These days, much of the internet chatter generated by the IT service community is on the subject of change. It is unclear whether this is due to the sector looking over its shoulder and seeing the eager face of digital approaching, scythe in hand. Perhaps the industry has had a genuine epiphany and has realised that the old style of IT service isn’t cutting the mustard with the users (customers).
Regardless of the reasons why, there is undeniably much ado about this topic and phrases such as transformation, renaissance and even metamorphosis trip easily from the pages of numerous blogs. Without doubt, this is a very refreshing development after years of what felt like shouting in the wilderness with a few others (for example, Aale Roos). It might be a bit early for breaking out the Veuve Cliquot as there are still huge swathes of ITSM functionaries out there who avert their eyes from anything that threatens the orthodoxy that they have become comfortable with over these last thirty years.
However, even amongst those who have been recently advocating for change in the sector, one can sense the lack of willingness to grasp truly transformative notions. In these instances it seems to be a case of wanting to have their cake and to eat it; that is, proselytise about the new but not revise the old. This became apparent in a recent Twitter debate about ITSM and Taylorism. One or two commentators were seemingly full of praise for Frederick Taylor’s 105-year-old theories of work and by implication its relevance to contemporary IT work. I responded by arguing that Taylorism is one of the first ideas that needs to be slain on the altar of IT transformation.
Inevitably there will be readers of this piece who will ask why. Sadly, the full answer is difficult to summarise succinctly therefore a concise précis will have to suffice. Taylor based his “scientific” principles of work design on science yes, but the science of his time – and that was Newtonian physics. Taylor’s opus was published in 1911 and the late nineteenth century physics which he studied for his earlier engineering career regarded the universe as a clockwork mechanism. Indeed, some years earlier, a famous Newtonian had stated that
equipped with unlimited calculating powers and given the complete knowledge of the dispositions of all particles at some instant of time, one could use Newton’s equations to predict the future of the whole universe
Thus armed with the idea that nineteenth century mechanistic science was universal, Taylor then applied this clockwork truth to the workplace. Out of the pages of The Principles of Scientific Management arose ideas of the manager knows best, best practice, top-down instruction and process. Oh and the production line.
Without doubt, the methods which Taylor described increased productivity and efficiency in organisations. However, there were also numerous critiques of his approach including the famous Hawthorne studies in the 1930s and many others up until the present day. Moreover, in the years between 1905 (when Einstein’s special relativity paper was published) and say 1930 (shortly after important advances in quantum mechanics), classical physics – by which we mean Newtonian – was found to contain fundamental errors.
Those with any basic knowledge of quantum mechanics will know that old clockwork conception of the natural world is false. However, this mechanistic gestalt remains at the heart of our IT service organisations courtesy of our continuing adherence to Taylor. The new physics has ripped up the Newtonian manual, and therefore clockwork and mechanisms are a flawed metaphor for our workplaces.
It must be acknowledged that at a simple level Newtonian science still works. His work still helps engineers to build bridges and tall buildings. However, the more complex phenomena which contemporary scientists are investigating – black holes, exoplanets, many worlds theory – expose the errors of the old science and require the quantum and relativistic notions in order to make progress.
The same is true for organisations. In the early twentieth century when labour was manual, the Tayloristic clockwork notions were useful. However, work today is infinitely more complex: knowledge-based, social and networked. The enterprises of today require a work metaphor based on something more advanced than a clockwork mechanism (which is no longer what science considers to be representative of nature). Organisations are complicated social entities and requires an approach based on the fuzziness and counter-intuitive notions which quantum mechanics and relativity brought to the fore.
To return to IT service, it is not possible to truly transform and grow while remaining true to Taylorism. Like classical physics, Taylorist ideas will remain useful for simple modes of work, but it is an approximation and ultimately false. To enable a real transformation of IT, Taylorism needs to be regarded as the historical artefact which it is, and to be allowed to dissolve in today’s greater truths.
Naturally, as this is the Cxi blog, it will be argued here that this truth is trichomy. Nevertheless, trichromy is in actual fact based on complexity science (complex adaptive systems to be precise) and it is this substrate which introduces the fuzziness and counter intuition into this approach, and is thus reflective of the contemporary physical science that describes the world around us.
If one remains wedded to Taylorism, advancement will be difficult or even impossible. It will be hard to break out of the particular phase that the industry finds itself. It is like choosing to remain in the post-Victorian era of steam engines, iron bridges and automobiles – when by understanding and embracing the fuzzy nature of electrons one could move into the electronic age, semiconductors and microprocessors.
Time to leave Taylor behind.