The Meaning of Work: Papers on Work Organization and the Design of Jobs

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Lisl Klein has spent forty years working on the twin themes of the practice of social science in organizations and the importance of work and work organization. Papers on the first of these were published as Working Across the Gap (catalogue number 20169). This volume brings together papers covering the second theme, the meaning and organization of work. After a historical introduction, the book has five sections: Making the case; Two pieces of research, separated by forty years; Five examples of action research and consultancy activities on work organization; Working with other professions that influence the design of jobs; Reflections on the implications for institutions and policy.

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CHAPTER ONE: Introduction: the context. A perspective on work organization in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries

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In 2006, the winner of the Best Actress award in the Hollywood I Oscars said, “I just want to matter and live a good life and make work that means something to somebody.” In 2003, a young woman who had just landed an exciting, well-paid job that she had very much wanted, was already looking beyond it and said, “It will look good on my CV afterwards.” In 1944, a German refugee servant girl could see nothing beyond her situation and found comfort in a hymn, “Lord of the pots and dishes”. In their very different circumstances, and with their very different perspectives, all of them were looking for meaning in their work.

Work has always been central to human existence, though its content as well as its meaning for individuals and their societies continue to change and evolve as historical, technical, and economic circumstances change. In this chapter I present some of the background to the papers in this volume, which arose at various times during the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is, of course, impossible to be comprehensive, and it would be foolish to try. I provide some indications of context where I know about it. That means that the more detailed historical background tends to have a European and British focus. It also means that I need to give some of my own background, to explain both why this has been such a preoccupation—not as an interesting topic for academic study, but as a vital aspect of human and social life—and how the papers arose.

 

CHAPTER TWO: The function of work in human life

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The book New Forms of Work Organisation was published in German in 1975 and in English in 1976. The piece reproduced here was part of the Introduction, and was an attempt to set the issues out at a general level.

* * *

Issues of human welfare can be ranged along a continuum: from I those most internal to individuals—concerned with their most personal needs and development in life—to those which are external to them—concerned with political and social organization in the world around them. The way in which work is organized has relevance at many points on this continuum.

At the individual, personal level, work is a main means of achieving economic viability and adult status in the Western world, of expressing and developing the personality, and of relating to society. At an intermediate level, the way in which people spend their working lives—that is most of their waking lives—helps to shape their perceptions and attitudes and therefore in turn has cultural and social consequences. At the level of the wider society, the forms taken by the division of labour have led to structural and class alignments, to the creation of political “worker” or “labour” parties in a number of European countries, and to the development of trade union movements with varying degrees of political as well as economic power. In the future, it is likely to become the subject of international politics as well, first because of the development of multi-national employers, and second because, in a variety of ways, the more prosperous nations are exporting some of their tasks to the less prosperous nations.

 

CHAPTER THREE: The meaning of work

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This chapter consists of some extracts from The Meaning of Work (Fabian Tract no. 349). It was almost my first publication, and the content was very much influenced by my own life experience: I had been miserable and bored in my first job in a library and enjoyed the flavour and comradeship of life in a factory, packing pills, and the liveliness of working as a personnel officer in a Metal Box Company factory in London s Bermondsey. The factory manager 1 quote yelling across the yard was my manager there, Mr Clift. One of the two women described working in a wartime jobbing factory in Blackfriars was my mother.

The text, published in 1963, shows some signs of the times, for instance in the assumptions it makes about the division of labour between men and women and the use of “he” to mean both. There is a reference to the liner Queen Mary, which has long since gone out of commission. On the other hand, the question raised about whether it is necessary for economic growth to be at the fastest possible rate could not be more up to date: currently (2007) it features strongly in the fight to prevent Burberry from moving their production from the Rhondda Valley to China. And the question “Why must all clerical work be done in Central London between nine and five …” seems prophetic.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Luddism for the twenty-first century

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This was a keynote speech at the thirtieth birthday symposium of HUSAT, the Human Sciences and Advanced Technology Research Institute at Loughborough University, in 2000. Because of HUSAT's location in the Midlands, and because of the nature of the occasion, a reference to Luddism seemed appropriate. It turned out to be more relevant than at first suspected (Klein, 2001).

