Scientific Management and its Application at Microsoft
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Published: Thu, 21 Dec 2017
The concept of scientific management, developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, revolutionised many workplaces, increasing efficiency and control for employers while concurrently lowering costs (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011; Grachev and Rakitsky, 2013; Taylor, 2012). Taylor’s book “The Principles of Scientific Management”, has been identified as the most influential management book of the twentieth century (Bedeian and Wren, 2001). However, despite the benefits for employers, and popularity of the idea, implementation was often associated with poor outcomes for employees, including lowering job satisfaction, increased attrition, and low levels of motivation (Parker, 2014; Pettinger, 2010). However, despite the perceived negative effects, scientific management remains popular (The Economist, 2015; Parker, 2014; Vidal, 2013). This paper examines and evaluates the concept, and then applies it to a modern organisation; Microsoft.
The Concept of Scientific Management
The development of scientific management was based on previous ideas regarding workplace efficiency which emerged during the Industrial Revolution (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011). Prior to the Industrial Revolution, labour division was based on skills and knowledge, with craftsmen having a significant level of discretion regarding how a task was performed or job completed (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011). The Industrial Revolution changed workplace practices, with the division of labour, where individual employees are given responsibility for a predetermined portion of any task (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011). The economist Adam Smith credited this division of labour as creating the UK’s wealth, developing the concept of “economic man”, believing workers primary motivation was money (Smith, 1904). Charles Babbage referred to this as “The Great Principle of Economical Reproduction” (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011; Smith, 1904). However, while this division of labour created efficiencies, Taylor believed further efficiencies remained, and while workers still retaining performance discretion they could use it to their advantage (Grachev and Rakitsky, 2013; Taylor, 2012).
Taylor’s approach improved efficiency was based on the standardisation of job design, breaking jobs down into component tasks, with performance requirements based on scientific studies identifying the most efficient workplace practices (Taylor, 2012). This approach increases the level of management control, reducing reliance on worker skills and discretion. By breaking jobs down into their smallest components, employers could hire and train cheaper, unskilled workers, replacing them as necessary (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011; Pettinger, 2010). Child (1972), referred to this process of job design as the 3 S’s, specialisation, standardisation, and simplification.
The focus of job design was based on the task assessment, examining the best way any individual task could be performed (Grachev and Rakitsky, 2013; Taylor, 2012). This was seen at the Bethlehem Steel Works, where a study of the workers shovelling pig iron resulted in a job redesign reducing the number of workers required from 500, to 140, without productivity loss (Taylor, 2012). The workers that remained benefited from higher wages based on performance-related pay; wage increases of approximately 60% followed the implementation (Taylor, 2012). However, this did not mean his methods were welcomed by workers, in addition to creating redundancies, there was resistance to the change, also evidenced earlier at Midvale Steelworks (Grachev and Rakitsky, 2013). When Taylor first introduced scientific management approaches at Midvale, initially workers purposefully broke machines to resist work standardisation (Grachev and Rakitsky, 2013). Taylor overcame resistance by fining workers for broken machines, using an application Smith’s “economic man”, which appeared to work, as resistance decreased as workers complied to avoid the fines (Grachev and Rakitsky, 2013). Effectively, Taylor was treating workers as components of a production process, dehumanising them, considering only their labour input and labour output.
The resistance seen at Midvale steelworks was not isolated. A significant factor in the uptake of scientific management was the implementation at Ford, resulting in productivity increasing exponentially (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011; Taylor, 2012). However, worker dissatisfaction also increased and attrition levels reached 400% (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011). Again, using the concept of economic man, Taylor overcame this problem by introducing a $5 day, paying workers $5 for each day worked (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011).The $5 day was successful, and workers remained, adopt an instrumental approach (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011). It may be hypothesised, that if the implementation at Ford had been less successful, the idea may not have gained such wide scale support.
The concept of scientific management has continued in the modern workplace, not only in traditional manufacturing sectors, but many new sectors, e.g. call centres and fast food outlets (The Economist, 2015; Buchanan & Huczynski, 2011). If implemented, in line with the above findings and previous experience, it may be expected workers in these jobs would be dissatisfied, due to the dehumanisation processes demonstrated as present in scientific management techniques, such as Midvale and Ford. However, frequently dissatisfaction does not manifest. In research undertaken at the Vauxhall car manufacturing facility in Luton, Goldthorpe et al., (1980) found work conditions, based on scientific methods, were poor, with little opportunity for discretion, and a high level of disempowerment. However, with higher than average pay, the researchers found that workers remained motivated, adopting an instrumental approach, gaining satisfaction from utility provided by wages (Goldthorpe et al., 1980).
It may also be argued, that although implemented in a fashion which appears dictatorial and dehumanised, that Taylor may not have intended this approach. When describing the concept of scientific management, Taylor argued that although governed by rules developed through experimental processes, there should not be an old-fashioned dictator (Taylor, 2012). Furthermore, he also believed workers and management should operate in hearty cooperation (Taylor, 2012).
