1996 - Changing status in jobs
Have you ever been working at
a computer terminal when it breaks down? What
do you do? Perhaps you call the switchboard because
this does not happen to you every day.
Very soon a man appears - a technician.
There is a slight chance it could be a woman but
it is almost always a man. He is wearing a shirt
and tie and carrying a case in which he has screwdrivers
and pliers. He asks you some questions rather
like a doctor asking a patient where it hurts.
You and your terminal are completely
in his hands. He carries out the repair and disappears
into that mysterious place where technicians live.
So where does he fit into the scheme of things?
Is he a worker or a manager?
Professor Stephen Barley of Stanford
University says in a new paper, The New World
of Work, published by the British-North American
Committee, that we have become conditioned to
'western images of work rooted in several fundamental
polarities: mental/manual, clean/dirty, educated/uneducated,
white collar/blue collar, manager/worker'.
'The first and last term of each
polarity,' he writes, 'anchors the upper and lower
end of a system of status and prestige.'
Our images are confused by the
computer technician who carries tools like a manual
worker but wears a tie like a manager and talks
and thinks like the specialist he is.
Is the technician, along with
the professional, about to inherit the Earth?
If they are, there seems to be little evidence
of company managements allowing it to happen.
Few managements appear to possess technical expertise
in computer systems, yet almost all are making
decisions about installing or upgrading computer
systems in their businesses. How long can this
Barley argues that the job of
technician, traditionally a humble role not highly
rewarded, is growing increasingly important across
the globe with the expansion of science and technology.
He quotes research by the US science historian,
Derek J. de Solla Price, into the exponential
expansion of scientific knowledge since the 17th
century. Price observed that 90 per cent of all
scientists who have ever lived are alive today.
Barley is joining those futurologists
who believe we are entering a new industrial age
which is fundamentally altering the organisation
of work. As previous columns have noted, it is
a controversial area lacking strong empirical
Some academics have criticised
such predictions, arguing that they are often
too influenced by trips to Silicon Valley and
anecdotal experience. That said, there can be
little argument that computers are having an ever-increasing
influence on our lives. The systems which run
them are attracting an army of skilled, often
self-employed people, whose terms are either negotiated
individually or by a sourcing agency.
Jobs such as programmer, systems
analyst, operations researcher, computer operator
and computer repair technician are among the fastest
growing, says Barley, who notes that in north
America alone they are expected to provide employment
for 2.3m people, or 1.6 per cent of its labour
force, by the millennium.
He discusses their impact on
managerial and secretarial jobs, suggesting that
much management will take on a co-ordinating role
between teams of professionals. A study of secretaries
at Cornell University found that the spread of
personal computers was changing the nature of
a secretarial job into that of an administrative
or research assistant.
In those circumstances, it may
be perceived that the definitions of secretarial
and management work are beginning to merge, yet
there remains, in most cases, a large gulf between
the reward, status and qualifications for the
Barley predicts that the technological
revolution will produce a more horizontal division
of labour, with significant consequences for management.
He writes: 'Management's traditional source of
legitimacy will begin to wane. Unless managers
are technically trained, their claims to be arbiters
of technical issues will ring increasingly hollow
to employees. Preliminary research suggests that
technical workers widely believe executives to
be out of touch with the work of the organisations
Barley adds: 'The likelihood
is that managers, unable to make knowledgeable
decisions autocratically, will find themselves
relegated to the important but less heady role
Having said this, he does not
deny that managerial hierarchy and technical expertise
can work hand in hand, citing the balance achieved
by the military.
His observations do not take
account of the spread of technical work, particularly
of computer data processing, to the emerging nations
of Asia. The mobility of much computer work, which
can be transmitted in seconds across the world,
is bound to have an impact on labour costs, while
the ability to skills-source globally will surely
remain in the domain of management.
Barley argues, nevertheless,
that schools and colleges may need to re-orient
the career aspirations of children, upgrading
the importance of a technical career.
The New World of Work is
published by British-North American Research Association
(UK), Grosvenor Gardens House, 35-37 Grosvenor
Gardens, London SW1W OBS, price £10.
as a pdf file