Collaborative work culture or digital Taylorism?

By Timo Daum and translated by Matthias Leimeister

Original German version

The agile revolution

The “Manifesto for Agile Software Development” saw the light of day in early 2001. A group of 17 software experts (all men) had written it; it was going to change the way software is developed, IT projects are managed and workflows are organized. In traditional IT project management, tasks were performed sequentially, one after the other, according to a clearly defined process. The old waterfall model was characterized by a strict division of labor, clear responsibilities and isolated project phases. This often resulted in inflexible project processes, a considerable amount of control effort and excessive documentation.

The agile revolutionaries wanted to do away with this: small, self-organized teams were to develop functional prototypes and be open to customer wishes at all times. Agile method frameworks such as scrum or Kanban focus on short development cycles (sprints) of about two weeks, each of which ends with a deliverable product increment [1]. At the beginning of each sprint - a fixed period of time in which certain tasks are completed - there is a planning meeting. At this meeting, the team selects those elements (tasks) from a prioritized product backlog that are to be worked on in the upcoming sprint. The team itself estimates the scope and time required for the tasks in the form of story points. From the number of completed story points per time unit, the average performance of the entire team can be calculated at any time, the so-called velocity.

The team plans its own tasks. Teamwork, self-organisation and personal responsibility of the team become central. The shorter project cycles are complemented by new roles - in scrum, for example, the classic project manager is replaced by the product owner, who is supposed to bring the customer perspective into the project. The scrum master, on the other hand, is more of a coach than a classic supervisor.

The new management methods are also popular among left-wingers, as they promise a more humane working culture that relies on teamwork, personal responsibility and flat hierarchies. In the trade union context, there is a shift to co-management, for example, the joint project “Good Agile Project Work” examines “how agile teams can be supported in self-organisation”. [2]

They are even mentioned in the same breath as technologies and practices such as open source, open standards and citizen participation. For example, the action plan for the digital city of Barcelona envisages “the introduction of user-friendly digital services using agile methods”, and the administration as a whole is to become “more agile and willing to experiment”. [3] The agile consultant Mishkin Berteig even wonders whether these “collaborative techniques” have emancipatory potential and could serve “across organisations” as a “replacement” for capitalism. [4]

In software development, agile management has become the standard, but it has an effect far beyond that. Zalando, for example, has elevated agility to a corporate philosophy (radical agility), which is based on “behavioral and systems theoretical approaches”. [5]  They are also preferred in the creative industry when it comes to the rapid development of products and services. Agile methods have become particularly popular with start-ups, but in recent years they have also been gaining ground in traditional industries, such as the automotive group Daimler, whose IT strategy (“Twice As Fast”) has been relying increasingly on agile methods since 2015. Fast change, flexible teams and short release cycles are key to this: “Teams must react immediately and flexibly,” says IT Director and CIO Jan Brecht, “measurable digital surplus value” is the goal. [6]

The project replaces the factory

Large corporations such as SAP, Bosch and others also set up their own in-house start-ups or organize project work around teams that are organized like small companies. What has become a tradition in the film industry, for example - teams meet temporarily for a project and then split up again afterwards - is becoming a role model. Fixed departments with rigid hierarchies are pushed back and replaced by agile projects. The project becomes the central paradigm of digital companies.

Already at the turn of the millennium, the economist Ève Chiapello and the sociologist Luc Boltanski described the arrival of a new management culture and subsequently a change in the associated values, life plans and ideas. According to the two Frenchmen, a “new spirit of capitalism” had developed, replacing the old “spirit of capitalism” (Max Weber), for which a Protestant work ethic was central and which was also characterised by loyalty to the company and integration into hierarchies. What used to be the factory is now the project and “being active means creating projects and joining projects”. [7]

The factory will be replaced by the project as the central paradigm of both the new management culture and work organisation. In the project world, workers and employees in fixed departments with rigid hierarchies will become teamers with changing roles and tasks. Fixed job descriptions are transformed into changing roles in alternating projects. The supervisor has been replaced by the coach, who acts more like a yoga teacher than a sergeant and is both role model and buddy. “Regardless of whether the work teams consist of several employees or just one, they do not need a supervisor but a coach,” the business gurus Michael Hammer and James Champy already wrote in 1993. [8]

Digital Taylorism

Frederick W. Taylor developed the discipline of Scientific Management, which set itself the task of fine-grained analysis, rationalization and maximum acceleration of all work processes. The stopwatch has become a notorious symbol of this. [9] Adjustment, timing, measurement and acceleration have always been means of dominating and controlling workforces, as the American Marxist Harry Braverman repeatedly emphasized in his investigations of work in Taylorism. [10]

It seems to be far away from today’s agile work environment. One common element is the division into small work pieces (stories, tickets, or tasks) in working with Scrum, for example, supported by software for tracking the digital workflow. The ergonomist Ursula Huws calls this division into the smallest work steps, which are digitally tracked and processed by employees who are constantly logged in, a “triple logged labor”: First, the work is broken down into small pieces, into standardized units (logged); second, the employees are “logged in” to digital work environments at all times; and third, all their activities are logged and recorded for future analysis: “Logged labor is becoming the new standard.” [11]

Also, flat hierarchies and new roles are matched by radical transparency: What each project participant is currently doing is visible to everyone. The team is always up to date on all activities of the team members, and activity feeds generate a constant stream of performance data. This monitoring is done by the team itself, not by an external entity. Here again, the goal is to a lesser extent external control, but rather the self-motivation of the team.