When examining modern implementations, additional knowledge and subsequent motivation research, facilitate implementation processes more aligned with Taylors’ idealistic cooperative concept, rather than rigid implementations. For example, under the human relations school of thought based on research of theorists such as Mayo, Maslow, and Herzberg, it was found social influences and desires impacted on motivation (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011; Herzberg, 1968; Maslow, 2014). Strategies satisfying these needs/desires, include work variety to induce interest, empowerment demonstrating trust, and other enrichment strategies (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2011). If social satisfaction strategies can be used to improve working conditions and worker motivation where scientific methods are utilised (The Economist, 2015).
With a high level of potential value in terms of creating internal efficiency, as well as providing for consistent practices and standards, it is unsurprising that the practice still continues. However, in organisations that need to both operate on a massive scale, as well as support practices associated with innovation and change, not generally associated with scientific management, the question is whether or not this management concept is still relevant.
Scientific Management and Microsoft
Microsoft, founded in 1975, is a U.S.-based multinational technology organisation based in Washington. The basic operations include the development, manufacturing, licensing, and support of computer software, electronics, and the provision of computer services (Microsoft, 2015). The company, which is the world’s largest software organisation, offers a range of products and services to both the consumer and businesses, with the most well-known products and services including the Windows operating system and associated software, such as the Microsoft Office Suite, with additional interests technology and Internet-related businesses, including the acquisitions of Skype and Nokia, a presence in the game industry with the development of the Xbox (Microsoft, 2015). An initial consideration of the scope and range of products, and the pace at which they change, indicates the need for adaptability and innovation (Dodgson et al., 2008). Innovation may not inherently be associated with scientific management, the process requires those involved to undertake original thought, and non-standardised approaches towards identifying developing new ideas (Dodgson et al., 2008; Kontoghiorghes et al., 2005; Ziesak, 2009). In this context, applying the scientific management processes, as defined by Child (1980), would be a constraint on the potential development of new ideas, which would potentially hinder Microsoft as many of their competitive strategies are based on differentiation through first mover advantage (Nicholson, 2014). Therefore, in some areas it would appear that it is unlikely scientific management is taking place, especially in areas where there is a need for original thought innovation. However, it may be noted that in areas such as research and development, where innovation is important, there is the concept of specialisation, as the development teams conceive and undertake initial development only, with later development and manufacture undertaken elsewhere (Microsoft, 2015).
However, while there is a need for the organisation to adapt to change, the organisation is also required to provide a high level of standardised products and services, where workers operate in the same manner, to provide the same output, a process which is highly associated with scientific management. Therefore, in some areas of the organisation scientific management will be applicable. For example, the company operates a number of call centres, and while a number are outsourced, there are also some provided in-house in the United States (Thibodeau, 2010). The processes utilised within call centres are invariably based on scientific management, where the components of dealing with customer issues are broken down into component parts, with various employees focusing on different issues, and providing advice only on specific areas, based primarily on scripts rather than their own knowledge, with comprehensive scripts developed by the company (Thibodeau, 2010). Unsurprisingly, the approach adopted, with the provision of scripts to guide the customer support process, is based on the company’s own customer care framework, a software solution designed for medium to large enterprises, facilitating dynamic scripting based on customer responses (Microsoft, 2015). Therefore, within these type of operations it is clear that scientific management processes may be used, although, based on the reviews of Microsoft as an employer on the job review site “Glass Door”, it also appears that the organisation adopts the concept with in a modern interpretation, with different elements of empowerment and support motivation, as job satisfaction does not appear to be low (Glass Door, 2015). The conditions in the outsourced sector also display the characteristics associated with scientific management, but with the lower labour costs, higher cost savings, and higher levels of attrition with in outsourced suppliers (Thibodeau, 2010), the implementation of scientific management techniques are more likely to be based on the traditional rigid approach, rather than implementing the empowerment strategies, and embracing the concept of hearty cooperation. Similar arguments may be made for the presence of scientific management in many of the manufacturing processes, although notably these are outsourced to third-party offshore suppliers (Microsoft, 2014).
There is little doubt that scientific management is thrives in 21st-century, adopted by many organisations. The method of management may not be found across all areas of large organisations, it does appear to be a concept which is applicable Microsoft, particularly in the areas where there needs to be standardisation of products and/or services, such as the call centres. However, internally within the organisation, not at the outsourced suppliers, it is not the original rigid approach towards scientific management is implemented, but a softened with the provision of enrichment strategies. This is a version of scientific management in which employees are not seen as only motivated by economic interest, but also by social interest, effectively embracing the ideas of Mayo, Herzberg, and Maslow, as well as the ideas of Taylor. Therefore, scientific management may be seen as applicable at Microsoft, manifesting in different ways across different divisions.
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