In this era of modernisation, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) play a vital role in businesses and firms of all sizes. The term ICT has progressed and evolved to include many aspects of computing and technology, and has indeed become very distinguishable. In this essay, the ways in which the introduction of ICT affects power relations in the workplace will be discussed. First, a definition of the phrases ‘ICT’ and ‘power relations in the workplace’ will be provided. In what follows, I will establish the particular effects that ICT directly brings to the workplace – namely surveillance, a change to organization structure, increased communication as well as how it skills and deskills workers. Explanation on how these effects subsequently affect power relations in the workplace will then be provided.
The Information Technology Association of America defines ‘ICT’ as “the study, design, development, implementation, support or management of computer-based information systems, particularly software applications and computer hardware”. ICT involves converting, protecting, transferring, keeping and receiving information. This is all done with the aid of computers and software.
On the other hand, ‘power’ refers to the ability to translate influence or make a difference. The actions of one person affect that of another. According to Foucault (1988), within the field of power relations, what one person does affects a second, which affects a third, and so on. The characteristic of power relations is that, as agents in the structure, some men can more or less determine other men’s conduct, but never exhaustively (David Owen, 1994). Power relations precipitate all “the strategies, the networks, the mechanisms, all those techniques by which a decision is accepted and by which that decision could not but be taken in the way it was”. Foucault goes on to say that “Power relations are multiple; they have different forms, they can be in play in family relations, or within an institution, or an administration – or between a dominating and a dominated class”. In this essay, it can be summarized that power relations in the workplace means the ability to affect how other people within the workplace do work.
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The introduction of Scientific Management, also known as Taylorism saw an era where managers strived for control over workers. The introduction of ICT to the workplace has allowed managers to practice methods of worker surveillance that have never been seen before. ICT has given managers the ability to pry on their staff by doing things like keystroke counting, listening in on phone conversations (to monitor quality of service provided by staff), telephone call accounting (registering information about the time, duration, destination and cost of phone calls), entry and exit controls using “smart cards” (which give information on staff whereabouts), electronic cash registers and product scanning systems (provides details on who handles what merchandise, volume handled and how efficiently), the reading of electronic mail and the use of video cameras for video surveillance (After ILO, 1993, pp. 12 – 13).
In the past, managers were only able to monitor the performance of whole departments by monitoring things like quantity and quality of products produced. However, new information technologies have enabled employers to gather highly detailed performance related data regarding not only the work but each individual worker itself. This can now be done on a minute by minute basis and often without the employee being aware (Gandy, 1993; Lyon, 1994).
The information gathered by managers is most of the time too overwhelming to go through stringently. Power relations become relevant when this vast information about worker performance is collected. This is because managers must now decide if or how to use the information gathered on worker performance. Due to the economic demands to become more efficient and more profitable, managers are pressured to use the information at hand to hopefully enhance performance and efficiency of workers (Susan Bryant, 1995). Managers or employers will be able to take courses of action based on the worker performance information. For instance, reprimanding individual employees for dismal performance or changing standard operating procedures. One of the side effects of this is that it legitimizes decisions to further intensify worker surveillance for the benefit of profitability and efficiency.
Modern surveillance in the workplace can be modelled after Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon – the prison complex designed whereby prison guards would be able to watch prisoners without being watched back (Zuboff, 1988). Nevertheless workplace surveillance using ICT differs from Bentham’s Panopticon because workers are certain that they are being watched all the time. The constant ‘visibility’ and ‘unverifiability’ that employees experience through workplace surveillance may have significant positive implications on the way they work (Zuboff, 1988, p. 321).
A phenomenon that Zuboff refers to as ‘anticipatory conformity’ often happens because of the mere existence of surveillance. Since workers are aware they are consistently being watched, a culture of self discipline tends to take place to ‘reduce the risk of unwanted discovery’. This is interesting because it allows change in the way workers work without management having to take extra action. This worker ‘self discipline’ helps prove Foucault’s argument (1979) that sooner or later, individuals become ‘bearers of their own surveillance’. (Lyon, 1994, pg. 133) Even if workers don’t willingly self discipline themselves, it is highly likely that because of the readily available system generated information about each other’s performance, peer surveillance and intervention will get to them before management intervention will (Laabs, 1992; Lyon, 1994). As employees become more and more accustomed to surveillance methods, employees may be able to get away with doing less by working around existing systems to avoid detection. However, such occurrences are deemed to be less likely to happen compared to trends of conformity (Zuboff, 1988).
It may also be argued that surveillance encourages workers to work harder and to become more productive as their efforts are now more easily recognized by management. This means that individual workers are more likely to be rewarded for putting in extra effort. Furthermore, employees are less likely to be put at fault for the wrongs of others. This phenomenon also happens automatically because of the existence of surveillance in the workplace without any direct intervention from management (Zuboff, 1988).
The last two points show how the existence of ICT in the workplace (which allows for worker surveillance) may allow for management to relax control over workers and at the same time expect positive returns whilst having to exert less authority or ‘power’ in the workplace.
