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workplace alienation

When humans become part of the machine: workplace alienation

The exciting world of Information Technology

Fergal is a rangy, twelve o'clock-shadow, open-neck-shirt kind of guy, with a cheeky sparkle in his eye and a ready smile. He is the epitome of the laid-back, geeky, young(ish) IT professional. Working in a large IT department, he multi-tasks as a software developer and process 'owner'. After a short commute to a compact and attractive rural town, Fergal makes some tea before starting work in the spacious, air-conditioned office.

This is living the IT dream, it seems. The company is successful and has a progressive, trendy image based on Information Technology as the industry to work in. The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, big data. It’s an inspiring, broad canvas of big ideas that is pushing business and society forward at an amazing pace. But is that really the reality of creating and managing - or even just using - IT in the workplace?

"Every day," Fergal says, "stress seems to get worse. I'm expected to be a technical whizz kid and manage a complex process which people just don't get. They're multi-tasking too, and they don't have time to learn how to work together to make the process effective. I'm working harder and longer along with everyone else. I'm not aware of any senior managers in the company who are concerned about working conditions."

Fergal works for a company that is a typical composite of many I've done business with over the years. This is the everyday reality of many IT professionals – or indeed many workers that simply use IT. As processes become more complex, and Information Technology becomes the foundation of most business activities, is it inevitable that workplace alienation will grow, and people will come to be increasingly regarded as being on the same level as machines?

For now, IT and the businesses it supports still depend on people. It’s human beings with their crankiness, genius and hard work who plan, build and run IT systems and services, and the companies that are built on them. But it seems to me that workers in the IT-enabled workplace are increasingly struggling with the sheer scale, complexity and demands of the organisations and processes that define working life.

Communities of Interest

People typically operate best in small communities of interest where they know and understand their colleagues. They feel at ease in these environments, and are at their best when they see the positive impact of their actions on their ‘tribe’. For millennia, human groups have defined themselves in contrast or opposition to ‘the other’. But when ‘the other’ is another group in the same organisation (‘managers’; ‘HR’; ‘the people in the other office’) then we know there is a problem. Yet, I frequently hear the kinds of comments that demonize parts of the same company.

In the IT-enabled workplace, we ask people to operate in the context of multiple overlapping processes that can seem opaque and even threatening. We create islands of effort where those doing the work see no connection with the bigger picture of what makes a process function effectively. The non-human scale of complexity leads to the failure of some people to find meaning, satisfaction and happiness at work. As we all know, inappropriate levels of work-place stress are endemic.

One hundred and fifty meaningful connections

In anthropology, there's an interesting concept referred to as “Dunbar’s Number”:

“We’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there’s some personal history, not just names and faces”

Robin Dunbar, quoted here.

It's all too much

Like the way in which Dunbar’s number describes the how many people we can meaningfully interact with, I believe that there is only so much information overload, process complexity and change fatigue that we can take. Beyond that, psychological overwhelm, depression and stress-related disease start to become a credible threat. Complexity leads to a situation where people work hard but are unable to see the results of their efforts because the results are so far downstream in the process. Or even worse, efforts go unrecognised by managers who fail to understand where in their business process that value is being added by individuals.

when humans become part of the machine

All of this also leads to headaches for business leaders.

  • “Staff don’t really understand their roles and accountabilities. No wonder they aren’t performing well.”
  • “Staff don’t understand our security policies and comply with them, so how can our IT be secure?”
  • “We designed our processes carefully, so why are we still making mistakes?”

These are the questions I concern myself with in my professional life. They are questions that wake-up IT leaders in the dead of night, but notice that they are framed in a way that subtly blames the people who work in large organisations.

Blame is always a mistake. A better approach may be to help people to deal with complexity, ensuring that everyone sees the bigger picture, and to reduce complexity itself. Even more fundamentally, managers and leaders need to understand the detail of their own business processes and recognise and reward those who make those processes work, often under hugely difficult and stressful circumstances.

So how do we deal with the very human problems arising from the scale and complexity of work processes in a way that makes companies successful while their employees thrive?

