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Although control can be seen as the essential problem of management, its treatment in mainstream organizational literature is problematic. It is frequently asserted that new competitive pressures and the enhanced demands of a service-oriented, knowledge-based economy meant that ‘command and control’ is no longer an option for successful business. Yet, while changes in types and levels of control have taken place, the weight of evidence is that most large organizations remain traditionally managed. In addition, it is often claimed that the contemporary locus of control has become internal rather than external, through the spread of normative controls or panoptic surveillance. Considerable problems remain, however, with the evidence on the extent of such practices and their effectiveness. Changes in the structure of the economy and corporations, however, have led to a widening of the scope of and greater hybridity in controls.
- Mainstream Approaches: Ambiguities and Absences
- A Break from Command and Control?
- Control: the Basic Building Block of Radical Organizational Theory
- Strategies of Control: Debates and Disagreements
- New Challenges, Critiques, and Responses
- The Locus of Control: From External to Internal?
- Questioning the Centrality and Scope of Workplace Control
Mainstream Approaches: Ambiguities and Absences
As Pfeffer noted, “control is at once the essential problem of management and organization and the implicit focus of much of organization studies” (1997: p. 100). Yet there are wide disagreements as to its significance and substance. In mainstream models of organization behavior, control is treated, at best, ambiguously. Some standard textbooks simply do not have chapters on the issue. Systems theory is based on equilibrium and interdependence, and therefore it tends to assume goal consensus and downplays systematic conflicts of interest or identity in the employment relationship.
When control is discussed it is often alongside coordination. Any complex division of labor requires mechanisms to set goals, allocate responsibilities, and evaluate the effectiveness of performance. Coordination is a more neutral term than control and more compatible with an assumption of goal consensus. In this context, control tends to be treated as a monitoring device, withmanagement’s role to check progress, and ensure that actions occur as planned and to correct any deviation. The emphasis is on technical inputs and outputs in a self-adjusting system, performance standards, and feedback mechanisms.
Such emphases, however, can be misleading. Control often is present in mainstream approaches, it just is hiding in the shadows of something else. The key term used by Pfeffer was implicit. Texts that do have chapters with control in the title often pass over quickly onto other issues, such as job design, organizational structure, or leadership. In the first instance, debate is focused on designing structures that facilitate levels of control and coordination appropriate to types of work that require different levels of discretion and standardization. In the second, discussion of leadership styles, such as the classic polarity of authoritarian versus democratic approaches, constitute ways of discussing control, but do so through the language of influence and motivation.
A Break from Command and Control?
Reinforcing this ambiguity about whether control is necessary, the more practical management theorists continually have tried to abolish it or proclaim its imminent disappearance. From the human relations writers of the 1950s, with their distinctions between (bad) theory X and (good) theory Y, to the advocates of 1970s-style job enrichment and contemporary empowerment; control has been presented as destructive and out of date. The idea was that a high degree of autonomy over one’s own work was a precondition for job satisfaction, and high productivity has been a cornerstone of organizational psychology (as captured in notions like self-efficacy). From the mid-1980s onward necessity was added to desirability. Influential articles such as by Walton (1985) declared that new competitive pressures and the enhanced demands of a service-oriented, knowledge-based economy meant that ‘command and control’ was no longer an option for successful business. We were moving from control to commitment and from rules to values as means of coordination. The future was empowered employees in self-directing teams, participating in and sharing responsibility for a wider range of decisions – more voice and choice at work.
A problem with such approaches is their aspirational nature and the subsequent tendency to conflate prescription and description. It is accepted across different perspectives that changes have taken place with respect to controls. In particular, there has been, through teamwork, increased involvement of employees in microlevel decision making about how to do their work – a form of democratized Taylorism (Adler, 1993). Much of this has been influenced by the importation of Japanese management techniques, repackaged in the 1990s as lean production. Although this sometimes has achieved high levels of productivity, continuous improvement, and quality assurance, most studies conclude that such methods are accompanied by intense surveillance, extensive standardization, and new forms of cultural or normative controls (see Graham, 2005). At a broader level, studies are consistent in showing that most organizations, at least in Britain and North America, remain traditionally managed and continue to take a low-trust, low-skill path to competitiveness. In the context of generally tougher times, marked by downsizing and delayering, many employees experience empowerment largely as a form of work intensification. Firms are finding it harder to deliver on the kind of ‘package’ envisaged Walton, in which increased commitment and responsibilities would be offset by greater job security and other enhancements to the employment relationship.
