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Scientific Management, Bureaucracy, and the Emergence of the Modern Organization
In this chapter we will take a historical perspective to make sense of our status as “organizational
beings.” In particular, we will explore the “prehistory” of organizational life and examine some of the
economic, political, and cultural conditions that led to the emergence of the modern corporation. This is
not intended to be a comprehensive history; instead, it will serve to highlight some of the most
important societal transformations that, in the past 200 years or so, have profoundly altered our sense
of what it means to be human.
In addition to this historical perspective, we will examine some of the early theories of management and
organizational communication that—in conjunction with huge shifts in the way we live—emerged early
in the 20th century to explain and regulate the newly emergent organizational life. It is important to
recognize that these theories did not emerge in a vacuum but are closely connected to the kinds of
social and political tensions society was experiencing at the time. The two most influential theories of
this time were scientific management, developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor, and bureaucratic theory,
developed by one of the founding figures of sociology, Max Weber. In addition to these two theories, we
will also be examining related theorizing and research that emerged around the same time. Finally, we
will use the critical perspective to assess the strengths and weaknesses of these early theories.
figure THE EMERGENCE OF THE MODERN ORGANIZATION
While many economic, political, and cultural factors led to the emergence of what we would recognize
today as the modern, corporate organizational form, two factors are particularly worthy of mention—
the emergence of industrial conceptions of time and space. Put simply, the modern organization
depends for its existence on the willingness of its employees to appear together at a specific place and
time. Of course, the recent emergence of the virtual organization complicates this claim, but most of us
still have to “go” to work in a real, rather than a virtual, sense.
This statement is so obvious that it seems barely worthy of mention. In order to survive, organizations
depend on people to come to work and stay for a set period of time. However, this has not always been
the case. Indeed, the very idea that people should work for someone else and thus earn a wage is an
idea of fairly recent invention. As late as the middle of the 19th century, working for an employer (as
opposed to working for oneself) was called “wage slavery.” For the average U.S. citizen, such a notion
directly contradicted the principles of freedom and independence on which the United States was
established. In fact, in the early 19th century around 80% of U.S. citizens were self-employed; by 1970
this number had decreased to a mere 10% (Braverman, 1974). To be described as an “employee”—a
term that came into widespread use only in the late 19th century and was originally used exclusively to
describe railroad workers—was definitely not a compliment. As management scholar Roy Jacques (1996)
argues, “Before the late nineteenth century in the U.S., there were workers, but the employee did not
exist” (p. 68).
This shift from a society consisting of “workers” to one consisting of “managers” and “employees” is key
to understanding the historical transformations that led to the emergence of an “organizational
society.” This shift involves both a change in the kinds of jobs people held and a more fundamental
transformation of collective beliefs, values, and cultural practices. Moreover, a change occurred in the
forms of discipline and control to which people were willing to consent. In Foucault’s (1979, 1980b)
terms, the employee as a particular “subject” (i.e., an object of scrutiny about whom knowledge is
produced) was created as a definable and measurable entity. Similarly, managers as an identifiable
social group were also created to administer and control the newly emergent employee. To understand
our origins as corporate or organizational beings, we will explore the elements of this creation process.
Time, Space, and the Mechanization of Travel
Most of us are familiar with the fact that the Industrial Revolution produced a major transformation in
the structure of Western society. In Europe and the United States, the invention of steam power and the
emergence of mechanical, high-volume production profoundly altered people’s relationship to work.
Broadly speaking, a major shift occurred in which society was transformed relatively rapidly from an
agricultural, mercantile system to an industrial, capitalist system. In Britain—the first nation to
experience an industrial revolution—this process began around 1780. In the United States,
industrialization did not get fully under way until almost 100 years later. In both cases, however, the
changes in how most people lived were profound. The process of mechanization not only enabled the
production of vast quantities of goods but also fundamentally altered the economic, political, and
Of course, this process did not happen by accident. Indeed, a whole set of societal changes occurred
that made industrialization possible. One of those changes involved the creation of a mass population of
workers who could be employed in the new factories. As I indicated earlier, self-employment was the
norm; so, what occurred to begin this shift to wage employment? In Britain and other parts of Europe
this shift occurred with the passing of a series of “enclosure” laws. For hundreds of years, many people
in Britain (mostly the poor) had access to “common lands” on which they could raise livestock and grow
food (even today we use the term commons to describe a gathering place open to all, regardless of
social status). The enclosure laws took away such common’s rights, awarding these areas to landowners
who made vast fortunes through rents and sheep farming. Those who were dispossessed could no
longer provide for themselves and thus were forced to sell their labor to others.
In the United States, of course, there was no enclosure system; indeed, the government provided
ordinary people with incentives to colonize the apparently limitless supply of land. The U.S. Industrial
Revolution relied for its labor on the large numbers of immigrants that arrived in the late 19th and early
20th centuries. In fact, many of those immigrants left their home countries as a result of the enclosure
system in Britain and much of Europe.
