Complexity of Technology Employed in the Industry as the Prime Cause of Alienation in the Workplace

Introduction

Increasing range and complexity of technological developments employed in various industries has had dramatic implications on professional and even personal lives for many employees, along with impacting organisational culture.

This article aims to assess the complexity of the technology employed in the industry as the prime cause of alienation in the workplace. The article starts with discussion of Marx’s Theory of Alienation followed by Blauner’s Theory of Technology and Alienation. Moreover, the article addresses a set of other relevant theoretical frameworks and approaches such as Nichools and Beynon’s (1977) criticism of Blauner and a brief analyses of studies conducted by Gallie (1978) and Zuboff (1988).

It has been stated that “in the workplace the feeling of alienation mean that the individual has lost control over the process of production” (Sharma, 1998, p.22). Generally, alienation can be defined as “the feeling of being powerless to control one’s own destiny; a worker’s feeling of powerlessness caused by inability to control the work process” (Kronblum, 2011, p.474) and alienation is justly considered as an important issue from sociological viewpoint.

Marx’s Theory of Alienation in the Workplace

Marx specifies four types of alienation – alienation between worker and the work, alienation between workers, alienation of worker from the product, and alienation of worker from the process of work. Famously, Marx blames capitalism for the emergence of all of above types of alienation.

It has to be noted that certain aspects of Marxist ideology including Theory of Alienation has been challenged from within communists by some philosophers such as Milovan Djilas, whereas different group communist philosophers such as Louis Pierre Althusser voiced against initiatives directed towards revising theoretical foundations of Marxism (Rehmann, 2013).

Assessment of the impact of technology on the emergence of each of these types of alienation increases depth of this discussion. Specifically, with the increasing levels of technological integration into various organisational processes the effects of technology on alienation between worker and the process of work can be assessed as substantial compared to its impact on the levels of alienation between worker and the work itself.

At the same time, effects of complexity of technology on alienation between workers and alienation of worker from the process of work is a contradictory issue and dependents on a set of factors such as personal characteristics of each employee, organisational culture, nature of the industry and others.

Blauner’s Theory of Technology and Alienation in the Workplace

According to Blauner’s Theory of Technology and Alienation technology can cause alienation at workplaces to cease. The theory is based on Blauner’s (1964) in-depth analysis of four industries that represent different stages of technological development and integration: printing, textiles, automobiles, and chemicals.

Printing industry is found by Blauner as complex, yet rewarding and therefore employees engaged in this industry are found to enjoy a great level of job satisfaction, and the levels of employee alienation is found to be low.

Textiles industry is associated with a greater level of technological integration compared to printing industry and the extent of workforce alienation tends to be greater as well, partially due to repetitive nature of their tasks.

Automobiles industry integrates technology at an even greater extent in manufacturing processes compared to industries discussed above; however, employees working in car-assembly lines have highly repetitive and alienated type of work.

Chemicals industry, on the contrary, employs workforce who are not alienated despite high levels of integration of different technologies in manufacturing processes. According to these observations, inverted U-curve of technology and alienation illustrated below increasing levels of technological integration in industries decreases the levels of alienation at the workplace in long-term perspective.

Alienation in the Workplace

The main differences between works of Marx and Blauner relate to the nature of approach adopted towards the issue of alienation. Specifically, “Blauner’s view of alienation was subjective and entirely linked to workers’ feelings, whereas Marx regarded alienation as an objective state in the relations of production” (Crowther and Geen, 2004, p.72).

The primary cause of alienation marks another difference between the works of Marx and Blauner. Capitalistic functioning of market is specified by Marx as the primary cause of alienation, whereas Blauner considers technology as cause of alienation at relevant stages of its integration. At the same time works of Marx and Blauner have similarities as well, and these include acknowledgement of importance of alienation at its significant social and economic implications.

The work of Blauner has been criticised for assuming that high level of technological integration is possible for all industries and neglecting the impact of industry-specific factors. Another critique of Blauner’s work relates to his functionalist approach and neglecting the bases of inequalities, as well as, for neglecting the issues of ownership.

Relevance of Blauner’s Theory of Technology and Alienation real-life business environment has been neither convincingly confirmed, nor rejected since its introduction half a century ago. This fact may be explained by pointing to the impact of a set of additional factors to employee alienation that are not taken into account by Blauner (Crowther and Geen, 2004).

Nichools and Beynon’s (1977) Criticism of Blauner

Along with criticism of Blauner’s work discussed above, a research conducted by Nichols and Beynon (1977) found generalisation done by Blauner in relation to industries to compromise his theory to a great extent. Specifically, Nichols and Beynon (1977) conducted a research comprising seven chemical plants, and their findings indicate that only a fraction of employees within six plants were engaged in control room operations as proposed by Blauner (Kirby et al.,2000).

