The Use of Flexibility and Control


Bureaucracy is a form of control and as Edwards (1981) states, bureaucratic control is in which control derives from the hierarchically based social relations of the organisation and its concomitant sets of systemic rational - legal rules that reward compliance and punish noncompliance. For Weber (1978), we would out of desire for order, continually rationalise our bureaucratic relationships, making them less negotiated and more structured. This notion of the inevitable, highly rational, but powerfully oppressive bureaucracy refers to what Weber (1958: 180 - 181) called the "iron cage".

Although bureaucracy was one famous way of managing firms, its use was not very appropriate when the firms had to adapt to changing environmental conditions. It was known for its red-tapism and also as Weber warned us, we, in our desire for organizational order and predictability, tend to focus too much on the rationality of the rules in and of themselves, overintellectualising the moral and ethical values critical to our organizational lives and making decisions according to the rules, without regard to the people involved (Kalberg, 1980: 1158).

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Firms nowadays are not or cannot adapt the classical approach; the environments in which they operate are too volatile and unpredictable. Only the fittest survive. Referring to what have been mentioned before, bureaucratic organisations was slow and thus new ways of managing firms had to be adopted so as to maintain profitability.

[Lecture notes: the classical approach - during the 1950 - 60's the environment was very stable. There was the idea of the rational economic man and planning was done for the 15 to 20 years to come. Strategies were presented as emerging from a rationalistic decision-making process fully formulated, explicit and articulated as a set of orders for others to carry out.]

THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL DIVIDE - M ass production era

THE SECOND INDUSTRIAL DIVIDE - Flexible specialization

The flexible specialisation hypothesis - Figure 1

Source: Thomas Bramble (1988) 'Industrial Relations and New Management Production Practices', Labour and Society, vol. 112, June.

What was also changing at that time was the fact that the Fordist mode of production was becoming obsolete. Customers no more wanted standardized and mass produced goods, they wanted individualized products. Growth, which had been quantitative and material, was now to become 'qualitative' and 'immaterial'. (The latest forms of work).

Hierarchical organisation with assembly line workers was not what made firms profitable. Less rigidity was being required to satisfy the fast-changing needs of the customers. This new concept, known as flexibility was best implemented by the Japanese at that time; (The difference between the flexible firm and the fordist mode of production is clearly represented in Figure 1). For them, the workers not only carried out the tasks but they were also the thinkers; they participated in decision-making and there was the formation of quality circles which enabled ideas to be shared among group members. For Taylorism, the self-organisation, ingenuity and creativity of the workers were to be combated as the source of all dangers of rebellion and disorder, for Toyotism these things were a resource to be developed and exploited. (The latest forms of work).

A systemic approach to strategy was what best worked for the Japanese. Their culture greatly influenced their approach to deal with organizational problems and there was a close two-way relationship between their external business strategies (corporate business strategy) and the elements of their internal HR strategy. As Barney (1991) advocates, sustainable competitive advantage is not achieved through an analysis of external market position but through an analysis of the firm's skills and capabilities which competitors find themselves unable to imitate. That was exactly what the Japanese were doing; their emphasis was on long-term strategies which placed premium value on people. For them, their employees were a vital resource and so appropriate training and employee development were provided to them so as to boost company development.

What made the difference between the Japanese and the Americans was the culture. It was of vital importance for the Americans to adapt or alter their culture, to be able to reproduce that of the Japanese's. The problem of the western industries has been summarised in Ohno's words (T.Ohno, the inventor of Toyota): what to do to raise productivity when the quantities to be produced do not increase? Here you are referring to culture????

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The Japanese employees have a psychological bong to their organisation; an affective attachment and identification (Coopey and Hartley, 1991: 19). The Japanese workers identify themselves with their companies and the corporate objectives satisfy both the needs of the firm as well as the need of each individual employee. On the other hand, in the western industries it is the capitalist mode of production which is at the heart of all firms.

