“Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master” (Christian Lous Lange). The quote suggests that the way people perceive and adopt technology determines whether the result is an upgrading or de-skilling as an effect on their performance and expertise. The essay outline will comprise and cover : a definition of ‘technology’ and the concepts of technological determinism and organizational choice; an underline of the relationship between technology and organization; a specification of different challenges and inter organizational issues upon the introduction of new technologies that have impact on the skills and qualities of people. Finally, The example case study of Zeta- one of the top fifty software companies in The United States, will support the assumption that new technologies do not inevitably lead to de-skilling when they are understood, controlled and implemented carefully and professionally.
Discussing technology in the context of contemporary society can be an ambiguous issue. The way that people understand this concept is as diverse as is the unique human personality. Instead of putting new technology in the frames of global computer networks, intelligent machines or “flying cars”, it is more reasonable to look at technology at an organizational level, as an irrefutable part of organization’s structure, managerial decision making, employees’ performance and skills, and the overall welfare of each company. Therefore it will be useful first to introduce the concept of technology and to examine what changes and evolution it has undergone in the last centuries.
While some people merely associate technology with its everyday practical meaning, a more comprehensive view will be to look beyond the notion of the simple usage and exploitation of technology and to focus on extent of interaction and mutual relationship between technology and organization (Corbett, M. and Scarbrough, H., 1992). At this point a distinction needs to be made between two concepts: technological determinism and organizational choice. As K. Grint and S. Woolgar suggest “technological determinism portrays technology as an exogenous and autonomous development which coerces and determines social and economic organizations and relationships” (Grint, K. and Woolgar, S., 1997:11). While this theory clearly signifies the impact of technology upon organizations and individuals in way that it encages people to transform and shape their skills accordingly to the technology, the concept of organizational choice highlights that “Technology has no impact on people or performance in an organization independent of the purposes of those who would use it, and the responses of those who have to work with it”( Buchanan and Huczynski 1985:222, cited by Corbett and Scarbrough 1992:5). Referring these concepts to the theories and practices of Henry Ford where technology as well as workers were tools for maximizing profit and comparing it with nowadays organizations where individual’s rights and qualities are of main concern, a pattern of development of technology’s role in the organization can be observed. Looking at different interpretations of new technology, it will be helpful to understand the relationship between technology and organization, the problems and setbacks that may occur during its implementation and the employees’ and managers’ adaptation and behavior towards such issues.
Turning back to the 40s of 20th century, the time when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line into his company, is one of the most relevant examples to examine the impact that this new technology had on the skills , productivity and efficiency of the workers. Although at first the implication of the assembly line was conceived as a beneficial, efficient and innovative tool, rising the profitability of the company rapidly, the myth was soon crushed by decreasing enthusiasm, low skilled labor force , high turnover and lack of interest and motivation- the worst scenario for an organization. This was the inevitable result of a profit driven management and wrong process of technology introduction, encircled in using power, force and alienation and trying to increase morale by offering higher wages. New technology incited “counter-productive effects on employees”, “deskilling and degradation of jobs” and feeling of human beings “controlled by the technology” (Grint,k. and Woolgar,S. 1997:120,121). However, these results were not simply implied by technology itself but by the lack of any managerial methods and changes towards the obvious deterioration of employees and thus company’s development, which lead to the tight relationship between organizations and technology. Since the time of Ford a lot has changed, going through Post-Fordism methods which are concentrated “to increase the skill levels and flexibility and to provide teamwork structures” (Grint,k. and Woolgar,S. 1997:122) and reaching nowadays organizations, where management is highly concerned with providing cooperative and inspiring atmoshpere and flexible, knowlegeable employees who can easily adopt to the new technology changes and challenges.As Autor, Kratz and Krueger (1998) indicate, the introduction of computers in the 1970s has lead to a stable increase in the demand for educated workers and has “upgraded faster the skills of the workforce” (cited by Helpman and Rangel, 1999: 361).
The following part will discuss the skill, knowledge and identity of technology users, the introduction of technology and the managerial and workers perceptions of it, and the problems that can occur in organizations and how they can be overcome.
First, it will be useful to define ‘skill’ and its role in the implementing of technology and managerial decision making. According to Steven Wood, there is a need to distinguish between the different “types of skills – particularly what might be called tacit skills – exercised by people even in those jobs which are labeled unskilled and/or ostensibly routine in nature” (Wood, S., Acta Sociologica 1987:7). When talking about tacit knowledge, it is connected to individual experience and qualities which can be slightly different from the skills that are required in a particular working environment for the fact that people have different way of reacting to stressful situations or implementation of new and complicated technology or any kind of innovation. In this context we can outline the different physical and mental discomforts like anxiety, sleeplessness, pressure and alienation that may result from the introduction of new technology as Turnage (1990) suggests. Therefore, when an issue like this occurs, managers should stress their actions on looking on the individual’s level of qualities and characteristics in order to support the adaptation and productive change of the worker. As Burkhardt and Brass suggest “a change by individuals results in a change in the entire system”(1990: 105).
