Computerization at Work
by Rob Kling
This article is the lead article for Section IV of Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices (2nd Ed.) by Rob Kling. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1996. This article may be circulated for non-commercial purposes. Please contact Rob Kling or compare it with the final published version before quoting directly.
Work, Technology and Social Change
This section examines the extent to which computer-based systems are organized to enhance or degrade the quality of working life for clerks, administrative staff, professionals, and managers. Worklife merits a lot of attention for four reasons.
First, work is a major component of many people's lives. Wage income is the primary way that most people between the ages of 22 and 65 obtain money for food, housing, clothing, transportation, etc. The United States' population is about 260,000,000, and well over 110,000,000 work for a living. So, major changes in the nature of work the number of jobs, the nature of jobs, career opportunities, job content, social relationships at work, working conditions of various kinds can affect a significant segment of society.
Second, in the United States, most wage earners work thirty to sixty hours per week--a large fraction of their waking lives. And people's experiences at work, whether good or bad, can shape other aspects of their lives as well. Work pressures or work pleasures can be carried home to families. Better jobs give people some room to grow when they seek more responsible, or complex positions, while stifled careers often breed boredom and resentment in comparably motivated people. Although people vary considerably in what kinds of experiences and opportunities they want from a job, few people would be thrilled with a monotonous and socially isolated job, even if it were to pay very well.
Third, computerization has touched more people more visibly in their work than in any other kind of setting--home, schools, churches, banking, and so on. Workplaces are good places to examine how the dreams and dilemmas of computerization really work out for large numbers of people under an immense variety of social and technical conditions.
Fourth, many aspects of the way that people work influence their relationships to computer systems, the practical forms of computerization, and their effects. For example, in our last section, Steven Hodas argued that the tenuousness of many teachers' classroom authority could discourage them from seeking computer-supported instruction in their classes. Also, Martin Baily and Paul Attewell argued that computerization has had less influence on the productivity of organizations because people integrate into their work so as to provide other benefits to them, such as producing more professional-looking documents and enhancing their esteem with others, or managers becoming counterproductive control-freaks with computerized reports.
When specialists discuss computerization and work, they often appeal to strong implicit images about the transformations of work in the last one hundred years, and the role that technologies have played in some of those changes. In nineteenth century North America, there was a major shift from farms to factories as the primary workplaces. Those shifts--often associated with the industrial revolution--continued well into the early twentieth century. Industrial technologies such as the steam engine played a key role in the rise of industrialism. But ways of organizing work also altered significantly. The assembly line with relatively high-volume, low-cost production and standardized, fragmented jobs was a critical advance in the history of industrialization. During the last 100 years, farms also were increasingly mechanized, with motorized tractors, harvesters and other powerful equipment replacing horse-drawn plows and hand-held tools. The farms also have been increasingly reorganized. Family farms run by small groups have been dying out, and have been bought up (or replaced by) huge corporate farms with battalions of managers, accountants, and hired hands.
Our twentieth century economy has been marked by the rise of human service jobs, in areas such as banking, insurance, travel, education, and health. And many of the earliest commercial computer systems were bought by large service organizations such as banks and insurance companies. (By some estimates, the finance industries bought about 30% of the computer hardware in the United States in the 1980s.) During the last three decades, computer use has spread to virtually every kind of workplace, although large firms are still the dominant investors in computer-based systems. Since offices are the predominant site of computerization, it is helpful to focus on offices in examining the role that these systems play in altering work.
Today, the management of farms and factories is frequently supported with computer systems in their offices. Furthermore, approximately 50% of the staff of high tech manufacturing firms are white collar workers who make use of such systems--engineers, accountants, marketing specialists, etc. There is also some computerization in factory production lines through the introduction of numerically controlled machine tools and industrial robots. And certainly issues such as worklife quality and managerial control are just as real on the shop floor as in white collar areas (See Shaiken, 1986; Zuboff, 1988). While the selections here examine white collar work, the reader can consider the parallels between the computerization of blue collar work and white collar work. Many of the studies of the computerization of blue collar work focus on factories (e.g., Noble, 1984; Shaiken, 1986; Weekley, 1983; Zuboff, 1988). Factories employ a significant fraction of blue collar workers, but not a majority. Some of the major blue collar occupations that are not factory jobs include bus and truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, construction workers, appliance repair personnel, automobile and airplane mechanics, gas station attendants, dock workers, gardeners and janitors. Factories have been the site of some major computerization projects, as in the use of robots for welding and painting and the use of numerically controlled machinery. But many other blue collar jobs are being influenced by computerization as well.
The Transformation of Office Work
Office work has always involved keeping records. We don't have many detailed accounts of the earliest offices--that date back before the Middle Ages. Today, offices with dozens of clerks carrying out similar tasks are commonplace. Before the twentieth century, the majority of offices were small and were often the workplace of a single businessman or professional who kept informal records (Delgado, 1979). The shape of offices the way work is organized, the role of women in their operation, the career lines, and office technologies has been radically transformed in the last 100 years.
Novelists like Charles Dickens have written some detailed descriptions of nineteenth century English clerks. They were often viewed as a dull bunch of sickly men who had safe but tedious jobs. In the nineteenth century, information was recorded by clerks using pen and ink, and copies were also made by hand. There were no powerful technologies for assisting one's hand in writing, copying, or even doing calculations. Filing systems were relatively makeshift, and there weren't standardized sizes of forms such as 3 x 5" cards or letter-size paper. Clerical work was a man's job, and was a common route for learning a business and becoming a potential owner.
In the early twentieth century, the technologies and organization of office work underwent substantial change. Firms began to adopt telephones and typewriters, both of which had been recently invented. By the 1930s and 1940s, many manufacturers devised electromechanical machines to help manipulate, sort and tally specialized paper records automatically. Some of the more expensive pieces of equipment, such as specialized card-accounting machines, were much more affordable and justifiable in organizations that centralized their key office activities.
While new equipment was often adopted to enhance the efficiency of offices, its use was tied to more widespread changes in the shape of organizations: the shifts in control to central administrators, and an increase in the number of jobs that were mostly being filled by women. Women began to work in offices as typewriter operators and clerks, and were typically viewed as short- term job-holders, working between school and marriage during their early to mid-twenties. As larger firms hired professional managers, many aspiring professionals turned to graduate schools rather than apprenticeships to learn their craft. Increasingly, specialized colleges rather than on-the-job training became the key entry point for professional and managerial careers. And with these careers dominated by males, clerical work became the province of women who could not readily move into the upper cadres of professional or managerial life.
