IN THE AGE OF THE SMART MACHINE: The Future of Work and Power by Shoshana Zuboff

IN THE AGE OF THE SMART MACHINE: The Future of Work and Power

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The traditional corporate organization chart with its neatly boxed hierarchies may go the way of the dodo as factories and offices switch to all-out computerized automation. Zuboff (Harvard Business School) bases this and other findings on her ten-year study of eight companies: three pulp and/or paper manufacturers; the rest primarily service or financial institutions. Zuboff finds that computers dramatically change the relationship between first-line managers and workers, rendering the former almost redundant (and very uneasy) while reducing the latter to mere automatons or, conversely, providing them with the means to handle many decisions formerly relegated to supervisory personnel. Experienced operators can not only correct mistakes, but can also use the electronic brain to solve problems and even improve routine operations with little or no supervisory input. They can also tap into the central data-bank to acquire considerable corporate information hitherto restricted to managers. Managers tend to stonewall such operator initiative or co-opt the ideas as their own. Conflicts between supervisory and operating personnel, says Zuboff, prevent full use of automated systems. She suggests a reorganization of the corporate structure into a concentric circle pattern, with the electronic data-base at the core and the operators responsible for day-to-day processing at the innermost circle. All supervisory circles would have access to the data base, their ranks filled primarily by movement outward of the best-informed, most analytical, and innovative operators. Much grist for corporate mills here, especially Zuboffs detailed descriptions of the design, installation, and implementation of automated processes and their impact on different organizations. Especially eye-opening: numerous revealing quotes that lay bare the dilemmas and dislocations of automation. A major drawback for busy executives: Zuboffs ivory-tower penchant for scholarly digressions, from attitudes towards work from ancient Greece onward to the history of modern corporations. (For an even less sanguine look at office automation, see Barbara Garson's The Electronic Sweatshop, reviewed above.)

Pub Date: May 10th, 1988
ISBN: 0465032117
Publisher: Basic Books