into how computers are affecting our lives, have just published Getting By, Not Getting On.

It’s an analysis of how technology is used in the UK workplace, and I was one of the team of advisors who read early drafts, commented on the research and generally hung out with the authors.

At the launch on Thursday I was asked to comment on the finished product, and never one to pull a blow at a public occasion, I told them what I thought. It went like this…

Those who do not understand the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who do not shape the future are condemned to endure it. And those who do not embrace information and communications technologies will be forced to watch their competitors succeed. At least, that’s the current story, and it provides the ideological underpinning of the iSociety report we’re looking at today.

In the last five years we have seen a major shift in the way organisations work, a slow-burn revolution brought about by computers, networks and the digital data they support. This research is an attempt to understand the continuing dance between people, organisations and technology, and to reflect on how we think about and use the tools that are available to us.

Looking at the resistance to ICT we see in the workforce, it’s worth asking why over nine million people came to download and install Napster during 2000, when it was a buggy, clunky application with a complicated user interface. How come they were willing to completely change the way they found and consumed music when the tools were so poor? Because they wanted to. Because the benefits were clear. Too often in the workplace badly designed tools that do not help people to do their jobs are thrown at them –and then the workers are blamed when they are not used.

We should never forget that sometimes technologies and applications are rubbish, and this report does at least acknowledge that management, suppliers and IT staff all have some responsibility for what seems to be the poor use of ICT within UK industry.

There is a lot to recommend in the findings and analysis presented here, not least the ethnographic approach which gives us a far better understanding of what really happens inside organisations.

As a former programmer and IT consultant I can’t take issue with any of the comments made about the failure of IT staff to act as colleagues rather than an isolated clique. So, taking on board at least one of the recommendations, I promise to be a better geek in future .

However there are also, inevitably, differences of opinion over how the research findings should be interpreted and the implications for business, government and individuals.

For example, it takes what I see as the standard iSociety point of view, arguing that ‘this is supposed to be the era of the ‘networked enterprise’, in which the traditional boundaries of the firm are becoming more porous – and in some cases, dissolving altogether,’ implicitly criticising those companies that refuse to open up their borders when the technology would make it all so easy.

This belief in network models of organisation and the network society – Castellism – is certainly common, despite the lack of convincing evidence that it is an optimal or even desirable way to do business. In fact, just yesterday a well-known figure in the IT industry said of outsourcing IT functions: “that was a rage during the 1990s, that everything would be hosted and moved outside the company. Where are those hosting companies now? Only a few things- like running Web sites -fit those models. The IT systems are your brain. If you take your brain and outsource it then any adaptability you want (becomes) a contract negotiation.” I don’t normally agree with Bill Gates, but this was an exception.

One aspect of the report that I find difficult to accept is that it is written as if embracing ICT is a Kantian categorical imperative. Complaining that some workers ‘drew a clear distinction between work and home, with use of technology being one of the main markers of where work began and ended – and in stark contrast to the usual work-life balance rhetoric, which sees ICT as enabling work to happen whenever, wherever,’ or saying (of training) that ‘part of these problems can be traced to truculent staff’ positions the authors of the report out there with Gilder and Negroponte as optimistic enthusiasts rather than the dispassionate observers they should be. The fundamental assumption is that ICT is a good thing, and that enterprises must embrace it if they are to remain competitive or see productivity increases,

I don’t think this should go unchallenged, so I’d like to finish with two quotations from great thinkers on economic issues. One died over fifty years ago, the other has not yet achieved the recognition she deserves, but I am sure it is a matter of time.

In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter wrote: “The history of the productive apparatus of a typical farm, from the beginnings of the rationalization of crop rotation, plowing and fattening to the mechanized thing of today–linking up with elevators and railroads–is a history of revolutions…The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.” I think that the ethnographic findings detailed in this report show clearly that the process of industrial mutation continues, as new technologies penetrate the workplace.

But in the end our concern should surely be with the workers, not the companies. We should care more about people than share prices. And we should reflect on what that other great economist, Julie Burchill, wrote earlier this month.

Commenting on the reaction to Network Rail’s plans to move the national rail inquiry service to India, she said: “it proved to me something I’ve suspected for ages – that the bourgeois liberal left is now as much the enemy of the working class as the right used to be. Mrs Thatcher did a lot to destroy the manufacturing base of this country, and cowed people by telling them they could only be sure of staying in work if they abandoned “old-fashioned” blue-collar jobs in order to become service industry drones. Now, it seems, some voices on the left are telling them they deserve to lose even the jobs they have in the name of international brotherhood (and cost-cutting).

Burchill goes on to say: “despite all the blather about the door-opening, high-earning power of paper qualifications, the fact is that only those workers who have obdurately clung to their old-fashioned, dirty-hands-on jobs have retained any amount of autonomy and security. A plumber, electrician or decorator can demand his price – which is why the middle class is increasingly abandoning “good” jobs (low-paid white-collar) and taking up these. The bold binman can stop collecting rubbish for a couple of weeks and thus force a council to un-privatise a shambolic refuse collection service, as happened in Brighton, secure in the knowledge that they can’t outsource these jobs to the Philippines.”

What Burchill is telling us is that ICT can bring benefits, not just in terms of increased productivity and enhanced monitoring and control, but in terms of creating worthwhile jobs that do not diminish the quality of people’s lives. But technology is not neutral, and in our discussion of the ways that UK firms can make more use of it we should recognise that ‘better’ does not just mean ‘more profitable,’ and more computers do not necessarily entail good jobs for those sitting behind them.

Thank you

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