This sketch indicates some of the key themes that permeate discussions of computerization and the quality of worklife: how efficient and flexible work will be, who controls the work that is done and how it is organized, how work is divided by gender, and who shares in the benefits of technological and organizational change.
Businesses such as insurance companies and banks, along with public agencies, adopted computer-based information systems on a large scale in the 1960s. Many of the early digital computer systems replaced electromechanical paper-card systems. The earliest systems were designed for batch operation. Clerks filled in paper forms with information about a firm's clients, and the forms were then periodically sent to a special group of keypunchers to translate the data onto cardboard cards. These "Hollerith cards" each stored one line of data, up to 80 characters. They were punched with a series of holes for each character or number. Keypunch machines were clanky devices with a typewriter-style keyboard, a bin for storing blank cards, and a holder for the card being punched. There was no simple way for a keypunch operator to correct an error. Cards containing errors (e.g., a letter "s" instead of an "a") had to be completely repunched. The punched cards were then taken to a data-processing department for a weekly or monthly "run", during which time records were updated and reports were produced. Errors often took a few cycles--sometimes weeks or months--to identify and correct. Using these early computerized systems required immense precision and care, since inaccuracies were detected and corrected very slowly. In addition, the data from one information system were usually formatted in a way that did not make them accessible to other systems. Professionals and managers often waited a few months for a new kind of report, and reports that required merging data from several separate systems were often viewed as prohibitively complex, time-consuming, and expensive to create. The earliest computer systems were speedier than the hand in processing large volumes of highly specialized transactions. But they were also very rigid and cumbersome for many people who used them.
Furthermore, the transaction-processing and report-generating programs were usually written by specialized programmers who were organized into specialized data-processing departments. Often, the large specialized computer systems, their operators, and their programmers were all located in basement offices--isolating them from organizational life. During the last 25 years, most organizations have reorganized their computer-based information systems to be more responsive and flexible, and to support a richer array of organizational activities. Terminals connected to shared data-bases or microcomputers are commonplace in today's organizations.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, virtually every organization bought PCs and workstations. But "the PC revolution" did not just change the nature of office equipment--it expanded the range of people who use computers routinely to include a much larger fraction of professionals (who are often men)--managers of all kinds, architects, accountants, lawyers, and so on. Many larger organizations are beginning to use computerized communication systems--like electronic mail--to help managers and professionals keep in contact when they are out of the office. And a few organizations are experimenting with pushing some of their staff out of regular offices and creating "virtual offices" in locations closer to their clients, their homes, and other more convenient (and less costly) locations.
In the last decade many larger organizations have been restructuring work. Some analysts tout these restructurings as byproducts of computerization. But many of these changes are often unrelated to computerization. For example, in the early 1990s many top managers have restructured their organizations so as to eliminate layers of managers below them ("delayering"). Some analysts argue that the use of electronic mail and computerized reporting systems has enabled this flattening of corporate hierarchies. But I have seen such thinning of middle management in corporations that make relatively little use of electronic mail. If organizations can delayer without the use of e-mail, why would we believe that e-mail plays a key role in delayering?
Similarly, in the recent United States recession many organizations have laid off numerous workers, and the remaining staff often work much harder and much longer hours. It's not clear whether computerization has any significant influence on this pattern. Last, many organizations have restructured their employment contracts so that they have a much larger fraction of readily dispensable part-time and/or temporary employees than before the recent recession. This approach has created fewer full-time jobs with good career opportunities in specific organizations, and is probably unrelated to computerization.
Today, the typical clerk, professional or manager is much more likely to use a variety of powerful computer systems than would her counterpart ten and certainly fifteen years ago. But have jobs improved in a way that is commensurate with the technical improvement in computer systems? That is a key question which we will examine from several vantage points in this section.
Gender, Work and Information Technology
It may seem strange to begin a discussion of computerization and work with gender, when the common terms of computer use--such as "computer user" and interface--seem to be so gender neutral. But finding ways to talk about people's identities can help us understand computerization more deeply.
Discussions of women and computing often focus on clerical work because about one-third of the women in the work force are clerks. Conversely, about 80% of the 20 million clerks in the United States in 1993 were women. Women work in every occupation from janitors to ambassadors for the federal government, but they are not equally represented in the higher status and better paid professions. Less than 30% of the nation's 1.3 million programmers and systems analysts were women in 1993. But the nation's 16.1 million female clerks vastly outnumbered the nation's 412,000 female programmers and systems analysts in 1993. Female computer users today are more likely to be clerks who processes transactions, such as payroll, inventory, airline reservations, than to be information and computer professionals.
In the first selection, Suzanne Iacono and I examine how the dramatic improvements in office technologies over the past 100 years have sometimes made many clerical jobs much more interesting, flexible and skill-rich. But we also observe that these changes, especially those involving increased skill requirements, have not brought commensurate improvements in career opportunities, influence, or clerical salaries. We examine the actual changes in clerical work that have taken place over the last 100 years, from the introduction of the first typewriters through whole generations of office equipment--mechanical accounting machines, telephones, and photocopiers. Each generation of equipment has made certain tasks easier. At the same time, clerical work shifted from a predominantly male occupation, which provided an entry route to higher levels of management, to a predominantly female occupation that has been ghettoized. We criticize some of the technological utopians, such as Giuliano (1982), by arguing that a new generation of integrated computer-based office systems will not automatically alter the pay, status, and careers of clerks without explicit attention. Further, we argue that computerization is a continuous processes which doesn't stop when a new kind of equipment is acquired (Also see Kling and Iacono, 1989, Zmuidzinas, Kling and George, 1990).
These observations become more meaningful because the vast majority of working women are still concentrated in a few occupations, despite the growing numbers of women who have entered the professions and management in the last two decades (Reskin and Padavic, 1994). About 80% of the clerical workers in the United States in 1993 were women. In contrast, about 42% the executives and managers and 53% of the professionals were women. However, women professionals were clustered in nursing, social work, library jobs, and school teaching. For example, 75% of school teachers were women while less than 20% of architects were women. In 1988 only 30% of employed computer scientists and 10% of employed doctoral-level computer scientists were women (Pearl, et. al., 1990) and the percentages have not changed substantially since then.
