Author: Anne Marie McEwan Posted: January 23, 2012 1500 views
I really did hesitate to write this post a) because I feel so repetitive b) it puts me at odds with so many people whose views I respect and c) because I do not want to sound like someone is wrong on the internet.

I decided to write it because I think in disparaging “the factory model”, “the industrial model” or “the engineering model”, there really is a danger of overlooking the abundant  insights into workplace social dynamics that have accumulated over decades.


I will start with a positive. My other half was searching through papers at the weekend just gone, looking for his birth certificate. He didn’t find it but he did find all manner of other interesting documents. This included a letter confirming successful completion of his four year apprenticeship as a fitter in the shipyards. The letter, typed on beautiful paper and actually signed by a real person, outlined all the practical things he had achieved. It also detailed all the technical subjects he had passed by going to college as day release and at evening classes.

I should know this, coming from a town where shipbuilding used to be the main employment, but I asked him what a fitter does. As just one example, it involves fitting the propellers to the ship. Woah!! Massive respect. As he says, and I agree, a job with honour.

Knowledge work, work-based learning and social learning? It is all there in apprenticeships.

Formal systems and informal practices

Two other things then came to my attention. I started reading How Russia Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics And Business. Ledneva begins by discussing what she and others mean by “informal practices”. Her own definition is:

“Informal practices as an outcome of players creative handling of formal rules and informal norms – players’ improvisation on the enabling aspects of these constraints. Although players are individual actors, their individual strategies of navigating between formal rules and informal norms feed into or amalgamate into patterns of behaviour of groups or professions.”

This really struck a chord with me. I spent a large part of my doctoral studies looking at management obsession with behaviour control throughout decades. This continues despite evidence that people will not be controlled. They will subvert formal systems to their own ends, for creative or destructive means.

An example

Rick Delbridge was one of a cohort of academics in the 1990s who were highly critical of new ways of working based on lean and quality. In Life On The Line In Contemporary Manufacturing, he describes how operator non-compliance can be characterised as:

  • ’surviving the system’ – an example of operators’ distancing themselves from the demands of management might be refusal to participate in discretionary activity;
  • ‘moderating the system’ – for example, restricting output and deliberately moderating their pace of work;
  • ‘beating the system’ – this involves outright resistance, most commonly in the form of collective action.

He also describes how the management dynamics that interact with these strategies include:

“… managerial behaviour which is not consistent in maintaining the formal rules and procedures of the organisation.”

That sounds very much to me like Ledneva’s “strategies of navigating between formal rules and informal norms feed(ing) into patterns of behaviour of groups or professions”.

No choice?

The second thing that came to my attention was an excellent blog post, The Social Business, from Esko Kilpi. He proposes that:

“Leadership in the time of the social business should be about providing a platform for discussing the meaning of work and the collective identity.”

I agree with this wholeheartedly. I think Esko is spot-on in focusing on the meaning of work and collective identity. He also says something that I cannot agree with:

“In industrial management, individuals were taken for granted and had no choice or voice. The foundations of work relationships are still largely built on asymmetrical relationships between the employer and the employee, the manager and the worker.”

Time marches on

Back to Rick Delbridge. He concludes in Life On The Line that:

“There is little to suggest that contemporary manufacturing is best characterised as ‘post-fordist’ and that the new shop floor is a hotbed of worker autonomy and knowledge creation.”

That is consistent with research that I have done. Routine and repetitive work remained routine and repetitive when continuous improvement (CI) was introduced. What was apparent though was the quality of workplace relationships in factories where CI was effective. Shop floor operators are pragmatic. They are not fooled and do not engage in their own exploitation – my assessment of what I saw and heard. Operators respond to being listened to, consulted, included, recognised and respected. This makes sense: if you want people to contribute to problem-solving and continuous improvement, you have to engage with them and treat them with respect. Knowledge really is power. The assymetry that Esko speak of begins to balance out as power shifts.

Life On The Line was published in 1998. By 2006 Delbridge, in a co-authored paper**, is proposing that:

“While the majority of plants may be some way off from a “learning factory” model there is evidence of changing practices, structures, and expectations in each that are in varying ways broadly consistent with elements of this approach”.

The article makes clear that “much of what might be considered ‘management’ lies with team leaders”. Front-line supervisors are critical to encouraging operator participation in CI and problem-solving, and this is social in origin. Employee commitment to plant objectives is really an outcome of loyalty to each other.

Enterprise 2.0 slowly emerges

The trajectory towards social business / enterprise 2.0 began more than 20 years ago with shift towards “the learning factory” model. As Enterprise 2.0 case studies slowly emerge, it will come as no surprise to me that the transition issues we see mirror earlier developments. See EMC2 A Journey In Social Media. The issues in this paper sound very familiar to me.

Linking back to Esko’s contention that leadership “should be about providing a platform for discussing the meaning of work and the collective identity”, I think that one of the big learnings in making the transition from traditional manufacturing to the ” learning factory” is the emergence of relationships as a key lever in making the transition to new ways of working.

I think we learned that the meaning of work was and continues to be in the relationships we have with each other, the relationship we have with the organisation we work for, and in the service we give to others. Creating the initial conditions for relationships to develop that enhance out desire for recognition, self-determination, social status and learning will continue to be associated with high- performance and engaging work.

** Barton, H. and Delbridge, R. (2006) Delivering the “learning factory”: Evidence on HR roles in contemporary manufacturing. Journal of European Industrial Training. Vol. 30 No. 5 pp 385-395

About the author >

Anne Marie McEwan

Anne Marie McEwan is a director of The Smart Work Company. She is a Visiting Fellow at Kingston University Business School. In partnership with the business school, she works with the Moscow Academy of National Economy on the International Senior Executive Strategic Master’s Programme. She helped set up this innovative work-based learning programme for director-level executives in Moscow, and continues working with a number of the executives as a personal learning consultant. She also co-leads, with Dr Marie Puybaraud, Director of Workplace Innovation, the Johnson Controls Global Mobility Network, a learning network for senior IT, FM and HR executives who want to explore how they can best adapt to global workplace trends.

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