[To explain the capitalist mode of production, Marx's labour process will be put at the forefront:

Now you are into Marxism????/ you are just jumping from one to another, I cant see consistency at all.. stick to flexibility please..

So as to satisfy the different needs of the human society, work has always been necessary. To carry out different jobs, there are the means of production as referred to by Marx, which are the raw materials and the instruments that is, the various tools and technologies; they help transform raw materials into finished products, and this is known as the labour process.

Instruments of labour not only supply a standard of the degree which human labour has obtained, but they also indicate the social relations in which men work (Marx, 1976: 286). Here Marx is arguing that through the different labour processes, there exist social relationships and this accentuates the different social classes. It is though this class system that the capitalist mode of production has emerged.

The capitalists/bourgeoisie are those who possess the means of production and the non-owners are known as the proletariat/working class. The objective of the capitalists is not only to produce goods but it is to ensure that production creates surplus value so as to be profitable and this process is known as valorisation. In exchange of this surplus value, the working class obtains in compensation a salary.

(Surplus Value: Labour is a commodity just like any other commodities and the price at which it is paid for is determined exactly by the same laws that apply to the other commodities, that is, in the competitive regimes, the price of a commodity is equal to its cost of production. The cost of producing labour is equal to the means of subsistence required by the workers to be able to survive and continue working. Thus the worker will therefore get no more for his labour than is necessary for this purpose; the price of labor, or the wage, will, in other words, be the lowest, the minimum required for the maintenance of life. However, the worker will not be producing at his minimum level possible; he will be working for more than what he is being paid and this extra known as the surplus value will be at the benefit of the ruling class. This is how the notion of the capitalist taking advantage of the working class is developed into the exploitation theory.)

With the introduction of science and technology, the subordination of labour has been rendered easier. Greater control could be exerted and more surplus value could be extracted from the workers, causing alienation among the proletariat.

Mechanization was not the only condition to be more profitable and increase the capacity to control. The capitalists placed much importance on the re-organisation of work, making division of labour one key element in the labour process. The economist Ferguson commented: 'manufacturers, accordingly, prosper most where the mind is least consulted and where the workshop…may be considered as an engine, the parts of which are men' (quoted in Marx, 1976: 483). Division of labour created interdependence among workers so leading to the concept of collective worker as mentioned by Marx.

What is concluded is that for the capitalist system to function properly, deskilling and tighter control are crucial. Science, technology and division of labour contribute to further enslave workers and treat them as mindless machines.]

Merging the capitalist mode of production with flexible work practices results in tighter control; work does not only form part of the traditional firm, but it permeates the whole life of the employees. With the use of different technologies, the worker is made visible and connected to the workplace even when he is working at home or elsewhere. Revulsion against bureaucratic routine and pursuit of flexibility has produced new structures of power and control, rather than created the conditions which set us free. (Richard Sennett; The corrosion of character)

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What will further be considered is the dehumanizing impact of flexible work practices and whether this outweighs the benefits of working in such types of jobs.

What is flexibility? This is ok !!!!!

Changing circumstances require that people adapt to them. Routine practices and standardisation are not what contribute to the volatile environment of this new era; flexible institutions are the ones which survive.

The flexible firm model rejects the idea of the bureaucratic firm and its hierarchies. What should prevail in flexible firms is the application of soft HRM policies; more delegation of control, extensive decentralisation and fewer professional demarcations.

To achieve flexibility in organizations, Guest suggests that employees should display high organizational commitment, high trust and high levels of intrinsic motivation.

Customers are demanding more differentiated products; competition has reached its peak, making it vital for firms to respond in a flexible way to fast-changing demands. As mentioned before, only the fittest survive and nowadays the fittest refers to the most flexible firm in terms of production, marketing, finance, and relations with suppliers, innovation, and etcetera. All rigidities in any part of an organisation will contribute to its failure.

According to Smith (1989, p.203), 'flexibility' can be summarised as labour market and labour process restructuring, to increased versatility in design and the greater adaptability of new technology in production.