When talking about human involvement with technology in an organizational environment some aspects of social interaction must be observed, like power, meaning and norms. Although a lot has changed since the time of Henry Ford, there are still sectors of the market like the retail sector or the banks where there is a have strict hierarchy and pressure due to the excessive control and power of the management may cause the implementation process to enflame strains and conflicts among the employees. Such results may also be a consequence of the conflict of interests between the employer and the workers as they have different perceptions of technology. While the employer is concerned with the efficiency of the new technology, the employee is concerned with issues like the technical skills and knowledge that must be obtained, the responsibility and implications of the technological change(Corbett &Scarbrough,1992). Although users have the capacity to control the interaction with technology and the flexibility to attribute in the relationship between technology and organization ,their level of interpretation is constrained by institutional contexts, economic conditions and government regulations which act as norms in the organizational environment(Orlikowski,1991). Both creative human action and manipulation over the technology and the non-direct factors mentioned above, can have an impact on the skills and expertise of the personnel and therefore it is crucial to maintain the right shaping of the technology process in order to develop a working environment consisting of respect, creativity and prosperity.
Such atmosphere can be created only by adequate intervention of the managers. Although “managers are usually presumed to influence the extent to which the innovation is adapted and used by their subordinates” (Leonard-Barton&Deschamps,1988:1252), it is suggested that the influence of the managers is not always perceived equally by all employees. This is a result of the different level of knowledge and skills possessed by the workers and the personal characteristics and individual features discussed above. Therefore, a very detailed knowledge of the skills and qualities of the employees as long as a productive cooperative environment needs to be included in the implementation process of new technologies. Instead of using hierarchical means of power and control, the “managerial attention should first focus on providing and advertising an adequate infrastructure supporting the innovation and then turn attention to directly motivating the later adopters” (Leonard-Barton&Deschamps,1988:1262). Here, it can be highlighted the meaning of the theory of organizational choice as “It is only through human action that technology qua technology can be understood” (Orlikowski,1992:409).
The following example will once more underline the assumption that implementation of new technologies does not inevitably lead to deskilling if the organization understands technology-organization relationship and acts reasonably and accurately to the problems that may occur.
Zeta is a software company, operating on the territory of the United states and is one of the top 50 software companies in the country with around 1000employees and 100million US dollars in revenues. In 1992 the company decided to buy and adopt a new software which would support the faster and more convenient processing of information. The study, made in the company for a period of 2 years, tracked the introduction process of this new technology and the changes that occurred within the organization. The final conclusion of the study was that “department had built on its successful implementation of groupware in interesting ways, and over the past two years had enacted significant organizational changes in a number of areas: nature and distribution of work, form of collaboration, utilization and dissemination of knowledge, and coordination with internal and external units” ( Orlikowski, 1995:1). However, the process of implementation did not happened without any setbacks. Let us look at some consequences of the introduction of the new technology on the employees’ skills and on the working environment as a whole. The study suggested that there were not only technical problems that physically slowed down the working process but also an atmosphere of tension, low motivation, low efficiency and tiredness among the working team due to this technical problems. Despite the logical conclusion that the implementation of this technology lead to general deskilling in the organization, the mangers succeeded to prove otherwise. For a very short period of time, the managerial strategy experienced significant changes in the sphere of: process and performance monitoring, cooperative culture, professional identity and autonomy, collaboration and team-work. These changes were a result of interviews, meetings and courses that were regularly appointed in which employees strengthened their team spirit as well as their individual qualities and knowledge (Orlikowski,1995). The de-skilling effect noticed in the beginning was rapidly overcome due to the adequate decisions made by the managers and the necessary attention paid to the problems in order for rational actions to be undertaken. In the case of Zeta Corporation , the introduction of new technology was implemented through the prism of organizational choice, with significant understanding of the power, meaning and norms in the organization-technology relationship, managerial support and decision-making and expertise over employees’ skills , needs and development.
Introduction of new technologies has been an ambiguous issue, since “ its multifaceted nature makes control extremely difficult to achieve” (Corbett &Scarbrough, 1992:89). Having discussed the main features of technology-organization relationship, the setbacks and possible difficulties it may induce into the managerial and working environment , this essay suggests that the implementation of new technologies does not inevitably lead to de-skilling if understood and controlled adequately. The case of Zeta Corporation supports the argument that the above mentioned challenges should be considered as a positive, skill-upgrading and beneficial tool which would improve people’s knowledge and expertise. After all,” Technology should be an important ingredient. It may be and should be a tool for social development” (Alexander Kwasniewski).
- Scarbrough,H. & Corbett,J.M. (1992) Technology and organization
- Grint,K. & Woolgar,S. (1997) The Machine at Work: Technology, Work and Organization
- Orlikowski, W. (1995) Evolving with Notes: Organizational Change around Groupware Technology, available online : ftp://ftp.unibocconi.it/pub/corsi/strut738/progetti/IT/evolv.htm
- Leonard-Barton,D. & Deschamps,I. (1988) Management Science, 34 (10) p.1252-1265; Available from: JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2632162
- Orlikowski, W. (1992) The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations, Organizational Science, 3 (3) p. 398-427 Available from : JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2635280
- Wood,S. (1987) The Deskilling Debate, New technology and Work Organization, Acta Sociologica, 30 (3) p.3-24 ; Available from: http://asj.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/30/1/3
- Helpman,E. & Rangel,A. (1999) Adjustment to a New technology: Experience and Training, Journal of Economic Growth, 4: 359-383
- Turnage, J. (1990) The Challenge of New Workplace Technology for Psychology, American Psychologist, 45(2), 171-178
- Burkhardt,M. & Brass,D. (1990) Changing Patterns or Patterns-o f Change: The Effects of a Change in Technology on Social Network Structure and Power, Administrative Science Quarterly,35, p.104-127
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