Managing local practices in global contexts
Managing local practices in global contexts

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Managing local practices in global contexts

4 Rational solutions

4.1 Scientific management

Frederick Winslow Taylor, who is often regarded as the father of modern management, was an engineer, born of a wealthy Pennsylvanian family. He was expected to go into the law or some other genteel profession: instead he preferred to work on the shop floor. As he reflected on his experiences as a foreman in the Midvale Steel Works, he concluded that the workers knew more about the actual processes they were working on than their managers did. Workers could tell stories about why things were the way they were, and others had to accept these stories. Management knew about what the workers did, but lacked their here-and-now experience of the task in hand. In short, the workers knew something that the managers needed to know.

Taylor's method of affording management control over the practice of workers involved studying each task to identify its essential components. Once managers had scientifically determined information about what workers were doing, they could engage with the task of managing those activities more effectively. In essence, this meant scientifically determining how to tackle the job in the most efficient manner. Taylor believed that scientific management provided the basis to benefit employers, by reducing their labour costs, and employees, who would be rewarded for increased output. However, the knowledge that mattered in this mutually beneficial employer-employee relationship was seen as the preserve of the manager. As Taylor so famously wrote of one of his favourite workers:

Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type … [t]he workman who is best suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work. He is so stupid that the word ‘percentage’ has no meaning to him, and he must consequently be trained by a man more intelligent than himself into the habit of working in accordance with the laws of this science before he can be successful.

(Taylor, 1998, p. 59)

By defining workers as brainless and unthinking hands following orders determined elsewhere, the notion of decision making became both elitist and rational – rational in that it must lead to optimum decisions because it is based on, what was seen as, superior intelligence. It applied the scientific method, the hallmark of superior intelligence, to pursue the optimal achievement of desired organisational ends.

In organisational terms, Taylor's approach to managing knowledge involved studying workers to the point where their skills could be broken down into component parts and managed in the most efficient manner possible. Scientific management changed workplace power relations. Whereas the workers’ know-how previously embodied scope for them to do things ‘their way’, scientific management enabled managers to specify the task.

Taylor may be said to have laid the rational foundations, literally, for rationalised bureaucracies. He took craft knowledge as a basic resource for compiling information for managers. However, once the practice of performing a particular task had been reduced to rules, the scope for learning-by-doing was compromised. As we noted in our discussion of McDonaldisation, reducing tasks to their component parts and organising them according to ‘rational’ principles might be a recipe for efficiency, but organisations that emphasise efficiency might compromise creativity.


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