Theorizing technological change and participatory/democratic practices in workplaces

This brief article promotes the development of new theories and approaches to replace traditional perspectives on the sociology of work and organizations. I will use as examples of this imperative recent theoretical developments and empirical findings concerning the relationship between technology change and participatory/democratic practices in workplaces. Indeed, studies of labor processes in the late 20th century have suggested there is a need to develop new approaches if scholars are to understand the emerging workplace dynamics of the 21st century.

One of the main questions workforce analysts must now address is why participatory/democratic practices in workplaces are becoming more important despite increased firm adoption of automated and other technologies. I briefly consider Marxist, Neo-Marxist, Weberian, Taylorist, Neo-Taylorist, and Cooperative theoretical perspectives on this issue.

From a Marxist perspective, the increasing rate of workplace technology change alienates workers irrespective of any other of its effects (Grint 2005). These scholars suggest that because personnel neither own production processes nor control their structure and pace, they remain in a powerless position, and capitalists are therefore free to oppress them to maximize profits. Meanwhile, Neo-Marxists contend that managers choose specific technologies or automated forms of production to gain control of the organization of work vís-a-vís their workers (Agassi 1986).

From a Weberian perspective, very few employees will have autonomy in their workplaces because all are enmeshed in bureaucratic forms of organization and administration in modern societies (Grint 2005).

According to these theories, laborers do not possess the power to embrace participatory/democratic practices in their workspaces, and in any case, capitalists perceive such initiatives as a threat to their capacity to promote and profit from technological change. That is, these frames suggest that automation and participatory/democratic practices in the workplace cannot coexist.

From a different perspective, Taylor argued that worker involvement in production tasks is important, but that employees should not be included in decisions regarding businesses’ futures (Hodson 2001). Neo-Taylorist advocates, meanwhile, contended that staff participation in production tasks is beneficial, because employee goals are thereby aligned with corporate aims. Critics of this position, however, have pointed out that because participatory/democratic practices arise from managers’ initiatives in this view, that fact promotes a false sense of worker satisfaction (Burris 1998). In short, these perspectives suggest that forms of democratic participation matter even though their influence may be limited.

Meanwhile, Cooperative theorists have contended that automation or other technology changes can lead to empowered workers in production decision-making while offering them the possibility of ownership and democratic self-management. Cooperation offers a way to overcome worker alienation arising from such shifts by affording its users opportunities to work beneficially with others toward shared aims (Atzeni 2012). Some information and communications technologies, including Wikipedia, Linux and community broadband networks, promote just such collaborative possibilities. However, proponents of cooperatives, as well as some participatory theorists, have encountered problems demonstrating that technology change, even of this sort, leads to more participatory or democratic workplaces.

Overall, with the exception of the Cooperative view, these 20th-century theories either rejected or sharply circumscribed the role that participatory/democratic practices could play in workplaces confronting automation and technology change. However, some empirical studies of these various theories have challenged them. According to Burris (1998), for example, organizational restructuring and changes in worker skills as well as in power and authority relationships present challenges for these perspectives. For example, workplace computerization has resulted in simultaneous employee de-skilling and up-skilling as well as work organization and production changes. Likewise, this change in employment conditions has replaced craft jobs with new high-tech posts and has led to general up-skilling of production work with limited expansion of laborer autonomy. This office reality, a product of just 35 or so years of technology change, cannot be explained by the dominant frameworks concerning the relationship of automation and employee autonomy and participation.

Fresh conceptions are needed to explain these and related workplace shifts: “[T]he new types of work and organization emerging along with computerization do not readily conform to existing theories, but this does not imply that they cannot be theorized” (Burris 1998, 154). I wish to contend that both organization-specific and environmental forces will result in an increasing coexistence between automation and participatory/democratic practices in workplaces in coming decades, although this may not occur as a consequence of specific intentional managerial interventions.

How corporations manage fast-paced technological change will be key to their capacity in coming years to insure a voice for workers. Thoughtful management of such initiatives will be essential “to understand better not only the impact of computerization on work organizations, but also the impact of work organization on computerization” (Burris 1998 155). Interesting examples for such study would be companies that have adopted the Worldblu Freedom at Work Model. [[i]] These firms may serve as exemplars of how the goals of worker voice and firms experiencing swift changes may be reconciled.

Sociology-of-work scholars must also examine the common assumption that workplace and technological innovations benefit all. What roles can/do more democratic participatory offices and workrooms play in helping managing the disruptions, including employment related shifts, caused by unanticipated change? For instance, one might hypothesize that additional automation will result in more participatory/ democratic practices in workplaces in indirect ways. By indirect, I refer to the innovation context in which effective organizational strategic management promotes workplace processes based on benefits from product change and alliances between competitors to cooperate in the development and diffusion of technological innovations. Over time, such action can promote change in the organizational cultures of the firms involved toward increased participatory/democratic practices in order to ensure collaborative possibilities.

In sum, past theories have often not acknowledged that automation and technological change and participatory processes can coexist within firms, while empirical studies have found that just such occurs routinely. This sort of “mixed” condition is likely to endure as economic innovations continue to spur changes in workplace organization and processes. These will have to be reconciled with new ways of imagining how those working in those environments can play roles in shaping how their new offices and facilities will be structured, Sociology of work and management scholars will need continually to craft new lenses through which to make sense of these ongoing challenges from the standpoint of organization-scale potentials amidst evolving contextual shifts.

Notes

[[1]] The Worldblu Freedom at Work Model consists of 10 principles of organizational democracy that aim to promote participatory/democratic practices in the workplace. Detailed information on the framework, offered by a for-profit corporation, may be found at https://www.worldblu.com/democratic-design/principles.php Accessed February 17, 2016.

References

Agassi, J. Buber. 1986. “Dignity in the workplace can work be dealienated?” Journal of Business Ethics, 5(4): 271-284.

Atzeni, Maurizio. 2012. “An introduction to Theoretical Issues.” in Mauricio Atzeni, Ed., Alternative work organizations. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1-24.

Burris, B.H. 1998. “Computerization of the Workplace,” Annual Review of Sociology, 24 (1): 141-157.

Christensen, Clayton M. 2002,“The opportunity and threat of disruptive technologies,” MRS Bulletin, 27(4): 278-282.

Grint, K. 2005. The sociology of work: introduction, 3rd, fully rev. and updated, Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Hodson, Randy. 2001. Dignity at work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Luis Camacho PhotoLuis Felipe is now a third year student in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization PhD program at Virginia Tech. He received his Masters in International Enterprise Direction from FORO EUROPEO (Spain) and also holds a post-graduate certificate in International Trade from the University Sergio Arboleda (Colombia) in collaboration with Georgetown University’s Center for Intercultural Education and Development. He earned his B.A in Economics from the Externado de Colombia University.

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