The way that clerical work is computerized affects at 16 million working women in the United States . But men often believe that much of the work done in female work groups is trivial and can be readily automated. The problems in effectively computerizing such seemingly routine work that can, in fact, require managing subtle complexities of work processes actually effects a much larger number of people--both inside and outside the targeted work group. This idea is developed in Lucy Suchman's article, "Supporting Articulation Work," which I will discuss in more detail later in this introduction.
Information Technology and New Ways of Organizing Work
An important aspect of worklife is the issue of who controls the way that work is organized, the way that people communicate, and workers' levels of skills. In the 1980s, many professionals became enamored with microcomputers. They became the new electronic typewriter for writers of all kinds. Engineers set aside their slide rules and electronic calculators for software that mechanized their calculations and produced graphical data displays. Accountants helped drive the demand for microcomputers with their passion for computerized spreadsheets. And so on. Many professionals became hooked on the relative ease and speed of their computer tools, and dreaded any return to manual ways of working. They often adopted and adapted computers to their work in ways that enhanced their control over their work products. Work still remained labor intensive, since the working week did not diminish in length. Work sometimes became more fun, or at least less tedious.
In Giuliano's (1982) account, managers organized "industrial age" offices for efficiency, and will organize "information-age" offices in a way that enhances the quality of jobs as well. But some observers argue that managers will not give up substantial control to their subordinates. Andrew Clement, for example, argues that the close monitoring of employee behavior represents the logical extension of a dominant management paradigm--pursuit of control over all aspects of the business enterprise. Indeed some believe that to manage is to control. ". . . [M]anagement may be called 'the profession of control'" (Clement, 1984:10).
Some authors argue that the industrialization of clerical work sets the stage for the industrialization of professional work as well. In "The Social Dimensions of Office Automation" Abbe Mowshowitz summarizes his sharp vision in these concise terms:
Our principal point is that the lessons of the factory are the guiding principles of office automation. In large offices, clerical work has already been transformed into factory-like production systems. The latest technology--office automation--is simply being used to consolidate and further a well-established trend. For most clerical workers, this spells an intensification of factory discipline. For many professionals and managers, it signals a gradual loss of autonomy, task fragmentation and closer supervision--courtesy of computerized monitoring. Communication and interaction will increasingly be mediated by computer. Work will become more abstract . . . and opportunities for direct social interaction will diminish (Mowshowitz, 1986).
Some analysts have hoped that new computer communication technologies, such as electronic mail, would enable workers to bypass rigid bureaucratic procedures (e.g., Hiltz and Turoff, 1978:142). Some analysts have found that electronic mail can give groups more ability to develop their own culture (Finholt and Sproull, 1990). And some have hoped that electronic mail would reduce the barriers to communication between people at different levels of hierarchy in an organization. But the evidence is mixed. Zuboff (1988) reports an interesting case that can dim these unbridled enthusiasms and lead us to ask under what conditions they are most likely to occur. In a large drug company she studied, managers claimed that their communications to electronic groups were often treated as policy statements, even when they wanted to make an informal observations or ad-hoc decisions. Further, when a group of about 130 professional women formed a private women's conference, male managers felt threatened, upper managers discouraged women from participating, and soon many participants dropped out (Zuboff, 1988:382-383).
I suspect that electronic communications systems are most likely to facilitate the formation of groups that upper managers deem to be safe, except in those special organizations--like universities and R&D labs--where there are strong norms against censorship. The controversy between technological utopians who see technologies as improving human and organizational behavior and those who see social systems as changing slowly in response to other kinds of social and economic forces will not be resolved by one or two case studies. But the cases are instructive to help focus the debate about what is possible and the conditions under which computer systems of specific kinds alter social life.
In "The Case of the Omniscient Organization," sociologist Gary Marx reports the behavior of a hypothetical company, Dominion-Swann (DS). The article, which is written as an excerpt from DS's 1995 Employee Handbook was originally published in the Harvard Business Review, a premier management magazine, in 1990 as the springboard for a discussion about information technology and management practices. The DS case is constructed as a technologically anti-utopian narrative (see Section II). But it also illustrates the power of well crafted utopian or anti-utopian narratives to highlight significant social choices. Marx crafted the DS case to illustrate how a business firm could develop a tight system of social control by partly relying upon relatively unobtrusive information technologies. However, the DS's 1995 Employee Handbook characterizes each form of control as either inoffensive or actually in employee's best interests. In effect, DS has created an totally encompassing electronic prison in which virtually every aspects of an employee's behavior is continually monitored. Simultaneously, DS's 1995 Employee Handbook characterizes the company as a homelike community, where employees feel so comfortable with DS and each other, that continual monitoring of work practices, health, and social relations is simply a cozy part of everyday life. Marx has brilliantly portrayed the contradictions of some contemporary corporate cultures. DS would appear as hellish to an ardent individualist like William Whyte (See Introduction to Section III).
While Marx's portrait of DS can outrage and even terrify some people, it's not automatically true that a firm like DS would have trouble finding willing employees. North American society is very diverse, and many people live out social practices that would offend others in their own communities. And many firms have increased the extent to which they monitor some aspects of their employees work. Today, most of the monitoring focuses on measures of work, but some organizations also tap phone calls or eavesdrop on conversations between co-workers (Kadaba, 1993). A few organizations are even experimenting with "active badges" that would enable others to learn of their whereabouts at any time (Kling, 1993). The next selection "Mr. Edens Profits from Watching His Workers' Every Move" by Tony Horwitz describes a small financial services firm whose boss observes his employees by sitting behind their desks. Mr. Edens' techniques for having his employees work intensively by prohibiting them from looking at the window or conversing are very simple. But the fact that many people desperate for some kind of stable job will work for Mr. Edens suggests that employers that used techniques like Gary Marx's DS would also find willing employees.