I introduced my speech by saying that I hoped the audience would not mind if I began with something of a history lesson, as I thought that if I was going to talk about Luddism, I ought to find out what it is.

The history of Luddism

Machines being introduced into textile manufacture at the turn of the eighteenth century could do the work of men, M certainly more quickly and often more accurately and predictably. And machinery could be tended by women and children, who cost less than men. But Luddite machine-breaking activity was only one of several kinds of disturbance and rebellion in the years of the Regency. It was a period of minor rebellions and risings of the poor and desperate, one of the most disturbed and riotous in English history. In 1812 there were not only food riots but waves of collective direct action to control food prices—that is, people refusing to pay the prices asked and paying only the prices which they considered fair, described by Hobsbawm as collective bargaining by riot (Hobsbawm, 1952). This was happening in places as far apart as Falmouth, Bristol, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bolton, and Carlisle. In May that year the Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: The human implications of rationalizing work

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During the 1950s and 1960s, a programme of industrial sociological research was funded in Britain as part of the Marshall Plan. It was a condition of the grants that the research should have some bearing on productivity. Work-study techniques were very popular at the time, as part of the process of rationalizing industrial production, and for five years I was involved in a research project to examine “the human implications of work study”. The team consisted of Stuart Dalziel, John Snelling, and myself. Nowadays this research would be called ethnog-raphy. It took the form of detailed, intensive studies of two firms—one in which these techniques were being newly introduced and one in which they had been established for some time (Dalziel &Klein, 1960; Klein, 1964). From various outputs from the research, I have based this chapter on a paper in which the two firms are compared (Klein , 1962).

While work-study techniques may sound outdated, they have in fact much in common with—one might say recently re-emerged as—the newer-sounding “business process re-engineering”. And although batch production manufacturing may not now be very common, the principle of target-setting, measurement, and payment by results, described here in a manufacturing setting, has strongly re-emerged in contemporary working life, in many other settings.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Living and working in hospital wards. Using electronic patient records

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The Bayswater Institute was established in 1990-1991, and during its early years much of its work was in National Health Service hospitals. Between 1995 and 1998, we were part of a consortium carrying out evaluation research around a programme in NHS hospitals called the Electronic Patient Record, and a broadly similar one called the Integrated Clinical Workstation. The project originally involved five hospitals (later three) and four research groups. Our part was to look at the human and organizational aspects in the three hospitals.

An Introduction explains the programme, and the main paper is a short version of the Institute's part of the consortium's final report (Manchester Centre for Healthcare Management, University of Manchester, The Bayswater Institute, London, Medical Informatics Group, University of Manchester, School of Postgraduate Studies in Medical and Health Care, Swansea, 2001). It has been slightly modified to fit into this collection. The work and writing of the Institute's paper were done jointly with Dr Lesley Mackey.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: The “Humanization of Work” programme in Germany: some cultural influences in the design and re-design of work

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The German government followed the work of the Commission for Economic and Social Change (see Chapter Two) by instigating a programme to “Humanize Life at Work”. I worked with this programme between 1974 and 1980. I learned a great deal from the experience, and have referred to it in various ways in talks and papers, but have never put these together and written them up. Now that I am reflecting on the programme and on the experience of working in it, the aspect that strikes me most is that of cultural influences and differences. By this I do not mean a simplistic view of national cultures, but scientific and professional cultures within as well as between nations; different traditions of research funding and their consequences; different legal systems; different approaches to the relationship between science and politics. Chapter Five touched on the cultural consequences of work organization; this chapter touches on its cultural causes. In practice, of course, both are going on simultaneously, and they inter-act.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Contribution to the design of a new confectionery factory

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This was a project about contributing to the design of a new factory from the point of view of job satisfaction and work design. It is an edited, fuller version of a project account that was first published in Klein and Eason (1991).