Senior managers should assume that staff are doing their best – in the huge majority of cases they are. If you assume that staff aren't trying - you'll miss the real problems. Basic process training in large organisations is rarely enough. Mentoring and coaching can be more effective, especially when so many people have experiential learning styles.

For years, the importance of values and 'mission' has been touted by large corporations, but many employees are cynical about the purpose of company values, seeing them as little more than PR exercises. On the other hand, smaller companies such as Buffer, a social media content distributor,  seem to be placing employee engagement - and dare I say happiness - at the core of how they do business.

Root causes and what to do about them

However, the above suggestions don’t go far enough in solving the problems of overwhelm, stress, individual mistakes, and process failures. In fact, if such measures as mentoring, coaching and value statements are simply imposed from above, they risk compounding the problem.

I will go further and say that present global economic and working conditions seem to be returning to 1930s or even Dickensian standards. Poor pay, armies of unemployed workers and the mobility of labour are the background to this regression. Looking back to my own youth, the hope was always that computerisation and automation of processes would lead to easier work, fewer hours, more leisure time and more shared wealth. For many workers today, this is a fantasy that never materialised.

Leaving aside the more general economic conditions for the moment, we need to ask why complex processes cause stress in the first place. People feel alienated by complexity mainly because they are divorced from the results of their work, and lose any sense of a job well done. Not only are they unable to see the fruits of their labours, but just as importantly people start to feel that their ideas and voices cannot effect the production process. It’s too big, impersonal and incomprehensible. In short, people feel like they are no more than cogs in a machine that can be easily replaced (or oiled!).

Certainly, increasing the visibility of the end-to-end process would help. But this will only make a difference if people are actively engaged in improving and controlling the processes that they work in. The problem there is that corporate management may see this as a cost, rather than a benefit, or because it puts an overly complex and corporate system in place to engage people - thus again compounding the problem.

This brings us to one of the root causes and its effects: management fails to engage the creativity of workers in making processes work better. This effects productivity, morale and the bottom line. I know that a minority of employees will never engage. But we're not talking about them here, we are talking about the people who want to have an interesting, fulfilling working life.

Revolution or continual improvement?

Well, we could try overthrowing global capitalism, but it seems a little late for that. Revolution would also be a macro-level solution that, like the problem it tries to solve, is also on a non-human scale. To misquote a misquotation of Einstein, we cannot solve problems using the same thinking from which the problem arose.

As far as I can see, an approach worth trying to this problem of alienation would be expanded and modified versions of kanban and kaizen. Kanban was originally developed to help visualise the end-to-end process of building (Toyota) cars and has become very popular in the software development world. The aim of Kanban is to make production lines (and processes) more efficient and effective. It involves (among other things) daily meetings where everyone has a voice – although limited by time and subject matter.

Kaizen is ‘improvement’ with the sense of “continuous improvement”, especially of an end-to-end process or production line (again, it originates from Toyota)

But what if we used these ideas with a new perspective and emphasis, whereby the most important objective is to engage the creativity of people? Indeed, this is one of Kaizen’s original purposes. Kaizen is:

"a process that, when done correctly, humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work (muri), and teaches people how to perform experiments on their work using the scientific method and how to learn to spot and eliminate waste in business processes. In all, the process suggests a humanized approach to workers and to increasing productivity."

From Wikipedia article on Kaizen.

Presently, engaging the creativity of people is, at best, seen as a means to the end of improving efficiency.

But what if engaging the creativity of people were seen as an end in itself?

Recent investigations have exposed terrible working conditions in many large corporations. These scandals represent the unacceptable face of capitalism. But it is also wrong that millions of workers live working lives of quiet desperation, alienated, stressed and kept in the dark about the very processes they enable.

How can we change things for the better? Does the scale and complexity of modern working life impact you? Has your organisation recognised the problem and addressed it?

About the Author Dan McCarthy

Dan helps IT leaders to assess and improve their organisations and processes. He writes about improving working life, processes, and efficiency, with some left-field perspectives from his Anthropology background. Has been sighted lurking near pianos and guitars, as if to play them.

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