In 1991, Grant and Higgens reported an empirical study about the effectiveness and repercussions of monitoring the activities of service workers, such as those who audit insurance claims. They studied a group of existing companies, none of which were as finely wired as the hypothetical DS. Grant and Higgens developed a rich, multidimensional concept of monitoring that includes features such as the granularity of data (i.e., amount of work per minute, hour, day or week) , the different types of data collected (i.e., work completed, error rates, customer complaints, nature of tasks), and the variety of people who routinely see data about a person's work (i.e., oneself, one's supervisor, one's peers, and/or upper managers). They found that many people did not object to computerized monitoring. And in a few cases, some people liked their work to be measured to help demonstrate how productive they actually were. But they also found that monitoring does not always improve performance and the quality of service. For example, extensive monitoring discouraged some people from being willing to help their co-workers with problems or work crunches. In fact, service seemed to degrade most when many aspects of performance were monitored and made available to supervisors. Grant and Higgens view monitoring as a legitimate but subtle form of managerial intervention that can often backfire when system designers and managers do not pay close attention to people's indirect responses to monitoring.
Control Over the Location of Work
It is possible for managers to work with several competing logics. They may be concerned with maintaining some control over their subordinates time and pay, but also with allowing sufficient flexibility and self-direction to insure good quality work and retain good employees. In fact, some organizations try to pay less by offering attractive working conditions. One of the interesting possibilities of computerized work work at home seems to have gotten stalled because of dilemmas of workplace control. Many self employed people work at home. Futurists like Alvin Toffler have been specially excited by the possibilities that people who normally commute to a collective office could elect to work at home. In The Third Wave, Toffler portrayed homes with computer and communications equipment for work as "electronic cottages".
A recent report developed under the auspices of the Clinton administration included a key section, "Promoting Telecommuting," that lists numerous advantages for telecommuting (IITF, 1994). These include major improvements in air quality from reduced travel; increased organizational productivity when people can be more alert during working hours faster commercial transit times when few cars are on the roads; and improvements in quality or worklife. The benefits identified in this report seem so overwhelming that it may appear remarkable that most organizations have not already allowed all of their workers the options to work at home.
Forester (1989) critiqued the visions of full-time work at home via telecommuting as a romantic preference. After coming to appreciate the social isolation reported by several people who worked at home full time, he speculates that many analysts who most enthusiastically champion full time work at home with computing have never done it themselves. There have been several published studies of the pros and cons of firms giving their employees computer equipment to use at home while communicating with their shared offices via electronic mail (Kraemer & King, 1982; Olson, 1989; Huws, Korte, and Robinson, 1990). Some analysts hoped that work at home will decrease urban congestion during computer hours, give parents more opportunity for contact with young children, and allow people to spend more time in their neighborhoods. However, people who work a substantial fraction of the time at home may be unavailable for meetings, may be less visible to their peers and (therefore) passed over for promotions, and may be difficult to supervise unless they work on a piece-rate system. And some employees may lack sufficient self-discipline for work at home.
Many popular accounts focus on the way that home can be a less distracting place to work than the collective office. Homes are different kinds of places to work than offices. Homeworkers report a different set of attractions and distractions at home: sociable neighbors may expect to be able to drop in any time; the refrigerator may beckon others too frequently; a spouse who works in an office may expect the partner at home to cook dinner nightly, the child who comes home from school at 3PM may want immediate attention, and so on. Some parents choose to work at home because they can spend time with their babies and pre-school children, but they often get much less done than at their collective offices. Olson's (1989) study of full time work at home by computer professionals exemplifies some of the empirical studies. She found reduced job satisfaction, reduced organizational commitment and higher role conflict in her sample. She also wonders whether work-at-home practices can exacerbate workaholism.
A few firms, such as IBM and Chiat/Day, have conducted pilot tests of the telecommuting and "virtual offices" (Kindel, 1993; Sprout, 1994; Taylor, 1994). And the members of a few occupations, such as journalists, professors, salesmen, and accountants often take notebook computers on the road when they travel. But the vast majority of firms keep their office-bound work force keystroking in the office rather than at home. Some workers are given computer equipment to use for unpaid overtime work. To date, however, no large firms have dispersed a large fraction of their full-time work force to their homes to work with computer systems.
It seems that the desire to maintain control underlies many managers' fears of having their employees work full-time at home. It is much easier for managers to be sure that their subordinates are putting in a fair day's work in an office from nine to five (sometimes called "face work"), than to develop and monitor subtle contracts about the amount of work ("deliverables") to be produced each week or month.
Anthropologist Connie Perin adds an interesting insight about the complexities of off-site work after interviewing about 150 managers and professional employees in a variety of occupations, all organizationally employed, full-time workers in several United States industries. She found that
Field-based employees typically complain of their "isolation" from a central office which "never understands" the conditions of their work--that lack of empathy or interest represents a fundamental negativism toward office absence. Those not working in a central office may be regarded as quasi-employees, similar to contract, part-time, or temporary employees within the organization .... Overall, both physical and social distance, independent of all other considerations, attenuates organizational legitimization and managerial trust (Perin, 1991).Electronic mail seems to give greater visibility to people who work at home (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991). But the technology only facilitates communication, and effective communication requires additional skills and attention. And there may be some subtle gender biases in electronic discussion groups (Herring, 1993). Some telecommuters have gone as far as making videos of their homes to show their supervisors their working conditions.
In addition, some people find social and technological attractions to working in a group office. A shared office is often populated with people to chat or go to lunch with, especially when it is compared with the typical isolating suburban neighborhood where many telecommuters live. In addition, organizations usually provide better computer equipment, including higher-speed computer networks and faster laser printers in shared offices than in their employees' homes. Last, today's computer equipment is still relatively clumsy and occasionally unreliable. It is much easier to get meaningful help from a colleague who can see one's work, or even from a technical support person at the office, than by explaining subtle problems over a telephone. Any of these patterns could be altered, but they each require changing many conventions of organizational life and neighborhood organization.
I am discouraged when I read a government report like "Promoting Telecommuting" (IITF, 1994). It is infused with a decent enthusiasm for "doing the right thing," but fails to come to terms with many of the significant institutional issues that inhibit significant telecommuting. Conceptually, it relies upon rational systems models of organizations rather than the natural systems models of organizations that I briefly explained in "The Centrality of Organizations in the Computerization of Society." The report encourages Federal agencies to take the lead in creating telecommuting programs with their employees, especially in large metro areas with substantial air pollution. And it will be interesting to see whether these pilot projects scale up to include a significant work force and if they are sustainable.