Moreover, findings of Nichols and Beynon (1977) further indicate that the level of technological integration in an industry does not have to be strongly negatively correlated with the numbers of employees doing manual tasks. In other words, no matter how intensive is the development and integration of technology in the industry; still there will be need for employees to perform a range of manual tasks.

Gallie’s (1978) Observation about Causes of Alienation

Another prominent research in this area relates to the work of Gallie (1978), who observed indifference towards the work amongst the majority of employees that were working in automated industries. According to Gallie (1978), style of management and the level of involvement of employees in decision-making processes are effect their alienation at work to a greater extent compared to the type and extent of technology used (Doda, 2005).

Moreover, according to this viewpoint organisational culture is one of the major determinants of the extent of alienation at work. Gallie (1978) finds a negative correlation between the level of employee involvement in decision-making process and the levels of alienation at work. In other words, according to this approach regardless of the extent of integration of technology, employees do feel less alienated at work if they feel their involvement in decision-making processes.

The role of top-level management is specifically stressed by Gallie (1978) in terms of decreasing the extent of alienation at work in a way that senior management is recommended to communicate the perception of involvement of employees at all levels in management decision-making processes.

Additional elements of organisational culture impacting alienation at workplace are found as the quality of management-employee communications, the relevance of bureaucracy in various organisational processes, extent of use of intangible motivational tools at the workplace etc (Furze et al, 2011).

Zuboff’s (1988) Study and Impact of Computers on Workforce

In another study Zuboff (1988) finds great potential of technology in terms of creating jobs and increasing capacity of employees to be more effective, as well as, efficient. Zubov’s (1988) research is based on field study that comprise the timeframe of more than a decade of observation of environments in which employees were learning to use computers, and therefore it is a popular source of reference for many other studies within the same research area.

Zuboff’s  (1988) findings indicate that computers can have both – empowering, as well as, alienating impact on work environments, and the nature of the impact in each specific case depends on the type of management approach on organisation of work in general, and use of computers in particular.

Specifically, technology and computers can have immense positive impact on organisational climate and the levels of employee motivation when they contribute to the level of knowledge of employees and assist in many other ways in terms of performing job duties (Warschauer, 2001). At the same time, Zuboff (1988) finds that computers may have alienating impact as well when they are used to monitor employee performance and perform the thinking part of employee’s jobs. Accordingly, Zuboff (1988) holds organisational managers responsible for the nature of impact of computers on alienation at work.

Conclusions

Alienation at workplace is an important issue from sociological and economic perspectives because it has direct and significant implications on the levels of well-being of people and this issue also affects the state of the national economy.

On the basis of discussions above, this paper confirms the impact of increasing range and complexity of technological developments on workforce alienation. However, the extent of alienation is different in each individual case and depends on a range of factors such as personal characteristics of each employee, organisational culture, nature of the industry and others.

In other words, confirming observations of Zuboff (1988) to a certain extent, it can be argued that leadership style in organisations, the manner of work organisation and the nature of organisational culture play critical role in determining the impact of technology on employee motivation or alienation.

Therefore, organisational managers are recommended to be communicating with their subordinates in a regular manner in order to assess the impact of technology on their performance by taking a holistic approach and introduce a work process re-engineering whenever necessary in order to achieve maximum benefit from technology in terms of increasing employee motivation and achieving organisational objectives more effectively.

References

Blauner, R. (1964) “Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry” The University of Chinago Press

Crowther, D. & Green, M. (2004) “Organisational Theory” CIPD

Doda, Z. (2005) “Introduction to Sociology” Debub University

Furze, B., Savy, P., Brym, R. & Lie, J. (2011) “ Sociology in Today’s World” Cengage Learning

Kirby, M., Kidd, W., Koubel, F., Barter, J., Hope, T., Kirton, A., Madry, N., Manning, P. & Triggs, K. (2000) “Sociology in Perspective” Heinemann

Nickson, D. (2012) “Human Resource Management for the Hospitality and Tourism Industries” Routledge

Rehmann, J. (2013) “Theories of Ideology: The Powers of Alienation and Subjection” John Wiley & Sons

Sharma, R.K. (1998) “Social Disorganisation” Atlantic Publishers and Distributors

Warschauer, M. (2001) “Does the Internet Bring Freedom” Available at: http://www.gse.uci.edu/person/warschauer_m/freedom.html

Zuboff, S. (1988) “In the Age of the Smart Machine: the future of work and power” Basic Books