Getting back to the coalface

Like kumquats and mangoes, management theory does not really flourish in British soil, so we have always imported it from the US, and to a lesser extent Japan. Much of it has been hard to digest for reasons often ascribed to British pragmatism, although British philistinism may be as much to blame. Yet perhaps we never fully appreciated the delicacy and richness of what little home-grown stuff we do produce.

Flip through literature about work, and there is one British name referenced time and again: the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. Founded in 1946 as a spin-off from the Tavistock Clinic, a centre of psychoanalysis, by the late 1960s it had become associated with a formidable bit of jargon called ‘socio-technical systems theory’. Yet the institute was always concerned as much with an approach to the investigation of group behaviour in organisations as with an explicit programme.

Thinking about how to apply the social sciences to the problems of post-war reconstruction in the late 1940s, the institute evolved a method of ‘action research’ – of researchers as participants in change – that later became the modus vivendi of the consultancy industry.

Socio-technical systems theory emerged from a legendary investigation of the South Yorkshire coal industry after the Second World War by Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth published in the Tavistock Institute’s journal Human Relations.* What it referred to was the realisation that productive organisations are the result of the interaction between technology and social systems. The introduction of new machines created disruption to workplace relationships. It was impossible to ‘maximise’ the utility of a new technology for the employer without destabilising the social system operating among workers and in doing so causing productivity to fall. Instead, it was best to ‘optimise’ it – redesigning jobs to reduce worker alienation and increase productivity.

The alternative to mass production, bureaucracy and industrial conflict propounded by the Tavistock was the ‘autonomous work group’. Today this model is virtually the norm, but in the 1950s and ’60s the idea of a close-knit team of workers regulating itself was a novel idea.

This was, in part, because the industrial revolution had bequeathed an unlovely attitude towards human nature: people were held to be self-interested beings, there to be manipulated and controlled by incentives and punishments, with employers seeking to neutralise their feelings.
Tavistock added to the evidence pointing in another direction. It was illogical to think of work purely in terms of a task, as work involved whole people. But under the process of mechanisation, work had lost its intrinsic meaning, so workers sought that meaning in social relationships. They responded far more to their peer group than to incentives. To increase productivity, therefore, companies had to take account of the psychological wellbeing of their staff.

Such principles fed into a host of other ideas such as worker participation, which carried into the practices of Swedish car makers Volvo and Saab, as well as empowerment, quality circles, teamwork and many more ideas that today tend to travel under the ubiquitous label ‘high-performance work practices’.

So the Tavistock Institute has been immensely important – especially to the HR profession. But here is the reason I am rehearsing all this: in 10 years of writing about work, I only ever encountered the Tavistock in the past tense. Yet it still exists. By chance, I stumbled across its website a few weeks ago. Doubtless this is down to my ignorance. Yet having found it, I wanted to ask the obvious question: What is it up to now?

In recent years, the Tavistock’s interests and client base have led it mostly away from the world of work and into the world of public sector change initiatives. It does evaluations of policy programmes (including the government’s Work-Life Balance Challenge Fund); it studies the use of multi-agency partnerships to deliver policy; and it is interested in leadership.

However, one of new director Phil Swann’s priorities is to “refresh the thinking around how organisations change”. He hopes the institute will in future have more influence in debates about the changing experience of work.

Let’s hope so, too – although it is worth acknowledging that any institution whose heritage becomes the stuff of folklore faces a daunting burden of expectation.

But is the Tavistock’s approach still relevant to the post-industrial, post-Fordist workplace?

Absolutely, says Martyn Sloman, adviser on learning at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Develop-ment. Sloman has been rereading Trist and Bamforth with a view to gleaning insights into how IT affects work relationships, and why it is that computers have mostly failed to spur productivity growth.

Sloman cites self-service HR systems. Many argue the ability to check holiday entitlements, and to have instant access to their employer’s HR policies via the computers on their desks, ought to be very beneficial to workers, as well as serving to liberate HR professionals for ‘more strategic’ work. Instead, what often happens is that staff want to talk to ‘a real person’, and perceive the technology as an insult.

The message of Trist and Bamforth, Sloman argues, is that high technology cannot deliver productivity benefits without rethinking the social systems into which it will fit. It is in the interaction of groups of people with technology that better work attitudes and productivity growth will be found. “Trist and Bamforth, where are you now?” he sighs.

Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Long Wall Method of Coal Getting, by Eric Trist and Ken Bamforth, Human Relations, Volume 4, No 1 (1951)

Comments are closed.