It is still an open question whether many organizations will allow substantial fractions of their work force to work at home with computing part time (one to three days a week), for reasons of personal flexibility or to facilitate regional transportation plans. Few homes are designed for significant home offices, and there are many important questions about the pros and cons of part time work-at-home with computing (and fax) for those who prefer this option.
New Forms of Work Organization
This article began with the controversies about the ways that computerization changes the organization of work. This debate used traditional forms of regimented assembly lines as a major reference point. Another related controversy is the extent to which new computing technologies, especially those that support communications open up new forms of work. Does electronic mail eliminate organizational hierarchies and facilitate the formation of flexible (virtual) work groups? Do new forms of computerization create novel possibilities for organizational learning (Zuboff, 1991)?
There are few empirical studies that support these speculations, and the existing evidence is mixed. In one intriguing study, Tom Finholt and Lee Sproull (1990) found that electronic mail can give groups more ability to develop their own culture. Others argue that electronic mail reduces the barriers to communication between people at different levels of hierarchy in an organization (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991).
The controversy about the possibility of computerization fostering new forms of work organization is very engaging. Enthusiasts of the position that computerization can lead to new forms of work have the advantage of offering exciting possibilities. However, they rarely face the issues of workplace and support systems for technical work. When they ignore recurrent themes from previous eras of computerization, they risk being blindsided by perennial issues in new guises (Kling and Jewett, 1994).
The Design and Routine Use of Computerized Technologies
The Integration of Computing into Work
The vast majority of articles and books about computerization and work are written as if computer systems are highly reliable and graceful instruments. There are relatively few published studies of the ways that people actually use software systems in their work--which features do they use, to what extent do they encounter problems with systems or gaps in their own skills, how do they resolve problems when difficulties arise, how does the use of computerized systems alter the coherence and complexity of work?
There does not seem to be single simple answers to these questions. Some organizations computerize some jobs so as to make them as simple as possible. An extreme example is the way that fast food chains have computerized cash registers with special buttons for menu items like cheeseburgers and malts so that they can hire clerks with little math skill. Kraut, Dumais, and Koch (1989) report a case study of customer service representatives in which simplifying work was a major consequence of computerization.
But it is common for images of simplification to dominate talk about computerization, regardless of the complexity of systems. Clement (1990) reports a case of computerization for secretaries in which managers characterized new systems as "super typewriters" which didn't require special training; they were very mistaken. Many of the popular "full featured" PC software packages for text processing, spreadsheets, and databases include hundreds of features. Narratives which focus on the capabilities of systems usually suggest that people can readily have all the advantages that all the features offer; actual behavior often differs from these expectations. Most people who use these powerful programs seem to learn only a small fraction of the available capabilities--enough to do their most immediate work. Moreover, it is increasingly common for many workers to use multiple computer systems, often with conflicting conventions, further complicating people's ability to "use computer systems to their fullest advantage." Some of these dilemmas can be resolved when organizations adopt relatively uncomplicated systems, train their staffs to use them, and provide consulting for people who have questions. However, many managers believe that supporting computer use with training and consulting is too expensive. Training is not cheap; an organization may pay $500 in labor time for a professional to learn to use a package that costs $150 to purchase.
I vividly remember a research administrator of a major food processing firm who was using a popular and powerful spreadsheet to budget projects. He wanted to print out reports in different fonts, such as printing budget categories in larger bolder print. But he was puzzled how to do this. He knew that "it could be done" because he saw such a report in an advertisement. He treated his ignorance as a personal failing. He would have had to learn his spreadsheet's macro facility to produce this effect, and there was no clue in his manual about the appropriate strategy. In some organizations he might have turned to an information center with skilled consultants. But in his organization, the PC consultants were already overworked just installing new PCs and had no time to train users or consult on software use. This was not a critical problem for the manager. But it is indicative of the way that many organizations expect white collar workers to learn to effectively use computer systems on their own, with little support besides limited manuals and advice from co-workers. Most computer systems do not work perfectly, further complicating what users have to learn and how they integrate systems into their work (see Kling and Scacchi, 1979; Gasser, 1986; Clement 1990).
The selection by Poltrock and Grudin goes behind the scenes of a major software development firm to examine the way that software is designed and built in practice. They describe published principles of software development, such of those of John Gould, that emphasize close contact with the people who will actually use a software package (or surrogates) at all stages of design and testing. But they observe an odd contradiction in the practical work of many software developers. Many software developers claim that these principles are obvious, but they rarely follow them in practice. Poltrock and Grudin's study examines how such a contradiction can happen in practice. It could be that software developers behave like those of us who know that we should always balance our checkbooks, but often let it slip when we're busy. Their case study examines how computer scientists who were designing CAD software work within a structured organization. They are not autonomous masters of their own designs. People in other departments also play key roles in shaping the resulting product. In this case, the marketing department was able to seize the role as the group that would speak for people who would use the CAD system. They quote one software engineer, who noted:
I think it would be worthwhile if all developers would spend maybe a couple of hours a year seeing how the product is used by those customers. Just watching them. And while they're watching them the customer would say, I don't like the way this works, and noting those things.... You need to see how they use it. You need to understand, first of all, what they're doing. So you need them to give you a little background, and then watch how they accomplish it, and see the totality of it, especially. How they fire up, the whole structure of their day. And then use that information to give you a global sense of how to help them out. You can't help them without understanding how they work."
This comment poignantly portrays the isolation of many software designers for whom spending just "a couple of hours a year" with their customers would be a major improvement in their abilities to develop higher quality software.
In the next selection, MIS Professor Christine Bullen and John Bennett (then employed by IBM) follow this advice. They examine the ways that people actually integrate computer systems to support collaborative work in groups (groupware) into their work. They report how several work groups have attempted to use some of today's best commercially available groupware systems with mixed results. Their informants often report that they value the electronic mail features of these systems as most important, even though each of these systems has many other advertised features. But many groups have found other features hard to use routinely, or simply not worth the effort. (Also see Grudin, 1989).
More significantly, Bullen and Bennett report that many groups slowly learned that they would have to reorganize their work in order to take best advantage of their groupware. For example, the usage of electronic calendars to schedule meetings requires that all participants keep detailed calendars up to date on the computer system, even if they often spend much of their days out of the office. Many managers and professionals hope that they can computerize effectively by installing appropriate equipment, rather than by reorganizing work when they (re)computerize. Bullen and Bennett make a provocative attempt to characterize those groups which are high performers: they are not always the most computerized. They argue that group members and their managers have worked hard to create work environments which have "clear elevating goals," and which support and reward commitment. These groups have developed effective social systems with coherent goals and related rewards as well as adopting technologies which might help improve their performance.