In addition to these important political developments, the shift to industrial capitalism was rooted in
technological change. The creation and emergence of steam power functioned literally as the engine of
the Industrial Revolution. It made possible the efficient, cheap, mass production of goods and allowed
the development of a national transportation system that could rapidly move people and goods.
However, there were other—equally significant—consequences of the emergence of mechanical power.
In many respects these consequences were just as important in the emergence of the organizational
society in which we all live. Here, I am referring to a profound shift in human consciousness and
perception of reality that accompanied the emergence of railway transportation.
Historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1986) argues that the invention of the railway was a major factor in
the transformation of humans’ experience of time and space. Specifically, he suggests that the
mechanical motion of the steam engine was rooted in regularity, conformity, and potentially unlimited
duration and speed. For the first time in human history, transportation was freed from its natural,
organic limitations, and its relation to the space it covered was changed drastically. With steam power,
“motion was no longer dependent on the conditions of natural space, but on mechanical power that
created its own new spatiality” (p. 10). Schivelbusch points out that a frequently used metaphor in the
early 19th century to describe locomotive power was that it “shoots through like a bullet.” Railroad
tracks crossed rivers, carved through towns, and bored directly through mountains. In the face of such
mechanical power, nature lost its awesome majesty, and the arrival of “the infernal machine” heralded
a new, “rational” way of looking at the world.
From a 19th century perspective, the invention of mechanical forms of transportation was a doubleedged sword. From the point of view of industry, steam-powered transportation represented the
breaking of nature’s fetters on economic development. No longer subject to the unpredictability of
horses and wind power, transportation became much more efficient and predictable for business
purposes. Against this modernist perspective was regret at the loss of a close relationship between
humans and nature. The new travel technology alienated people from the natural relationships among
the traveler, his or her vehicle, and the landscape through which the journey unfolded. Riding a horse or
traveling in a stagecoach had a natural rhythm and sense of exertion, movement, and distance traveled
that was lost in train travel. While such a perspective seems quaint from a 21st century point of view, it
nevertheless indicates the fundamental change that mechanical travel introduced in people’s
experience of the world.
As we shall see, the railway traveler who felt alienated from his or her natural surroundings had much in
common with the worker who experienced alienation from his or her work in the newly industrialized
organization (of course, these were frequently the same people!). In order to better understand this
process, however, we must look more closely at how this new industrial consciousness emerged in the
workplace. That is, we need to examine how the craftsperson of the 18th century became the industrial
employee of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries—the employee about whom so many management and
organization theories have been developed.
Time, Space, and the Industrial Worker
The transformation of society from a primarily agrarian to an industrial system witnessed changes not
only in the way goods were manufactured but also in people’s relationship to and experience of work.
The mass production of goods by mechanical means required a completely different kind of worker from
the craftsperson of preindustrial times. We have already seen how political developments such as the
enclosure system created workers as “raw material” for the new factories. However, the new worker
had to embody a different set of work habits that were necessary for the new form of industrial work
discipline. The development of these new work habits can be traced to the emergence of a new
understanding and measurement of time.
Historian E. P. Thompson (1967) identifies the shift from task time to clock time as being a defining
feature in the emergence of industrial capitalism. Task time refers to an organic sense of time in which
work is shaped by the demands of the tasks to be performed. For example, the lives of the people living
and working in a seaport are shaped by the ebb and flow of the tides, regardless of the “objective” clock
time. Life in a farming community is shaped by the seasons; working long hours in the harvest season
contrasts with the more limited amount of labor in the winter months. Similarly, the lives of
independent craftspeople and artisans are oriented around the tasks they perform and are not dictated
by the hands of the clock.
Thompson (1967) shows how, in preindustrial Britain, little of life was subject to routine, with work
involving “alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness” (p. 73). For the most part, people worked
when they needed to and thought nothing of mixing leisure with labor. Thompson argues that this task
orientation toward time is more humanly comprehensible than labor dictated by the clock and
represents a lack of demarcation between work and life in general. From the perspective of clock time,
however, such an orientation toward work appears wasteful.
In the struggle between employers and employees in early industrial capitalism, time proved to be the
significant point of contention. As more and more people shifted from self-employment to working for
others, employers attempted to impose a sense of time—clock time—that was alien to most workers
but essential to the development of systematic and synchronized forms of mass production. As such,
under the employer–employee industrial relationship, time was transformed from something that was
passed to something that was spent—time became a form of currency. In this new relationship, it is not
the task that is dominant but the value of the time for which the employer is paying the worker. (See
Critical Technologies 3.1 below.)