I am sometimes credited with introducing autonomous work groups into the Colchester factory of Trebor Sharp Ltd. Reader, I didn't.

* * *

Background to the project

Tlrebor Sharp was a family firm, manufacturing sweets and confectionery. The company had a history of solid growth, T and employed some 3,000 people. At the time the project began, it had four factories. In 1977, it was decided that one of these, in London, could not be adequately refurbished within the existing building and site and should be replaced by an entirely new factory elsewhere.

Trebor was a company whose management had a strong philosophy and drive, both to “do the right thing” as far as the social aspects of industry were concerned, and to be innovative in these matters. It may have had to do with the fact that it was a family firm, which led the top levels of management to have a more than temporary and career-level involvement with the company; and with the fact that the products themselves were relatively traditional and stable, and not subject to major innovation.

 

CHAPTER NINE: Work organization in the design of a new canning plant: plant design, job design, and industrial relations

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This project concerns a social science contribution to the design of a new high-speed canning plant. The project as it developed had two strands: one concerned plant and job design, and the other concerned industrial relations. At first these were quite distinct. Later they came, for a time, closer together—the project can, in a sense, be seen as a history of trying to bring plant and job design and industrial relations into relationship with each other.

Some effects of the social science intervention were inconclusive and hard to pin down, leading to some uncertainty about whether the glass was eventually half full or half empty. However, one breakthrough that it achieved was clear and important: it demonstrated to a group of managers and trade union representatives who would not have believed it, and who were in any case locked in combat, that they could design a job and could do it according to criteria on which they could achieve reasonable agreement.

Only an abbreviated version of this account has been published before (Klein &Eason, 1991).

 

CHAPTER TEN: Work organization in branch banking

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It was not all manufacturing. For seven years during the 1970s I had a consultancy contract with one of the four clearing banks in the UK, and Ken Eason has reminded me that this included some work on the organization of the work of a branch. While the overall consultancy has been briefly written up before (Klein &Eason, 1991; Chapter Six), this piece of work did not feature in that account and is described here for the first time. Ken and I did the work together, and have written this account together.

***

Introduction: a study of branch banking

After a merger and a strong wave of computerization, the Domestic Banking Division of one of the UK clearing banks thought that customer service might have suffered, and set up a Customer Service Working Party. I was invited to be a member of this working party, but, in order to be of help, thought it necessary to understand more about domestic banking first. A study of branch banking was commissioned, and a team of five researchers spent a week in each of four branches—one in central London, one in a London suburb, one in a provincial city, and one in a small country town. One of the things we learned concerned the division of labour between the manager and the sub-manager of a branch: the main job of the manager was to make lending decisions; the hallmark of a good banker is to be a good lender, and that was where training was focused. The sub-manager ran the office. This included organizing the work of the office and allocating tasks among staff. However, that was not seen as “real” banking. Sub-managers tended to be marking time until they could get back to “real” banking, they hoped, through being promoted to manager. Training played a big role in branch life, but it was training in banking. It seemed that sub-managers were not trained in management and did not think of themselves as responsible for effective work organization.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Putting information and communications technology to work in the construction industry: testing a mode

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ProCure was the acronym of a project funded by the European Commission, called “ICT (Information and Communications Technology) at work for the LSE (Large-Scale Engineering) Procurement chain”.1 It was carried out by a consortium of partner organizations in three countries: Finland, the UK, and Germany. The Bayswater Institute's role was to accompany the project from the point of view of human and organizational aspects.