There is considerable unpublished controversy about this kind of analysis, since many technologists and computer vendors try to convince computer using organizations that appropriate new technologies alone will improve working styles and organizational effectiveness. During the 1990s interesting technologies such as expert systems, groupware and graphical interfaces will be written about by technologists and journalists as if they can significantly improve the ways that people work without requiring important changes in the way that groups organize their work. Careful studies of work with new computing technologies, like Bullen and Bennett's study, suggests that new technologies alone are unlikely to be magic potions which can automatically improve work just by appearing in a workplace. (Also see Jewett and Kling, 1990).
Social Design of Computerized Systems and Work Settings
An exciting recent development is the effort by some researchers and practitioners to conceptualize the design of computer and networked systems as a set of interrelated decisions about technology and the organization of work. Managers and professionals who focus on the use of computing may find that this approach fits their routine practices. But thinking and talking about computerization as the development of socio-technical configurations rather than as simply installing and using a new technology is not commonplace.
Many professionals use computer technologies which expand the range of their work methods. The adoption of electronic mail to facilitate communication between people who work in different time zones and the acquisition of compact portable computers to facilitate working on the road are two routine illustrations. But organizations that adopt portable computers and e-mail to improve the flexibility of people's work relationships must do more than simply acquire technologies to realize these specific advantages. For example, portable computers may help people work outside of their offices. Some of the resulting convenience hinges on technological choices, such as acquiring machines which run software whose files are compatible with file formats used in the office. But much of the resulting flexibility depends upon social choices as well. For example, if organization A requires men and women to report to work daily during regular working hours even when they have the portable computers, then people gain relatively little flexibility in work location if that policy is not also changed. People may be able to take portable computers home after hours or on weekends, or on the road while they travel. Thus, organization A may gain some unpaid overtime work with these policies. But the men and women who work in organization A will not gain much of the "control over the location of work" which people many attribute to portable computing. In contrast, if organization B allows its employees to work at places and times which they choose, then its employees can use portable computing to have even more flexibility in their work. In each of these cases, the men and women who adopt the equipment and construct work policies and practices for organizations A and B have created distinct socio-technical configurations--or social designs. And these social designs which incorporate portable computing, rather than the technology alone, have different consequences.
TABLE 1: SOME ELEMENTS OF A SOCIAL DESIGN
Analytical research about computerization in organizations, as well as our own systematic observations, has helped identify many arenas in which organizational participants make social choices about the socio-technical configurations of their computerized and networked systems (Jewett and Kling, 1990; Jewett and Kling, 1991; Kling, 1992; Bikson and Law, 1993; Markus, 1994). The term "social design of computerized systems," or "social design," characterizes the joint design of both the technological characteristics of a computerized systems and the social arrangements under which it will be used (Kling, 1987a; Kling and Jewett, 1994). Table #1 lists several common social dimensions which can be part of the social design of a computing or network system.
The social design of work systems with computing does not necessarily improve the quality of peoples' work lives. For example, some managers have computerized relatively routinized clerical work by fragmenting jobs and tightening supervisors' abilities to monitor the quality, pace and speed of people's work. These same managers may develop good systematic training programs for the clerks whose work is now more regimented. However, social design can also be very benign. It encourages participants in a computerization project to review the web of practices and policies related to computing which can otherwise be "unanticipated."
Two of the major approaches to social design contrast strongly in their assumptions about people, organizations, technology and work. Business Process Reengineering is usually applied by managers and consultants to streamline operations (Hammer, 1990; Hammer and Champy, 1993; Davenport, 1993). The main aims of these reengineering projects seem to be reducing the time for a specific business process, such as dispatching a repairman to a site or processing an insurance claim, and also reducing the number of people who work on that activity. However, some consultants have promised more diverse financial benefits to their clients (and potential clients).
David Schnitt (1993) characterizes a business process in these terms:
A business process is best defined as an activity in the organization fundamental to operating the business that serves an internal or external customer and has a well-defined outcome or series of outcomes. Every organization is made up of business processes. Examples include such mundane activities as accounts payable, inventory control, field service, or the processing of a customer application .... Since many work steps in business processes are executed by people in different departments, this view encourages a cross-functional perspective....the business process view of the Accounts Payable (A/P) process sheds new light on it as a complicated, slow, error-prone process involving many different departments and personnel. It reveals that the process is really the procurement process, not just A/P. Seen from this perspective, the opportunities for improvement are much greater. The key is to focus on the value-added outcome of the process (why it is done, not what is done) and how it relates to other processes in the organization. (Schnitt, 1993)
Business process reengineering brings an industrial engineering perspective to the design of organizations and work. The flow of documents and authorizations are key elements, and the character of people's jobs is a secondary consideration in much of the writing about this approach to redesigning organizations. Computer systems of various kinds are often key elements of a reengineering project, including scanners and document processing systems at the "front end" of a process, and the use of workflow software to model and mange some of the subsequent activity.
The analyses which support these projects usually rest on Rational systems models of organizations to examine workflows that run across departments. They usually examine few influences on worklife and work organization other than those that directly pertain to reliable and efficient workflows.
The major alternative approach, sometimes called socio-technical systems design, makes people and their relationships in support of work, rather than workflows, the center of organizational reforms with information technology (Johnson & Rice, 1987; Zuboff, 1988; Pava, 1983). Peter Keen (1991) articulates this approach in these terms:
The business team, rather than the functionally defined hierarchy or the dotted-line or matrix-management variants that show up on the organization chart, is increasingly being seen as the real unit of organizing. Business is finally recognizing that division of labor is increasingly ineffective as the basis for an organization in an environment of constant rather than occasional change and of shifting functions to the proven project and team-based processes long employed by the research and technical functions. Teamwork is relational; the quality of performance rests on the quality of interactions, communication, and coordination among team members.... Instead of focusing on organization structure, business today needs to look at the mechanisms that make communication simple, flexible...IT makes practical many of the visions of management thinkers. The management principles for exploiting IT organizational advantage require a basic rethinking of old assumptions--especially concerning the links between strategy and structure--at the top of the firm.