To better understand and interpret the term 'flexibility', the flexible firm model, developed by Atkinson (1984) and the Institute for Manpower Studies (IMS) will be described. According to this model, the workforce is divided between the core workers and a cluster of peripheral employment relations.

As can be seen in the figure 2, there are three types of flexibility: functional, temporal and financial, and numerical. The core employees are the ones performing the firm's key continuous activities, thus enjoying job security and having the possibility of career development in the internal market; in return they have to be multi-skilled and polyvalent. It is from this group of employees that organizations derive functional flexibility. On the other hand, the peripheral groups are the ones from whom numerical flexibility is sought.

Numerical Flexibility

This refers to the ability for firms to vary their workforce according to production demands so as to get a perfect match between numbers needed and employment. The rise in numerical flexibility has been due to the post-bureaucratic period where there are less formal rules of recruiting, mobilising and regulating labour. (Felstead and Jewson. 1999: 9)

There has been a rise in numerical flexibility mainly because the number of students on the labour market has increased consequently since the 1990's and also the rise in the number of men working part-time has doubled as compared to the number of women, which has been relatively stable.

Secondly, nowadays the growth of temporary contracts is not only among those working in manufacturing or seasonal jobs, but due to the rise of the service sector, more and more non-standard employment contracts are being granted to professionals.

Functional Flexibility

Core workers obtain higher levels of job security with managers having the right to redeploy employees among various tasks, all depending on production needs. Functional flexibility is often assumed to lead to higher levels of skilled labour (Ackroyd and Proctor, 1998: 179)

The focus of functional flexibility is to remove barriers among the different levels of hierarchies in an organisation. This is achieved mainly through job rotation and merging of production grades, thus obtaining multi-skilled workers.

Team working has made functional flexibility easier to adopt, since job rotation and more training has enabled organizations to achieve complete interchangeability of labour (Proctor and Mueller, 2000: 11 - 13)

Temporal and Financial Flexibility

Since there are fewer levels in the organisations' hierarchies, pay structures and bargaining power have been simplified. Now, performance-related pay and career progression linked to the level of pay are more widely used as compared to the traditional notion of a specific 'rate for the job'.

However, this new method of dealing with pay structures reduces the bargaining power of trade unions. Pay is more individualised; unions have to move from an industrial relation to a 'human resource management framework'. (Streek, 1987: 299)

Variations are also on the time workers come and leave the workplace. Workers have greater control over the scheduling of their working hours. Frequent practices are buying-out overtime, and breaks or ending them as rights, and introducing round-the-clock, round-the-shift systems, with the use of part-time and temporary labour to cover peak demand (Yates, 1986; CAITS, 1986; Wainwright, 1987)

Elements in the system of power in modern forms of flexibility are you not copying the same ideas as sennett's?? just summarise what you want to bring up here and say it.

Discontinuous reinvention of institutions - meaning that the step from bureaucratization to the flexible firm is a change which has reinvented the production process completely. It has dissociated itself completely with the past; it is discontinuous.

Modern management's belief is in the fact that loose networks are more manipulable than the pyramid and rigid organisational structures. The help of technology in this new era is of paramount importance, without which no such change would have been possible.

Top management can from a very shapeless organisational structure; know which group of workers are doing what, how and for whom. Control is the key in all these changes since it allows production to take place anywhere, going from the hands of one worker to the other and being supplied by different suppliers from various parts of the world and all this still being under the watchful eyes of the capitalists/organisations' owners.