The project represents the only opportunity I have had of accompanying a technical design and development programme from its inception. Changes in the work content of individuals play a smaller part than in the other action research cases. On the other hand, it shows how closely linked the characteristics of work roles are to the systems that give rise to them: chains of cause-and-effect can be traced back on the one hand to the economic context of the participating construction companies, and on the other to the vendors of software and their problems of timing. The social science aims of the project were therefore very ambitious. Since the technical aims were also very ambitious (ambitiousness squared?) the account is untidy and the outcomes inconclusive—it would have been simplest to leave this project out! However, there is an itch that tells me it was worth trying to make a contribution on human and organizational aspects to technical development in a way that is more systemic than concern for the eventual nature of the jobs involved alone, even where the circumstances turn out not to be particularly favourable, and that it is worth trying to write this effort up. It would have been better to try the model first in a simpler situation, but one has to make use of opportunities where they arise.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: The production engineer's role in industrial relations

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The 1970s were a time of difficult industrial relations in Britain. They were also a time of strong interest in questions of work satisfaction and job design throughout Europe. Having started in Norway in the 1960s, the ideas were most widely emulated and developed in Sweden. The car company, Volvo, designed and built a manufacturing plant for autonomous group working, and the publicity around this probably did more than anything to draw attention to the ideas. In the UK, a Work Research Unit was set up in the Department of Employment, and even the characters in Coronation Street talked the language of work satisfaction.

The professional engineering institutions became interested. This chapter gives the edited text of a lecture given in 1977 at a conference of production engineers, which was later published in their journal (Klein, 1978). Today, I would say for production engineer also read IT system designer.

***

Production process design

I want to discuss first some aspects of the design of produc-I tion processes and later their connection with industrial relations.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN; “Satisfactions in work design”: some problems of theory and method

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I have worked with ergonomists, learned from ergonomists, and argued with ergonomists. The learning has largely been about methods, and I have admired and envied the way they have confronted the need to get into design and the way their contributions to design have become institutionalized. The arguments, on the other hand, have been about the boundaries of the subject, questions of measurement, and whether only human aspects that are susceptible to quantification are important in the design of jobs.

This chapter presents a paper that was addressed to a conference of the International Ergonomics Association entitled “Satisfactions in work design” in 1977 (Klein, 1979). It was partly a response to an attack on the “softer” social sciences and their use of value judgement.

* * *

I am glad and interested to see ergonomists exploring outside I their traditional boundaries, but sorry that they have chosen to focus on “job satisfaction”.

Job satisfaction is not a design goal. As far as I know, it has never been the goal of serious researchers and action researchers working empirically in the field of job design. It may be an indicator that one is reaching or failing to reach a goal, but even then it is not a very reliable one. National surveys consistently show something like 75% to 80% of people as being fairly well satisfied with their current work situation—but I don't know what that means. I can interpret comments indicating dissatisfaction because they are usually about specific issues. I can sometimes interpret comments about specific items on the positive side. But I don't know what to do with general aggregate measures of satisfaction except, very occasionally, as indicators of trend, and I know of no one who uses them as anything else.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: The management of innovation: from platitudes to reality in job design

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This chapter is part of a paper given in 1980 at a conference on robotics, with the overall title “The management of automation”.

The keynote speaker at the conference was the Chairman of British Steel. His speech was intended to be light-hearted, and he drew a happy, futuristic picture of how robots would relieve housewives of mundane tasks like cooking. In the discussion, I suggested that cooking might actually be experienced as enjoyable: I had recently, for the first time, made an apple strudel. The task had taken two hours, had been exhausting, and had given enormous pleasure. After that, much of the conference discussion centred on the question of apple strudel, and I began my own talk with You take half a pound of flour …

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like you to help me celebrate an anniversary. In January 1981 it will be twenty-five years since I joined, as a junior research assistant, a research project on the Human Implications of Work Study, which was carried out in the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The assumptions behind the project were: productivity was low; work study helps productivity; people on the shop floor tend to resist work study; if you understand more about that resistance, you may be able to overcome it.