Keen's analysis appeals to many professionals. One technologically oriented corollary leads some computer scientists to develop designs for computer systems which facilitate communication and collaboration in diverse forms: mail systems, conferencing systems, co-authoring systems, and so on (Kling, 1991a). But it is much too facile to think that lower status workers, such as clerks and semi-professionals are most appropriately targeted with business process reengineering while only higher status workers, such as managers and professionals, can bask in a more supportive and enriched relational organization.
For example, Jim Euchner and Patricia Sachs (1993) recently reported the redesign of a "work system" in which a regional United States phone company (NYNEX) provided customers with high speed (T.1) phone service. The installation required the collaboration of over 40 people in five distinct departments (Corcoran, 1992). NYNEX took much longer to complete these installations than their competitors, and rapidly lost significant market share in New York City. A computerized scheduling system had been used to assign different technicians to their specialized activities in the installation and fine-tuning of the T.1 lines in customers' offices. A large part of the delay seemed to derive from the way that some key problems cut across the domains of different technicians--they were either problems at system interfaces, or problems whose causes were somewhat ambiguous. The computer system helped to efficiently schedule the technicians' trips to the site--one at a time--to give them full and balanced workloads. It did not help bring together the specific technicians who would be needed to solve the more vexing installation problems.
A group from NYNEX's Science and Technology Center collaborated in a socio-technical design with both the craft workers and managers who were responsible for T.1 installations to develop a new "work system design." Some of the principles of work system design that they articulated are common themes in many socio-technical systems projects. For example, they had craft workers who do the actual work, as well as more senior managers, design the new work system and implement it. They focussed on workflows and whole processes rather than upon discrete tasks, a concept which is shared with many business process reengineering projects. However, they sought to provide people with ownership and responsibility for whole jobs, rather than discrete tasks. And they developed some specific guidelines for designing computer and communication systems: to support workflows and communications; to provide "intelligent" information handling; and to have interfaces that match the language in which people conceptualize their work.
The new T.1 work system reorganized the installations around cross-functional teams who have joint responsibility for insuring that installations are prompt and effective. The team's composition is rather fluid and can depend upon the specific customer and the stage of the installation. But they usually mix both white collar and blue collar workers, and can include people at different managerial levels. The coordination relies upon people scheduling technicians rather than upon computerized scheduling, although computer support is provided for other activities. In this particular case, the work system was redesigned, while the existing computer systems were left untouched.
Jewett and Kling (1990) report the case of a pharmaceutical firm in which sales managers radically restructured the responsibilities of sales clerks from passive order-takers to be more proactive sales representatives. The department held extensive meetings to reconceptualize their roles, and the staff rewrote all of the job descriptions. The resulting jobs were enriched and also reclassified at somewhat higher pay levels. The department's managers also commissioned the development of a new computerized information system to provide richer searching capabilities to support the restructured jobs. In this case, the configuration of the information systems was part of a larger social design which included the explicit reconceptualization of key jobs. (Also see Chapter 4 of Levering, 1988.)
These socio-technical strategies require that systems analysts and designers understand many of the work practices, schedules, resource constraints, and other contingencies of the people who will use the new computerized systems. Some organizations, such as NYNEX, have included social scientists on their design teams to facilitate such observation and understanding. They also recommend that people who use the systems have a substantial role in specifying their designs as well as altered work practices. One reason that stand-alone microcomputers may have been so attractive for many people is that they offered more control over the form of computerization and changes in work than systems which ran on shared computer systems. In addition, microcomputer users' work methods made them less dependent upon having access to busy full time computer professionals to design and modify systems. This made their computing arrangements more adaptable. Many organizations implemented PC systems with a tacit social design that gave their workers more autonomy.
The next two selections by anthropologist Lucy Suchman and computer scientist Andrew Clement give us some deeper insights into socio-technical work design. In "Supporting Articulation Work." Lucy Suchman examines the way that critical work processes are often invisible to casual observers. In a telling examples that appears in the middle of her article, Suchman contrasts the way that lawyers and legal assistants in a firm view the work of coding legal documents with "objective categories" such as From, To, and Date. The male lawyer viewed the coding task as mindless, work that could be done "by chimpanzees" or "by 9-year olds." The lawyer viewed legal interpretation as mindful work. In contrast, the female legal assistants showed Suchman that the tasks of identifying which set of papers should be considered as a document, which names on the papers should be labelled as To and From, and which date should serve as the documents' official date all required mindful interpretation. Suchman notes that it is common for male workers to create artificial categories, such as mindful/mindless or hard/easy to create status boundaries. She goes on to describe how she and her research team developed a prototype document imaging system whose key features were based on the document coding task as experienced by the coders.
In "Computing at Work: Empowering Action by 'Low-level Users'" Andrew Clement describes how several different groups of clerks participated in the design of computer systems in their work. The opportunity to participate was not generously initiated by upper managers in any of these cases. In the case of the Manitoba (Canada) Telephone System (MTS), managers developed a "pervasive command and control culture in which (mostly female) operators were ... constantly watched over and punished for every infraction of the rules." In 1986, operators began reporting health problems, and even stopped work in one office after they became frightened of unsafe working conditions. A Canadian health authority and the clerk's union helped negotiate the opportunity for redesigning work in a Trial Office" with upper managers. Clement reports the resulting change that "operator services have been reorganized around smaller, multi- function work groups while several of the innovations first adopted by the Trial Office e.g. elimination of remote monitoring, improved training resources, cross training, unlimited rights to trading shifts, greater discretion in responding to customer queries are being extended throughout MTS." Clement describes two other projects in a library systems and in a university administration which clerks were able to convince upper managers to allow them to redesign their worn work and computer support systems. He notes some important commonalities in these cases:
For all the differences between these three cases in terms of the jobs, technologies and organizational setting, there are striking similarities. In each, women office workers faced unnecessary hardships because of conventional ways in which computerization had been imposed on them. They had not been consulted about the introduction of the computer systems in the first place, and initially tried to accommodate to the new conditions, in spite of experiencing considerable adverse effects - effects that are commonly associated with the negative implications of computerization elsewhere. Coming from the lower reaches of rigid, strongly hierarchical organizations, attempts to voice concerns were met with fates typical of bottom-up initiatives. It was only after pressures for change had grown considerably was any action taken.