Although companies are indeed seeking to enhance service quality and efficiency, they are also investing in new control systems to monitor the consistency and characteristics of those outputs. In services, generally there is ample evidence that organizations are scripting employee–customer interactions that previously might have been left to employee discretion (Ritzer, 1993), or specifying feelings rules for the mobilization of emotional labor (Hochschild, 1985). This emphasis on the body has been expanded in recent research on aesthetic labor, showing how some organizations are imposing standards of ‘looking good and sounding right’ in some service settings. Indeed, customers can be incorporated into control processes through mechanisms such as mystery shoppers and forms of feedback and evaluation. The redefinition of hospital patients or students as ‘customers’ can be used to initiate coercive evaluations of public sector professionals. Such employees increasingly are faced with audits and other forms of accountability to government bodies. Contrary to claims about inevitably enhanced autonomy in knowledge-intensive settings, the work of scientific and technical staff increasingly is subject to measurement and codification through the metrics and tools of knowledge management. Such trends are consistent with surveys showing that in many sectors levels of discretion are falling, especially among professional and expert labor.
What this discussion suggests is that mainstream conceptual frameworks are not only overoptimistic, but they are insufficiently robust to deal with changes in the types and levels of control. For example, it is perfectly possible to have increased operational autonomy for ‘empowered’ managers, existing alongside much tighter financial controls through targets and budgets.
Control: the Basic Building Block of Radical Organizational Theory
As Pfeffer (1997: p. 135) noted, those ambiguities toward the idea of control are in part responsible for the development of more critical perspectives on organizations. For a variety of radical theories, control is the core concept. Whereas mainstream perspectives treat control and coordination together, radical theorists argue that management performs a dual function in the enterprise. Managerial practices are a necessary means of coordinating diverse activities; however, they also bear the imprint of conflicting interests in the labor process; a conflict that reflects the unique nature of labor as a commodity. When capital purchases labor, it has only a potential or capacity to work. To ensure profitable production, capital must organize the conditions under which labor operates to its own advantage. But workers pursue their own interests for job security, higher rewards and satisfying work, developing their own counterorganization through informal job controls and output norms.
To resolve this problem and because they are under competitive pressure from other firms to cut costs and raise productivity, employers seek to control the conditions under which work takes place. Control is not an end in itself, but rather it is a means to transform the capacity to work established by the wage relation, into profitable production. This idea of the transformation of labor power into labor is taken from Marx and is the starting point of what has become known as labor process theory (LPT). Its adherents describe control as a set of mechanisms and practices that regulate the labor process. Edwards (1979) distinguished three elements in any system of control:
- direction and specification of work tasks;
- evaluation, monitoring, and assessment of performance; and
- the apparatus of discipline and reward to elicit cooperation and compliance
Such elements, however, may be best described as detailed control, in that they normally are connected to immediate work processes, whereas general control refers to management’s capacity to subordinate labor to their direction of the production process as a whole. This allows for the recognition of tremendous variations in how detailed control is exercised. Such a model can even allow for employers giving workers significant discretion over tasks, as in semiautonomous work groups, if it maintains their overall control. Control also is not absolute, but, at least at the micro level, it is a contested relationship.
Strategies of Control: Debates and Disagreements
Radical perspectives have been conditioned by Braverman’s (1974) argument that the twentieth century has seen the tightening of managerial control, primarily through the application of Taylorist and scientific management strategies. He provided an important corrective measure to the widespread view that Taylorism was a failed system, superseded by more sophisticated behavioral theories to be used for motivational and job design tools. But it is recognized widely that Braverman overestimated the dominance of Taylorist strategies and practices, and underestimated the varied and uneven implementation.