Due to the improvements in the methods of control, concepts such as delayering and vertical disaggregation became popular. "Delayering" refers to the specific practice of giving a smaller number of managers control over a greater number of subordinates; "vertical disaggregation" gives members of a corporate island many multiple tasks to perform. (Richard Sennett; The corrosion of character)

These terms can be located under the now famous word "reengineering" which means doing more with less. Lean and mean is all about flattening the organisational hierarchy and this is done through delayering and downsizing. Jacques (1964, 1990) sees managerial layers as being dysfunctional and not adding real value to the work of subordinates; the communication process is slow, causing obstruction to decision-making. On his side, Drucker (1988) says that middle managerial layers are now outdated since information technology is the way out for cost-savings and quicker responsiveness to customers. According to the sociologists Scott Lash and John Urry, flexibility is all about "the end of organised capitalism" (Richard Sennett; The corrosion of character). Since now change is better than anything, many organisations are making employees redundant instead of rewarding them, just to prove to the market that they are capable of change. In the long-term these do not prove to be very wise decisions, however stockholders gain high amounts on short-term returns and all this justified by the word "reengineering".

Another reason why organisations take the risks of disrupting their whole business is because of the volatility of consumer demand and the changing trends in the socio-economic and cultural changes taking place in the UK and the US. Because of global competition, the Japanese Janus, models of excellence and the enterprise culture, all these go towards one and same direction which is better responsiveness to customers and the elimination of all institutional rigidities which have a negative impact on flexible responses.

A second characteristic of the flexible regimes which will be considered is flexible specialisation.

Flexible Specialisation - it is about getting more varied products more quickly to the market. Flexible specialisation is the antithesis of the system of production embodied in Fordism (Richard Sennett; The corrosion of character). The assembly-line of standardised products has been replaced by specialised goods.

For flexible specialisation to be effective it is crucial to use high technology; these allow switching from the production of one product to a completely different one in a matter of minutes. Also since communication has been rendered so easy and quick, firms get access to all sorts of data necessary to them, and this very rapidly. For all this to take place successfully, it is very important that quick decisions are made and this requires small work groups.

The most strongly flavoured ingredient in this new productive process is the willingness to let the shifting demands of the outside world determine the inside structure of institutions. All these elements of responsiveness make for an acceptance of decisive, disruptive change. (Richard Sennett; The corrosion of character)

Even though the Japanese has been the model for the western industries, they also took as an example, Italy for its productive innovation; there model is the "Rhine model". This model has been practiced not only in Italy but also in different countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and France at first. In the Rhine model, both management and trade unions share power and the government is of great help, providing pensions, education and health benefits. Flexibility is easily achieved due to the great cooperation among firms; however, this does not mean that they do not compete. All firms occupy the different market niches but they do not do so permanently, they go according to the trend and the demand for the products. One important factor which is in favour of these firms is that the government help them in innovation and this is done as a team. According to Piore and Sabel, it is a strategy of permanent innovation: accommodation to ceaseless change rather than an effort to control it (Richard Sennett; The corrosion of character). In the Rhinish model, the well-being of all citizens is more important than change, thus if firms are taking actions which are affecting the population, they will either stop or change it.

On the opposite, there is the "Anglo-American" model; it reflects the conditions of both American and Great Britain as it is actually. In this model, capitalism rules and the government is not as important as in the Rhine model; it does not invest or take part in the firms' activities. In this capitalist society the focus is more on competition and the welfare of the whole population is not one important issue for the competing firms.

What can be concluded from the two models is that the way firms use flexibility all depends on what they describe as being the common good for the society.


Its a bit disconnected and there seem a lot that you have missed here like bringing the Atkinson model itself. ., you could also talk about the rhine model in Italy Versace, etc and the fact that all countries have to be flexible. But, what does that mean?

From employees perspective:

Is it more of they taking up new roles being "flexile" is iit so?

#or is ist that it means more with less and a comeback to neofordist systems like macdonaldisation? Call centres typical eample where we cant see any flexible practices apart from flexible hours.. working more round the clock thing

Can we ssociate that with more control in fact?//

You tell me through the survey!

From the employer perspective:

What does new flex pracyice smeans:

More labour available, less costs, less training,.... plenty of reasons

This does entail BPR to set it off.. yet who gains??/

Develop your arguments and show me the impact..