Work processes theory : Explained


Work processes theory is associated with British researchers who, following Braverman’s thesis, became interested in the evolution of capitalist production systems and the question of the control and deskilling of work processes.

Largely influenced by Marxist capitalist economics, these researchers focused on the transformations of Taylorism, Fordism and post-Fordism to understand the evolution of modes of control in the organisation.

Following the McDonaldisation thesis, according to which social and economic activities are increasingly colonised by processes of control and standards of efficiency, they seek to understand the nature of the power and forms of domination that characterise workplaces in contemporary organisations.

In the 1980s, work processes theory took over from Marxist theories of organisations. It was at the forefront of the analysis of technological change and new management and production strategies in the workplace.

Among other things, researchers adhering to this theory have taken an interest in quality management, just-in-time and new Japanese-style management techniques.

Barker’s work (1993) on forms of control in work teams is a good example of the type of research carried out along these lines in the 1990s.

In 1998, Administrative Science Quarterly devoted a special issue to the emergence of new forms of control in organisations from the perspective of work processes theory.

David Knights and Hugh Willmott. In 1990, Knights and Willmott (1990) published a book bringing together several work processes theorists. Despite the many differences between the authors, two observations stand out: the absence of the subject in the work and the difficulty of theory in contributing to the political project of workers’ emancipation. The work of the following decade focused on questions of resistance and subjectivity at work.

For example, Willmott (1997) proposes a radical reconstruction of the theory of work processes by including an analysis of the existential dimension of the processes of capital reproduction, and illustrates his point by taking the case of managerial work.

In classical critical theory, the manager is often seen as an agent of capital.

For Willmott (1997), even if managers pursue strategies aimed at making the organisation more efficient, they also share the condition of employee of the majority of their subordinates.

He therefore proposes to define managerial work by taking into account the fact that the manager, at the same time as being the agent of capital, is also commodified by the discipline of capital accumulation.

The manager is the subject and object of contradictory organisational and control processes. At the same time as the manager demands a certain performance from others in their work, he is usually, and sometimes obsessively, blinded by his own desire for performance.

At any given moment, managers are also likely to adopt various strategies of resistance to counterbalance the vagaries of capital reproduction. So work of any kind is a subjective process, in the existential sense, with implications for self-identity.

According to Willmott (1997), the theory of work processes must take account of the materiality of the human subject, which is historical and cultural, in order to understand the dynamics inherent in the reproduction of capital and labour.

For their part, Ball and Wilson (2000) examine the interpretative repertoires from which workers in two financial services companies are subjected to electronic surveillance systems in order to understand how they construct their subjectivity at work.

Seeking to bring out the links between individual and institutional discourse, they focus first and foremost on the disciplined subject at work.

Organisational discourse has a subjective effect insofar as, by using it, workers come to recognise and define themselves on the basis of this discourse. In this way, they subjectively integrate the organisation’s surveillance system. However, this process of subjectivation is far from stable and uniform.

Individuals constantly position themselves in relation to the prescribed discourse. The construction of subjectivity is a complex, dynamic and multiple process.

Examination of two similar monitoring systems in broadly comparable organisational contexts shows that the interpretative repertoires constructed by users are different. These differences can be explained in part by the organisational context, but also by differences in individual attitudes.

Finally, the authors consider it important to examine in depth the processes of subjectivation that accompany control technologies in order to gain a better understanding of the common features of the dynamics of power and resistance in the workplace.

A great deal of effort was devoted to the study of subjectivity at work in the 1990s. However, they are still insufficient to cover the whole issue. According to Smith and Thompson (1998), this question of subjectivity serves more to promote academic careers than to participate in the real transformation of power relations at work.

These authors consider that we should not abandon the analysis of objective relations of power and property relations which structure capitalism. Once again, the debate becomes one of theoretical positioning on the importance of action (subjectivity) over structure (objective labour relations).

As for the debate on the political impact of work processes theory, it continues. According to Jaros (2001), the theory of work processes provides a comprehensive critique of capitalism and offers a vision of the political in the sphere of production which makes it possible to account for the anguish which global capitalism provokes in both the factory worker in Indonesia and the professional or manager working in a technology company. However, the results of this work are not being used to promote the development of a new political programme.

This worries several researchers. Beyond the disagreements between them, work processes theorists are still wondering how to direct their research in the coming years in order to renew and, above all, revitalise critical theory.



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