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Loosening The Taylorist Stranglehold on the Workplace

There
are a number of topics I’ve been lining up for this blog post but
decided to come back to the enduring influence of Taylorism. I already
had a go back in November 2009 at thinking about the Taylorist Stranglehold over building, workplace and organisational design.

I just finished reviewing twelve white papers I have written since
2005. Dr Marie Puybaraud and I have co-facilitated an average of two
conversations a year for senior IT, FM and HR experts on a variety of
issues connected with the changing workplace. This means that we have a
wealth of observations over a period of six years. The review follows
the completion of the book at the end of last year. Both activities draw
a line under a sustained period of writing and reflection.

Before I leave behind my deliberations to focus my activities on
building the business, there is one consistent theme that often gets
lost, I think, in all the ra-ra about the new dawn of the collaborative
workplace. This is the strength of the pull of the status quo and the
durability of rigid mental models.

High-Performance Work Systems

Research around high-performance work systems is remarkably consistent (will provide references if anyone is interested):

1)
that a range of performance benefits are associated with HPWS when they
are implemented in complementary bundles of structures, processes and
policies;

2) that take-up of HPWS is low.

As
I have said in the book I wrote last year, we already know what smart,
high-performance working practices and systems look like. We also know
about the challenges of making the transition to new ways of working,
including tactics for overcoming obstacles. Too many businesses are just
not putting this stuff into practice.

‘ba’

The
review has been a useful reflection on what I have been learning
through all these face-to-face conversations and through the many
intensive conversations I have had with people online, most of whom I
have never met in person.  The Japanese concept of ‘ba’ came up in one
of the face-to-face conversations. I then started to explore ‘ba’ with
others through Twitter, which @roundtrip on Twitter captured.

Nonaka
et al say that ‘ba’ roughly means place”. It is a here-and-now coming
together of physical, virtual and mental spaces, which together
constitute a shared “context in motion” for tacit knowledge to become
explicit.

Work
contexts are therefore highly dynamic, flowing, social, sensual,
emotional and experiential. We all know that anyway – it is just useful,
I think, to juxtapose this view of work against the prevailing
Taylorist orthodoxy of standardisation, division, separation and control
in the pursuit of efficiency.

Space and Place

During
the Twitter ‘ba’ conversation, Greg Lloyd (@roundtrip) pointed me to a
paper that differentiated between space and place. Harrison and Dourish
explain space as “the three-dimensional environment in which objects
and events occur, and in which they have relative position and
direction”. The properties of physical space apply everywhere. As they
comment, up is up for everyone.

Space
becomes place when it is invested with meaning and expectations, for
example culturally-influenced expectations of how people should behave
within a place. They say, “a space is always what it is, but a place is
how it is used”. A sense of place emerges over time and can be different
at different times, or simultaneously different for multiple groups.

For
space to become a place, ability to participate, adapt and appropriate
has to exist. This is a crucial point. It is a community that determines
how a sense of place develops. Since places have social meaning
constructed by place users themselves, workplace designers can “design
for” place but it cannot be “designed in”.

Dismantling, Challenging, Loosening

What
I love about the requirement for community participating, adapting and
appropriating is what it implies for people taking self-determined
responsibility for how they experience work and their work environments.
As I said in the executive summary of the book:

People  participate in shaping their
own realities. This is not easy but social
and networking technologies that
connect us to each other, used without
permission and for our own ends, are
transformational. It is more possible
than ever for us to influence and shape
our working environments, our
experience of work and of each other

People  participate in shaping their own realities. This
is not easy but social and networking technologies that connect us to
each other, used without permission and for our own ends,
are transformational. It is more possible than ever for us to influence
and shape our working environments, our  experience of work and of each
other.

For those of us who see how work is changing, we need to participate
in creating a culture of challenge to shape the places where we work,
learn and collaborate. We then become the catalysts that influence those
with more fixed minds and attitudes. Of course there are enlightened
companies that are paying serious attention to knowledge-creating
workplace design. There are too few of them. In which case, loosening
the Taylorist stranglehold needs a lot of help from the rest of us.

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