Communication and Organization Structure
The introduction of ICT has allowed us to interact at almost same speeds – a matter of seconds – regardless of whether we are a few meters or a few miles away from one another. In the past two decades following the birth of utilities like e-mail and ultra fast internet connections, the workplace has experienced a significant change in operating procedures and structure due to this advancement in communication capabilities.
Firms are now able to function on a transnational basis. Managers from firms are able to operate from their home countries without having to incur the financial, physical and opportunity cost of leaving their home country (or at least less often). The ability to communicate over distances and at such great speed has allowed managers to run things thousands of miles away on a real time basis. The complexity of a firm may change from that of vertically complex to horizontally complex due to the ability of managers on top of the hierarchy to communicate with more people at a greater ease. The need for extra layers of hierarchy to delegate tasks becomes unnecessary because of better communication technology.
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Workers at the lower end/bottom of hierarchy may find it easier to pitch ideas because there may be less ‘red tape’ to go through before their idea can be proposed. On the other hand, CEOs may find that instructions are conveyed to their subordinates more clearly and effectively because these instructions need not be passed on to too many levels of management before it reaches everyone.
The ability to communicate with ICT may also affect the ‘centralization’ of a firm. A centralized firm is one where decisions in the organization are concentrated at one point. The introduction of ICT will become a catalyst to the decentralization of a firm (John Bratton, 2007). With ICT, it is much easier for senior management to solicit information and ideas from workers down the hierarchy. This is because, as mentioned, the means of communication make conveying and soliciting an idea much simpler than before. Prior to this, a physical meeting with high level management would be needed to pitch an idea; which means that it would virtually be impossible for a low rank worker to contribute any ideas to the firm. With the improved ability to communicate amongst workers and management, senior management might be willing to give more decision making autonomy to workers since their input would be more accessible. This has a major impact on power relations in a firm because communication may allow for control to be relaxed as decision making input may come from both sides of the hierarchy.
Having said that, the extensive use of e-mail and electronic communication in the workplace means people seldom ever have to meet (Argyll and Cook, 1976). Not physically meeting takes away the ability to analyze the personal construct of others (Adam – Webber, 1981). Personal construct theory deals with a range of professional social skills that enable people to analyze interactions from different perspectives and make judgements about people’s personalities and meanings. These skills are drawn from physical interaction with individuals. The effects of this are adverse because little or no consideration will be taken about workers’ feelings and personality.
Deskilling and ‘Enskilling’ Argument
Deskilling is defined as a reduction in the proficiency needed to perform a specific job, which leads to a corresponding reduction in the wages paid for that job (Bratton, 2007). In the Taylorist context, the deskilling argument focuses on the division of mental and physical labour and the breaking up of complex tasks into smaller, more discrete ones. The ‘logic’ of capitalist production requires the constant transformation of techniques of production. This involves an increase in mechanization, automation which results in the displacement of skills (Penn & Scattergood, 1985). The workforce becomes even more degraded and deskilled.
For instance, fast food or retail outlets have electronic tills that scan, calculate and tell the cashier how much money to return to the customer as change. The cashier’s job is repetitive, relatively simple and easy to keep an eye on because everything is electronic. The main goal of this is to not only ensure worker efficiency but to increase the degree of control the management has over workers. Very little is taken into consideration about worker satisfaction or fulfilment. Harry Braverman notes that the goal of the labour process under capitalism is to generate managerial control for maximization of efficiency and profitability (Glenn and Feldberg, 1979). Due to the fact that workers under this condition only concentrate on specific tasks, they lack the skills to do things out of their job requirement, perhaps because they have neglected and hence have forgotten about those skills.
On the other hand, let us consider the ‘enskilling’ argument. Enskilling is described as changes in work often involving technology that result in an increase in the skill level of workers (Bratton, 2007). Many individuals would have been retrenched due to technology making certain manual jobs automated. However, for those who still have their jobs, their job scope would have increased. ICT enables more people do more things. For instance, an editor in a publishing house in the 1970s would only have enough expertise and minutes in a day to be in charge of reading and editing hand written manuscripts whilst having to send them back and forth to the author through traditional postal mail.
With ICT, manuscripts may be written, edited, and transmitted digitally; which saves time. ICT also makes it easy enough for the 21st century editor to acquire other hands on skills such as video editing and graphic design; tasks that would have formerly been left to specialist in those fields. In addition, one would be would be required to exercise many other discrete competencies such as copy editing, marketing skills and negotiating ability (Barry, Chandler, Clark, Johnston, Needle, 2000).
Here, it is possible to notice an increase in skill variety, task identity and task feedback. The increased skill of the worker allows managers to give more autonomy to them. This effectively means that management may loosen its control over workers relaxing power relations between management and workers. However, some have argued that this ‘enskilling’ of workers allow managers to control workers to a higher extent because tasks are now centralized on less individuals compared to when they were spread out over large amounts of people in scientific management.
I have displayed how the introduction of ICT to the workplace has caused an increase in worker surveillance, a greater capability to communicate and the ‘enskilling’/deskilling phenomena. I have then shown how the mentioned effects of ICT have affected power relations within the workplace by altering the magnitude (increase and decrease) of control, authority and influence management has over workers.
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