Nevertheless, because Braverman confused a particular system of control with management control in general, the question of alternative strategies was put firmly on the agenda. The best known is Richard Edward’s (1979) model that is based on historically successive dominant modes of control, which reflect worker resistance and changing socioeconomic conditions. A nineteenth-century system of simple or personal control by employers exercising direct authority gave way to more complex structural forms with the transition from small business, competitive capitalism to corporate monopolies. The first of these forms was technical control, typified by the use of the assembly line, which can pace and direct the labor process. The contradiction for management is that it created a common work experience and basis for unified shop floor opposition. In contrast, a system of bureaucratic control embedded in the social and organizational structure of the firm rather than in personal authority, offers management a means of redividing the workforce and tying it to impersonal rules and regulations.
In contrast, the other most influential model from Friedman (1977) eschews the notion of stages, preferring to set out ideal types or strategic poles of responsible autonomy and direct control, which run parallel throughout the history of capitalism. Paralleling mainstream notions of mechanistic and organic structures, or low- and high-trust employment relations, each strategy is said to generate its own inflexibilities in such areas as hiring and firing and task specification. The choice of strategy is governed by variations in the stability of labor and product markets, mediated by the interplay of worker resistance and managerial pressure.
Although the emphasis on alternative strategies was welcomed, such conceptual contributions were criticized by some commentators for the ‘panacea fallacy’ – that is, the idea that capital always seeks and finds definitive and comprehensive modes of control as the solution to its problems. Another strand of criticism drew from longstanding issues about the relations between ownership and management. Capital’s interests are not given and management practices cannot be ‘read-off’ from them. Assumptions of a ‘tight-coupling’ underestimate the diversity and complexity of such practices and the significance for decision-making processes within the enterprise. In addition, there are conflicts within management, reflecting contending interests groups and the difficulty of carrying out integrative functions.
What has happened in practice is that researchers influenced by LPT have largely ignored such overarching frameworks and have used particular concepts, such as technical or bureaucratic control, to explain particular trends in new technology, recruitment practices, or internal labor markets. Alongside such usage, other researchers have opened up the empirical and theoretical terrain by demonstrating how control processes inside work or are shaped by the broader social divisions of labor connected to gender and family relations. LPT also has attempted to develop a more complex framework that can deal with the tensions between different management levels, functions, and ideologies in framing and exercising control. The most innovative is associated with Armstrong’s (1989) work on interprofessional competition. Management functions for capital are mediated by competition among occupational groups to become the trusted agency to carry out control functions. Armstrong charted the historical and contemporary forms of competition between engineers, personnel, accounting, and other professions within the business enterprise. Who comes out on top is a function not just of their power resources, but the societally specific constitution of managerial expertise (for an overview of such research, see Thompson and van den Broek, 2010).
New Challenges, Critiques, and Responses
Although a degree of common ground emerged both about the varied influences on control strategies and the variations in combination and context through which control is exercised, new challenges have arisen from critical readings of contemporary social and organizational changes.
The Locus of Control: From External to Internal?
Rather than denying the salience of control, new challenges were made concerning where and how it was taking place. What was discussed earlier as a move from control to commitment was instead seen as a form of internal control that does not rely on external rewards and sanctions, or rule-following. Outside the largely consensual corporate culture literature, theorists within a labor process tradition already had gone someway down this route. Burawoy (1979) had shown how employee participation in production games and workplace rituals generated consent to existing social relations, constituting workers as individuals rather than as members of a class. In other words they ‘helped’ to control themselves. Later, Ray (1986) argued that control by corporate culture was the last frontier, in that it had enabled organizations to generate sentiment and emotion, simultaneously internalizing control and linking personal with corporate identity.
A further twist to such arguments has come through more recent influences from Foucault and poststructuralism. At the height of the attention paid to corporate culture in the early 1990s, theorists accepted the intent and outcomes of managerial action but redescribed it in critical terms, referring to the closing down of rival cultural spaces and the production of ‘designer’ employees (Casey, 1995). The specifically Foucauldian influence can best be seen in some influential accounts of changes in factory work. Sewell (1998) claimed to have identified a new model of labor process control that counters the optimistic gloss of the empowerment and teamwork literature, while moving beyond the confines of traditional LPT. ‘Panoptic’ forms of control augment existing practices through the interaction of ‘vertical’ electronic surveillance and the ‘horizontal’ dimension of peer group scrutiny within teams. Sewell made much of the enhanced capacity of management to collect, display, and attribute performance data. With respect to teams, he relied on other cases, including McKinlay and Taylor (1996) to make a case for horizontal control. Here, team members create the intersubjective conditions for compliance by creating disciplinary rules within delegated authority, thus collaborating with management to identify and reward the ‘good worker.’