However, the introduction of clock time into the workplace marked a period of considerable struggle
between employers and employees, in which the former attempted to erode the old customs and habits
of preindustrial life rooted in task time. For example, in the late 1700s Josiah Wedgwood was the first
employer to introduce a system of “clocking in” for workers (Thompson, 1967, p. 83), dictating the
precise time that employees started and finished work. In addition, early industrialists recognized that
schooling could socialize future workers into the discipline of industrial time. Thus, a number of late18th century social commentators viewed education as “training in the habit of industry,” referring not
to specific skills but to the discipline required for industrial work (Thompson, 1967, p. 84).
The shift from task time to clock time was a key development in industrial capitalism, and political
struggles regarding time were (and still are) a widespread feature of capitalist–labor relations (Stevens &
Lavin, 2007). E. P. Thompson (1967) documents the words of one early 19th century worker who reports
the level of exploitation to which he and his fellow workers were subjected:
The clocks at the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night, and instead of being
instruments for the measurement of time, they were used as cloak for cheatery and oppression. Though
this was known amongst the hands, all were afraid to speak, and a workman then was afraid to carry a
watch, as it was no uncommon event to dismiss any one who presumed to know too much about the
science of horology [timekeeping]. (p. 86)
Interestingly, it is precisely at the moment when industrialization required a much greater
synchronization of labor that an explosion of watches and clocks occurred amongst the general
population. This played an important role in socializing the average person into the new industrial “time
consciousness.” By the early 1800s watches and clocks were possessed widely and were considered not
only convenient but a mark of prestige. Even today watches are given as gifts to mark long service with a
Along with the introduction of personal timepieces came factory owners’ widespread use of punch
clocks. These devices recorded the precise time that workers “clocked in” and “clocked out” of work.
Again, a great deal of worker–management conflict developed (and still exists) around this technology.
As a college student, I spent my summers working for a company that required hourly workers to clock
in every morning. The punch clock required that we clock in by 7:30 a.m.—if we clocked in at, say, 7:32
a.m., we would not be officially “on the clock” until 7:45 a.m. On the other hand, if we were stupid
enough to clock out at 4:59 p.m., we would get paid only until 4:45 p.m. Theoretically, then, the
company could get 28 minutes of free labor from a worker. Employees would try to “game” the system
by, for example, clocking in for someone else if it looked as though that person might be a couple of
minutes late; or they might drive slowly back to the depot after making a delivery to make sure they
didn’t have to clock out too early.
In Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, there’s a scene in which Chaplin runs out of the factory where
he works after “losing it.” On the street outside, Chaplin accosts a woman, who calls for help from a
passing police officer. As Chaplin runs back into the factory to escape the pursuing officer, he takes time
to stop and punch his time card. It’s a great example of how the technology of the punch clock helped
instill in workers a sense of industrial time and functioned as an important technology of control in
shaping people’s work lives.
The introduction of clock time, then, was not only crucial for the development of mass-production
techniques but also as a means of controlling a workforce for whom independent work was the norm.
As Thompson (1967, p. 80) points out, the shift to clock time was not simply a technological
advancement but, more significantly, made possible the systematic exploitation of labor. Once time
became a form of currency—something that was paid for—then employers used all possible means to
extract as much labor as possible from their workers. In fact, much of the workplace conflict in the 19th
and early 20th centuries revolved around the length of the working day, with workers’ unions playing a
significant role in reducing the amount of hours employees were required to work. Nevertheless, the
basic principle that workers could be required by employers to work a certain number of hours was
accepted relatively early in the Industrial Revolution.
The creation of “clock time” was closely linked with industrialization and efforts to control factory
In case this discussion appears rather detached from our early 21st century work experience, let me
illustrate the extent to which time is still intimately connected to issues of power and control in the
workplace. Management scholar Joanne Ciulla (2000) points out that the level of power and prestige a
person holds in his or her job is connected quite closely to the amount of discretionary work time they
possess. Generally speaking, the more one is considered a professional, the less one is tied to clock time
and the more one is invested in the nature of the tasks one performs.
For example, as a university professor, I have a considerable amount of discretion over how I organize
my time. As long as I fulfill my professional obligations (teaching, advising, committee work, research,
etc.), how and where I spend that time is entirely up to me (in fact, as I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee
shop!). I don’t have to clock in when I come to work or clock out when I leave. So, even though I may
work 60 hours in a given week, the clock dictates relatively little of that time. On the other hand, for an
assembly-line worker, the clock and speed of the assembly line dictate the entire working day. Such a
worker has little or no control over how his or her time is spent and, as in the case of the Jim Beam
company (see Chapter 1), he or she may not even have discretion over when bathroom breaks are taken
(Linder & Nygaard, 1998).
Each of these examples demonstrates the close connection between organizational power and one’s
control over clock time. As we will see later in this chapter, the 20th century witnessed a more and more
discriminating measurement of clock time in the workplace. While 19th century owners and managers
considered it a major accomplishment to gather workers together in the same place at the same time,
20th century managers developed much more precise forms of control.
In the first part of this chapter, we have been examining the historical, political, and communication
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