A selfie at the atelier Brancusi in Paris

Productivity revolutions

Few figures in the history of management have had a greater impact than Frederick Winslow Taylor. The irony is that there have also been few who have been so greatly misunderstood and so gravely misquoted. He is known as the first person to talk openly about poor manual work efficiency. What ultimately started his study of work was not interest in productivity, but his disgust with the growing hatred between employers and employees. Taylor was aware of the work of Karl Marx and thought, contrary to Marx, that this conflict was unnecessary.

His mission was to make workers more productive so that they could earn more money. In contrast to what many writers claim, Taylor’s main motivation was not efficiency, but the creation of a society in which owners and workers had a common interest.

Workers unions at the time were craft monopolies. Membership was often restricted to siblings, the sons and relatives of existing members. They required an apprenticeship of many years and had no systematic training. At that time, craftsmen were not allowed to write down instructions. Some historians claim that normally there were not even drawings of the work to be done. It was widely accepted that there was a mystique to craft skills. The members were sworn to secrecy and were not permitted to discuss their work with non-members. Before Taylor, people took it for granted that it took years and years of practice before you could turn out high quality products.

Taylor’s crime in the eyes of the unions was his revolutionary idea that there is no skilled work based on some mystique competence, there is just work.

And all work could be studied and divided into series of repetitive motions that could be taught to anybody and, even more, could be learned by anybody.

Work-related training was a true social innovation. Any worker who was willing to be educated and then followed the “one right way” of doing things could be called a “first-class” worker deserving a first-class pay. This salary was much, much more than the non-skilled worker’s pay or what a worker got during the long years of apprenticeship.

Things did not go well because Taylor offended everybody. He didn’t only criticize workers unions. He also insulted the owners of factories. The biggest insult to them was that the authority in the plants should not be based on ownership but on something he called “superior knowledge”. Taylor insisted that the workers should benefit from the increased productivity that scientific management produced. He wrote in 1911: “The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity of the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee”.

He was the first person to insist that managers should be educated. He thought that management should be a profession like any other profession and managers should be professionals. This led the owners’ associations to attack him bitterly as a socialist and a troublemaker.

He was right although his reputation was tarnished and still is! The application of knowledge to manual work created a tremendous boost in productivity. By the 1940s his Scientific Management had swept the industrialized world despite the early resistance. As a result the workers/the employees, rather than the capitalists/the employers were the true beneficiaries of the industrial revolution that was rapidly changing society. The working class became transformed into a new social structure and another social innovation, the middle class was born.

When Taylor did his studies, nine out of ten people were manual workers. Today, nine out of ten people are creative/knowledge workers. We may ask some of the same questions, but the world is totally different — and we have totally new opportunities.

The collective intelligence of our society cannot any more depend on learning the same practices or following any “right way”, but it can depend on the tools that augment everyday human capability in whatever situation a knowledge worker finds herself in.

The principle is not new although many of our tools are. Making tools is what human beings have always done. The interactions between tools and human minds are today so complex that it is very hard to try to draw a line between humans and technology. Neither is it a zero-sum game where the human brain is losing to the microchip, but as technology changes, people and what people do, are necessarily changed. This is just one of the reasons why work needs to be understood as learning.

Work starts from problems and learning starts from questions. Work is creating value and learning is creating knowledge. Both work and learning require the same things: interaction, engagement and intelligent tools. With the help of our tools, we can create ways for very large numbers of people to become technologically augmented learners and thus potentially much more skilled in whatever they do. Much more than we have ever imagined possible.

There is naturally more to being intelligent than using the latest technologies; how we connect and interact with others is a crucial element of how smart we are in practice. Intelligence is social and arises in communities and communication. The world has never been a more networked place, and yet workplaces still focus on individual competences and agency separated from agency. That needs to change if we want the productivity revolution to start.

The sciences of social complexity have helped us to understand that organizations are patterns of interaction between human beings. These patterns emerge in the interplay of the intentions, choices and actions of all the parties involved. No one party can plan or control the interplay of these intentions. But even without being able to plan exact outcomes, or control what others do, people can accomplish great things together.

Human behavior is learned in relations. Our brains are wired to notice and imitate others. Computational social science has proved that behavior can be caught like a disease merely by being exposed to other people. You can catch stupidity and violence, but also hope and intelligence from others. Learning and also non-learning can be found in communication. It is not that people are intelligent and then socially aware. Social intelligence is not a separate type of intelligence. All intelligence emerges from the efforts of the community.

This means that the defining characteristic of the next revolution in productivity is the increased variety of intelligent behaviors that are available in any situation. It is the polar opposite to finding or following a “one best way”. Taylor’s revolutionary ideas are now over 100 years old and not helpful any more. But perhaps we should be reminded that there isn’t low-skilled work and high-skilled work based on some mystique personal qualities, there is “just work”.

And perhaps, if you look at what the labor unions and employers’ organizations are opposing today, you may find the seeds for the next revolution in productivity. Knowledge changed profoundly the life of the manual worker one hundred years ago. Technological augmentation is going to do the same to the knowledge worker.