The implication of Sewell’s argument is that such a combination solves the ‘control-engage’ dilemma identified by LPT and suffered in different ways by generations of managers. The new techniques allow management to rationalize knowledge and work, but not through obtrusive Taylorist and bureaucratic means, while mobilizing and manipulating the subjectivity of employees. The rapid growth of call centers and automated call distribution systems also provided plenty of scope for Foucault-influenced commentators to reinforce a focus on the increased surveillance potential of the electronic panopticon. Some commentators became convinced that the call center represented the ultimate and total control system. The capacity of the computer monitoring screen to not only direct tasks, but to get inside the heads of Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) rendered supervisory power both ‘perfect’ and its actual use unnecessary.
Although the focus on culture change has faded in tougher times, poststructuralist writers have continued to highlight the significance of identity in exploring the continuance of normative controls through managerial discourses; human resource management practices, such as induction, training, and promotion (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002); and the more recent emphasis on employees ‘living the brand.’ It is argued that such approaches are particularly pertinent in knowledge-intensive firms where employees are not amenable to direct or task-based controls. McKinlay has argued that “[t]he primary means of managerial control of knowledge work is the regulation of employees self rather than work flows or task” (2005: p. 245).
Changes in the terrain and frontier of control take place continually, and it would be difficult to deny that some shift toward electronic and self-surveillance has taken place in some industries. Similarly, while explicit culture change programs may have gone out of fashion, increased attention does seem to have been placed in indirect forms of control that would include the use of intensive recruitment methods. In putting more effort into recruiting the ‘right people’ with compatible attitudes and orientations, there would be less need for direction of work tasks.
A range of objections can and have been made, however, to these twists on accounts of organizational control (Thompson and Ackroyd, 1995). Few of its enthusiasts adequately consider issues of time, place, and people – in other words, the generalizability of such controls outside of the high-tech, strong culture firms from which the evidence largely comes. The central problem, however, is the confusion of the formal capacities of technological and managerial systems with their actual usage and effectiveness. This is compounded by a tendency to draw evidence primarily from managerial sources, underestimating the capacity of labor to find individual and collective spaces to dissent or resist. Discourse and identity writings are still light on actual evidence of high commitment and internalized corporate norms (Leidner, 2006). In cases in which these problems are considered more fully, as in the McKinlay and Taylor case study of an electronics plant in Scotland, a more rounded and complex picture of the gap between intent and outcome is revealed. Finally, it is not only debatable how internalized the new controls are, but also how internal. Normative rules in strong culture companies may be different from traditional task-based control, but they still are rules. Management’s sources and use of information may have increased, but there is little evidence that is unobtrusive or regarded by employees as objective and unconnected to visible authority relations. This is strongly confirmed in most research on call centers. Most studies show that employees are able and willing to question the purposes and accuracy of ‘the stats’ and to find ways to both evade some of the pressures of call monitoring and locate blind spots in the system.
One of the problems with shifting locus arguments is the implication that shifts are substantive, if not permanent. Given the highly dynamic nature of the frontier of control, it is equally possible that traditional controls may reemerge, albeit in some new forms. This is what appears to be happening as large organizations in the private and public sectors are subject to heightened competitive and financial pressures. Performance management appears to be an increasingly central focus of managerial attention. It is unusual for most employees not to be faced with a plethora of targets, key performance indicators, and related controls in the context of external and internal restructuring and cost pressures. In increasingly ‘lean’ environments, tighter and more pervasive systems of monitoring and surveillance, supported by more visible accountability and stringent disciplinary procedures are more common.
The previous era partial shift to consent making may have been eroded by the principles and practices of ‘market rationalism’ in the context of shareholder-driven economic pressures. Normative interventions promoting commitment and cultural change are being marginalized (Kunda and Ailon- Souday, 2005). Compliance rather than commitment may suffice in circumstances in which organizations and their workers are subject to enhanced market discipline and insecurity (McGovern et al., 2007).