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: On the collaboration between social scientists and engineers

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This chapter presents a paper that arose out of involvement in a project about the design of advanced manufacturing technology, called “Designing human-centred technology”.

Howard Rosenbrock was Professor of Control Engineering at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). He was rare among senior engineers in being interested in sociotechni-cal ideas and in job design, and in 1982 he obtained a research grant from the Science and Engineering Research Council to design a “Flexible manufacturing system in which operators are not subordinate to machines”. (An FMS is an automated system incorporating several manufacturing operations that would previously have been done on separate machines.) He put together a steering group for the project, which he asked me to join.

It was a stimulating group, which engaged in long philosophical discussions about the nature of work and of manufacturing. But Howard wanted the steering group to make a major contribution to the research itself, and in this he found me disappointing. I need to get some understanding of the technology I am dealing with before I can make a serious contribution, and for that a few steering group meetings per year were not enough. There were in fact two technologies to understand:

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN; And finally-some reflections on institutions and policy

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Without reiterating all the arguments, there seems no reason to doubt that work remains central to human existence. The legacy of the idea that “the job” is an out-of date concept (about which, in any case, one hears much less today) is that we know employment today to be highly diverse, not that people's need for meaning has changed. What varies is how available work is, where and how it is carried out, the degree of protection available to those who do it, how it is rewarded, the technologies and laws and practices that shape its nature—in other words, the political, economic, managerial and technical contexts that shape both people's overall work experience and the actual tasks that they carry out. Within these varying contexts it is possible to influence the nature of work in directions that help rather than hinder human development and the satisfaction that people can gain from their work. Quite often this happens by chance in any case—satisfaction and development may be found in many jobs. But enough is known for this not to have to be a matter of chance. It is not more knowledge that is needed, but institutional will.

 

APPENDIX I: Work: its rewards and discontents (an Arno Press collection)

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Anderson, V.V. (1929). Psychiatry in Industry.

Archibald, K. (1947). Wartime Shipyard.

Argyris, C. (1954). Organization of a Bank.

Baetjer, A. M. (1946). Women in Industry.

Baker, E. F. (1933). Displacement of Men by Machines.

Barnes, C. B. (1915). The Longshoremen.

Carr, L. J., &Stermer, J. E. (1952). Willow Run.

Chenery, W. L. (1922). Industry and Human Welfare.

Clark, H. F. (1931). Economic Theory and Correct Occupational Distribution.

Collis, E. L., &Major Greenwood (1921). The Health of the Industrial Worker.

de Man, H. (1929). Joy in Work.

Dreyfuss, C. (1938). Occupation and Ideology of the Salaried Employee.

Dubreuil, H. (1930). Robots or Men?

Ellsworth Jr., J. S. (1952). Factory Folkways.

Floyd, W. F., &Welford, A. T. (Eds.) (1953-1954). Symposium on Fatigue and Symposium on Human Factors in Equipment Design.

Friedmann, E. A., &Havighurst, R. J. (1954). The Meaning of Work and Retirement.

Friedmann, G. (1955). Industrial Society. Edited by H. L. Sheppard.

Goldmark, J., &Hopkins, M. D. (1920). Comparison of an Eight-Hour Plant and a Ten Hour Plant.

 

APPENDIX II: Checklist for implementation issues

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Implementation issues

It will be essential to incorporate questions about the human, social and organizational aspects, and methodologies concerning these aspects, with the development of the pilots as this proceeds, and not leave them to be discovered afterwards. While practical measures to deal with these questions will be needed at different stages of the development, the parties need to be aware of them even at the earliest stages, since they may affect strategic decisions. The questions are presented here as a checklist and are intended as a stimulus for analysis. They are drawn from research in other settings and are therefore a starting point for your own organization: add any others that you think are needed.

Who (what categories of people) will be affected by this technology? For each category of persons:

(a) Do they have a satisfactory system already? Have they had the chance to tweak that system to their needs which they won't have with the new one?

(b) How will the new system affect their future?

 

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