Big Brother threatens knowledge-based productivity

Dec 06 2004 by Brian Amble Print This Article

An outdated command and control management culture is causing managers to misuse technology, over scrutinise worker performance and undermine the productivity benefits of the technology-driven economy.

"The Future Role of Trust in Work", a report by London School of Economics (LSE) academic Dr Carsten Sorensen, warns that office workers face the threat of increasing control, monitoring, scrutiny and micromanagement as supply chain technology developed for monitoring goods is applied to individuals and the creation of knowledge.

This is an inappropriate use of technology, Sorensen argued. Instead, organisations should be working on creating new technologies that enable group working and increased transparency in a trusted environment.

Micromanagement is not only demotivating, he said, but it causes people to spend a lot of time proving to their bosses that they are working, instead of getting on with actually working.

The challenge this poses to British business is to find new ways of managing people in the face of the changing technological world of work.

“Workers need a new deal. We cannot assume as white collar workers we have complete freedom," Sorensen said.

"However, bosses cannot manage as they have before by command and control – there is simply too much information in a modern technology driven service economy."

Moreover, he added, employers will have to trust their workers much more in future if mobile working using the latest technology is to forge ahead.

The trick will be setting up a system where the workers see a benefit in being monitored. "But building the kind of trust between management and workers can take years, and it can be erased in a second," Sorensen added.

The report is part of Tomorrow’s Work, a long-term study initiated by Microsoft in October 2003 that involves organisations including the LSE, TUC and CBI, and explores how we manage our working lives and professional environments in the digital age.

It argues that management control-freakery means that employees tend to react to communication from their employers rather than interacting with their customers – therefore ultimately damaging UK productivity.

“Outdated management practices such as these are causing the continuing productivity gap between the UK and continental Europe. We need to trust people more,” Sorensen said.

The TUC's Ian Brinkley agreed that workers were becoming unhappy with micromanagement.

“Recent research from the ESRC (The Economic and Social Research Council) found that job satisfaction has fallen over the last ten years because employees feel that they have more and more people looking over their shoulder. We need to rebuild trust, share risk and move to more partnership in the workforce,” he said.

Microsoft's Alistair Baker said from his company’s experience he said that he was happy that Microsoft’s UK Head Office was often empty on a Friday afternoon.

"I know that my staff are either out with customers or looking after their work/life balance. Should I worry? No – because we’ve got the people, processes and management that cultivate mutual trust.”

Carsten said this trust was crucial to the 21st century economy.

"We are entering a world of work there is everywhere to go and nowhere to hide. Managers learn to manage by outcome. We need to set the workers free to interact with customers and therefore learn to trust. Otherwise, British productivity will continue to suffer."