There, I said it: Many things about work just suck. While there’s also a lot being done to turn the suck into a delight – it’s what I’m working on myself – it doesn’t hurt to pause and ask ourselves: How did work become like this in the first place? When we compare the current state of our working life to the past we tend to walk away with the notion that „At least things are better now than they used to be“ because we no longer have to slave away in coal mines starting on our twelfth birthday.
However, there is obviously more to it as the nature of work evolves constantly, alongside humanity as a whole. To provide a useful context for comparisons, I personally identify four major stages in the last 120 years:
Elaborating on these stages in detail would fill several books of their own – in fact it already does. I could only do a poorer job of rewriting those and I don’t plan on doing that: I will use this series of articles only to provide a quick, simplified glimpse into the origin and establishment of the individual stages’ major principles that are still governing our working life of today.
Part 2 of 4: Post-Fordism
Henry Ford is arguable the person who perfected the assembly line. His methods were first described as „Fordism“ in the 1930s and built on Taylorism to further optimize standardized production for mass markets. As such, it still relied heavily on standardized workflows and the performance of menial tasks by large numbers of mostly uneducated workers.
In the second half of the 20th century, increasing global competition, the end of the post-WWII-boom and and other political/socioeconomic changes made mass production impractical and less profitable for western industries. „Consumer groups“ became a thing and the invention of numerical control (NC) in the 1950s, followed by computerized numerical control (CNC) machines in the 1970s made it feasible to produce more individual products in smaller batches.
Flexible specialization was now possible and this reflected in the workforce: In Taylorism and early Fordism, production knowledge was mainly „built into“ machines which it took little skill to operate. In modern production processes, the knowledge of the process itself and the expertise necessary to maintain production cycles is more valuable than the equipment utilized. In this dawn of the knowledge economy, Post-Fordism fully incorporated blue collar workers as a vital part of value creation.
Technological advances allowed for machines to take over the most dangerous and repetitive tasks of production; the introduction of microprocessors and personal computers in the 1970s liberated office workers from the most mind-numbing tasks in their environments (imagine a world before copy/paste!) Education became more specialized and produced knowledge workers of different shades: The large workforce bodies typical for mass production times were fragmented into smaller, specialized teams; worker solidarity declined and large-scale unions began to disappear, giving way to more company-centric forms of worker representation.
Companies org-charts grew horizontally, with specialized teams and departments existing alongside each other, representing the growing fragmentation of value creation into smaller steps. The rising importance of knowledge as a company asset and the resulting complexity of issues requiring attention furthered the installation of more staff positions, managers and management layers:
If Henry Ford walked along the assembly line producing Model Ts and a worker told him that „Our wrenches don’t fit the new bolt nuts“ or „These thinner steel struts can’t bear the necessary weight“, it’s fair to assume he would have been able to grasp the problem and understood why it needed fixing.
If the CEO of a 1980s manufacturing company walked past an array of CNC mills and had an engineer report that „The currently enforced G-Code design guidelines require more manual programming than necessary because they conflict with the CAM standards employed by the post processors used for automatic and object-oriented code generation“, we can no longer assume instant understanding.
How We Feel The Results Today
Growing operational complexity combined with the holding on to hierarchical decision-making and centralized interpretational sovereignty at the top management level largely increased the organizational distance between the ones making and the ones executing decisions; between those reporting on ongoings and those acting on the reports.
You could argue that this the point in time from which top management and workforce ultimately coexist in parallel operational dimensions, relying on two-way interpretation performed by and through a growing layer of line and middle managers.
The lasting results are very much noticeable in today’s organizations: Workers shake their heads at the unrealistic decisions the „higher-ups“ try to enforce while upper management is frustrated with teams that „just don’t get what things are like“. Their problem is not as simple as merely being bad at communicating; it’s that they exist in entirely different operational dimensions and perceive different versions of the same organization as their individual reality. Welcome to the corporate twilight zone!
This article is the second in a series of four about how the history of work relates to today’s work life realities. If you’d like to receive a notification when new articles are published you can submit your email address here.
Other articles in this series (this list will be updated as new articles are published):