Questioning the Centrality and Scope of Workplace Control
Traditional controls may persist, but another kind of locus argument has been raised by recent research. Models such as those associated with Richard Edwards conceptualized developments largely in terms of managerial strategies within large companies pursued at the workplace or plant level.
Friendly critics of LPT always raised questions as to whether the centrality given to control of labor is actually reflective of managerial behavior. It was argued that we cannot view management strategies and tactics primarily from the vantage point of the labor process. If anything, managers are dominated by problems of the outcomes of that process, including sales, marketing, supply, and cash flow. The concept of the full circuit of capital is used to argue that we must be concerned not only with the extraction of surplus value through controlling the labor process, but its realization through the sale of commodities, as well as the prior purchase of labor.
It was widely accepted within LPT that some of these objections were a necessary corrective measure to a debate that often had lost sight of the role the broader political economy because of the emphasis on management control. Such concerns have been amplified by more recent developments signaling a move away from managerial capitalism and the emergence of a more financialized economy with more complex, fluid interorganizational relations that raise issues about the changing nature of the workplace. Contemporary organizational and employment structures often are dispersed and disaggregated. Controls thus operate at an interorganizational level, across conglomerates, production networks, or supply chains. Some traditional analytical tools are ill-equipped for understanding this. A good illustration of these complexities is the retail supply chain. Prominent examples such as Wal-Mart illustrate retailers’ growing ability to transfer risks and costs to suppliers, and to exercise controls indirectly or directly over aspects of their operations. This is facilitated by investment in retail technology and information technology systems that enable retailers to manage and monitor information and goods within the overall supply chain.
Supply chains are just one form of more complex interorganizational relations. As corporations get larger, their activities become more diverse, and their goals become more shareholder driven, such ‘directed’ networks exercise significant power at the center that constrains unit autonomy (Ackroyd, 2002). Studies report a transfer of powers from local, unit-level managers to corporate executives who are more directly accountable to shareholders. Managers are under continual pressure to cut labor costs and restructure operations to meet capital market requirements (Appelbaumet al., 2013). This adds up to a strengthening of financial control systems across a variety of organizational boundaries. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) systems facilitate the capacity of corporate management to operate sophisticated surveillance mechanisms and resource allocation models. These frequently lead to a cascading down of monitoring and target setting for performance measures that tighten controls for both managers and workers alike, albeit in different ways.
Some researchers argue that new loci for value creation and decision making challenges work-based control perspectives traditionally favored by LPT and employment relations scholars. Reed has made a similar point: “The major focus of control has moved away from the design and monitoring of standardized work tasks toward the management of highly complex informational, human and material ‘flows’” (2010: p. 42). These are important points, although LPT already has been moving away from workplace-centric control models. It also is the case that the centrality of labor costs within restructuring and value creation means that broader changes are highly likely to have consequences for workplace controls.
Management always may be looking for the final frontier, but like the crew of Star Trek, they never really find it. This is hardly surprising. Conflicts of interest and constraints of circumstance run too deep. A close examination of contemporary organizational trends and their analysis reveals considerable continuity in theory and practice. Just as newer normative controls do not necessarily replace traditional task-based ones, extra-workplace mechanisms add to rather than displace intraorganizational forms. Sometimes theorists are describing the same practices in a different conceptual language. Electronic surveillance can look remarkably like Edward’s concept of technical control; the exaggerated claims for empowerment strongly resemble those made for work humanization in the 1970s. Willing internalization in one framework can impose normative controls in another. It would be foolish to claim that nothing changes. Emphases within the repertoire of controls change, particularly as the wider structure of economy and society is transformed. Broadening the scope of controls in the new interorganizational landscape is a prime example. Reed (2010) has attempted to sum up these trends by referring to new control logics – complex, multilevel hybrids that combine the hard and soft dimensions from electronic surveillance to cultural engineering and performance management. Nevertheless, while work remains a contested terrain, there will be a frontier of control. For example, changes in the labor force and broader cultural norms can bring new problems, such as the rising tide of sexual misbehavior at work. In turn, this creates the conditions for new controls, such as codes of conduct that specify appropriate boundaries of behavior and what sanctions might follow if they are transgressed. It is the task of organizational analysis to explain the character, combination, and circumstances of that changing frontier.
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