The high side of these "participatory design" projects was that the clerks in each of these organizations were able to create more productive and less regimented jobs for themselves. These kinds of working conditions are sometimes taken for granted by higher status professionals.
In a more recent paper, Andrew Clement and Pater Van den Besselaar (1993) examined the results of many participatory work-redesign design projects. In many cases specific projects lead to participants improving their understanding of information technologies and effectively proposing new or altered systems that improved their working conditions. However, many of these projects were relatively short term, and most of them were isolated examples within their larger organizations. Participatory design is a fundamentally controversial approach because its advocates forthrightly question traditional lines of authority and typical assumptions about who has expertise in organizations.
A third approach to social design is congruent with both business process reengineering and socio-technical design: web analyses of computing infrastructure (Kling, 1992). One key insight of this approach is that social designs which focus primarily on the overt work system, such as processing an insurance claim or installing a phone line, can overlook the kinds of systems and support which are critical for making computer and communications systems workable for people. For example, in a study of computing and organizational practices in a large number of leading companies, McKersie and Walton (1991:275) observe, "Despite widespread recognition among IT planners that most systems are underutilized because of inadequate training, the deficiency is repeated in systems implementation after systems implementation." Training is only one element of infrastructure for computing support. Web analysis locates computer systems and people who use them in a matrix relationships with other people, organizations and technologies on which they depend.
Computing infrastructure can play a key role in social designs. A group may prefer a high performance computing application which requires substantial training and consulting, or a medium performance application which people may learn more effectively on their own. Whichever application is chosen makes subsequent demands upon computing infrastructure for those work groups. Organizations often fail to realize the gains from IT that they hope for when they: a) select high performance applications and fail to provide needed support or training in their use; or b) select lower performance applications but still do not encourage people to experiment and learn in their workplaces. My case study of computerization in a research team (Jewett and Kling, 1991; Kling, 1992) illustrates how a Natural systems model of organizations is needed to understand what kinds of infrastructure are feasible for specific work groups and work systems. This case was specially complex because the work groups' computing facilities, including PCs, printers, and e-mail systems, were administered by several different organizations and located in dispersed locations.
Computing practices can be very complex in practice. It is one thing to say that you computer network has a high speed printer, and another thing to use it effectively when it is located 1/2 mile away or in an office which is often locked when you work. I know of remarkable examples in which people who worked in hi-tech organizations forwarded e-mail and files via the Internet to their spouses who worked 20 miles away so they could get printed copies within a day. Printing messages and files that they received over their networks proved to be elusive in their own organizations! It is easiest for us to imagine that someone who uses e-mail can routinely attach files, print messages, file copies of inbound and outbound messages in special folders, send messages to groups, and so on. It is remarkable how many e-mail systems are configured in ways that make these seemingly routine activities cumbersome or virtually impossible for many men and women who use them.
The analysts who facilitate social designs use tacit models of organizational behavior. Business process reengineering often rests upon Rational Systems models. Since one overt goal of many of these projects is reducing the number of people employed in an area (often referred to as "downsizing" or "decapitation"), it should not be very surprising that the people who will do redesigned work are often unenthusiastic about sharing their best insights with designers. Natural Systems models of organizations take much more explicit account of people's social behavior (such as seeking occupational security, careers, and specific kinds of economic and social rewards from work). Natural systems models also underlie many of the socio-technical design projects.
During the next decade organizations will continue to computerize work--automating new activities and replacing earlier systems with newer technologies. The controversies about how to change work with computer systems will continue to have immense practical repercussions. This article identified some of the key controversies that pervade this diffuse literature--those that pertain to gender equity, control, support systems, social design and new ways of organizing work. Many of the controversies are implicit, since authors often take positions without carefully discussing the alternative positions and debates.
Further systematic research can help resolve some controversies, such as the possibilities of effective social design, the conditions which engender new forms of work organization, and the extent to which they create higher quality workplaces. However, these controversies also pertain to the concrete behavior of organizations, and questions about what they do and will do, not just what they should do.
Organizations and workplaces differ and consequently, their appropriate work organization technologies differ. The research shows that no single logic has been applied towards changing work with computerization. So key controversies cannot be automatically resolved by a new kind of computer technology, such as pen-based systems, or voice recognition. New technologies create new opportunities, but do not always require that the opportunities will be exploited, for better or worse. For example, the research shows that few organizations utilize fine grained computer monitoring systems as intensively as critics of automated monitoring suggest. On the other hand, relatively few organizations systemically and broadly exploit the possibilities of more flexible work schedules that telecommuting can provide. And it is common for organizations to underinvest in the support for helping people effectively integrate computerized systems into their work.
The choices of how to computerize involve practical judgments about what makes workers more productive. But it also engages managers's preferences for control, innovation. Controversies over control pervade the literature about computers and worklife. They also pervade numerous workplaces. They entail controversies that have no inherent resolutions. But good research can at least help men and women at work in understanding the issues and some of their most significant repercussions. After all, on a large scale, the resulting choices will affect the lives of tens of millions of people.
The practical situation is worsened when advocates of some new family of technologies write as if all that has been learned from the last 30 years of computerization is totally irrelevant to help us understand how their systems can be integrated into work or serve as a catalyst for reorganizing work. In this article, we have criticized technological utopianism and anti-utopianism as key genres which inform many normative accounts about how organizations should or should not computerize work. We have seen a reliance on these genres in a large body of professional writing about new families of computing which are technologically discontinuous with past devices. Expert systems, personal computing, groupware, and networking have often been the subject of analyses which are anchored in technological utopian premises. We expect to see a similar body of misleading literature develop to characterize new worlds of work with other exciting technologies, such as "personal digital assistants."
A more realistic body of scholarly and professional analyses can develop in two ways. First, if analysts are willing to learn from the past, such as the nature of control issues in work and the importance of infrastructure and social design, in their relentless search for a better future. And, second, if the technological community is willing to devote some resources to sponsor serious empirical inquiry into the opportunities, limitations, problems of specific families of new technologies. Despite the limitations of the current body of research, certain perennial themes recur. While there are many important and open research questions, there is a body of good research to help inform better choices now.
Copyright © 1996 by Academic Press. All Rights Reserved. Printed by Permission.