The new roles must be practiced, the new values and principles internalized, the twelve commandments of the agile manifesto must be followed. The agile team members have to endure this change or shape it themselves; team commitment and project enthusiasm are mandatory. One must believe in the product, the company or the success of the team. Enthusiasm is commented and evaluated in feedback rounds (retro), writes Nicholas Stark in an article on agile corporate culture: “Team BBQs with flat hierarchies often only conceal pressure to perform and poor working conditions.” [12]

The brave new world of small teams, parcelled tasks and lively project communication also contains methods of measurement, control and performance improvement in a new form.  The team itself takes control, not only monitoring the progress of work, but also seeing it as its primary goal to increase the velocity. The Taylorist supervisor, armed with stopwatch and clipboard, has only superficially disappeared in the agile working world - he has been shifted to the inside and has become invisible. The team is now exercising “scientific management” on itself, so to speak.

Furthermore, the team members are burdened with additional “affective work” by the agile working methods, they have to cope with the technical challenges and the sustainable pace of the team. “Workers are expected to self-manage the impact of constant change through emotional management and affective control. Managing change thus becomes an all-of-life responsibility, where wellbeing is a worker’s remit.” writes researcher Phoebe Moore. [13]

The whole life as a project

Management methods penetrate our private lives and force us into roles that originate in project management. The waterfall model as a project management ideal has worn out, and biographies are also becoming increasingly non-linear; agility is demanded in all situations in life, not excluding senior citizens. They as well must always be active, the well-deserved retirement from the past days of fordist biographies with a clear sequence of events has become obsolete. The project has long since left the domain of work - the whole life becomes a project and managed in an agile way. Self improvement literature provides the soundtrack for this, “Emotional Agility”, as the book title by life coach Susan David proclaims agile methods for self-management: “get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life” [14]

In the course of the “new spirit of capitalism”, self-optimization, lifelong learning, entrepreneurial validation of one’s own work and biography become a constant companion for every individual. Charles Hardy, the philosopher and author of The Age of Unreason, had similar thoughts back in the 1980s when he proposed “replacing the traditional concept of work with the concept of a portfolio of areas of activity in which everyone is active for their own account.” [15]  The project replaces the factory, the self-entrepreneur replaces the employee and makes the further development and improvement of one’s own employability a matter for the boss: “Understanding oneself as a company and looking at it through the eyes of potential customers” - this is how sociologist Ulrich Bröckling described this new self-image as early as 2004.

In all situations of life we are now called upon to measure ourselves, to take action, to take risks, to become our own CEO. As individuals, we are asked to look at ourselves as entrepreneurs. Our own self becomes human capital and must consequently be optimised in terms of business management: staying on a diet, going to the gym - no aspect of life is left out when optimizing. Quantified Self is the realization of Taylor’s program of a scientific management of the resource of living labor, this time shifted into the individual.

[1] See e.g. Agile Alliance:  www.agilealliance.org/.

[2] Verbundprojekt diGAP, Schwerpunktgruppe «Projekt- und Teamarbeit in der digitalisierten Arbeitswelt», unter: gute-agile-projektarbeit.de.

[3]  Morozov, Evgeny/Francesca, Bria: Die smarte Stadt neu denken. Wie urbane Technologien demokratisiert werden können, hrsg. von der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Berlin 2017, S. 34 u. 35.

[4] Berteig, Mishkin: Lean, Agile and Capitalism – Just a Thought, 18.12.2006, unter: www.agileadvice.com/2006/12/18/uncategorized/lean-agile-and-capitalism-just-a-thought.

[5] Lemke, Claudia/Brenner, Walter/Kirchner, Kathrin: Zalando Radical Agility: Vom Online-Retailer zur Fashion Plattform, in: Dies.: Einführung in die Wirtschaftsinformatik, Berlin/Heidelberg 2017, S. 26.

[6] Konzern IT Daimler, eine Sonderedition von automotiveIT, 2/2019, S. 5;  Ausgabe 5, 2019, S. 54 u. 56.

[7] Boltanski, Luc/Chiapello, Ève: Der neue Geist des Kapitalismus, Konstanz 2006, S. 156.

[8] Hammer, Michael/Champy, James: Business reengineering: die Radikalkur für das Unternehmen, Frankfurt a.M./New York 1995.

[9] Taylor, Frederick Winslow: The Principles of Scientific Management, New York 1911.

[10] Braverman, Harry: Die Arbeit im modernen Produktionsprozeß, Frankfurt a.M. 1977.

[11] Huws, Ursula: Logged In. The new economy makes it harder than ever to untangle capitalism from our daily lives, in Jacobin, 1.6.2016, unter: www.jacobinmag.com/2016/01/huws-sharing-economy-crowdsource-precarity-uber-workers.

[12] Stark, Nicholas: Arbeitsbedingungen bei Startups: Brave New Work, in: die tageszeitung, 15.1.2018, unter: www.taz.de/!5499407.

[13] Moore, Phoebe: Quantified Self in the Workplace, S. 242.

[14] David, Susan A. Emotional agility : get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life. New York: Avery an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016.

[15] Handy, Charles B. The age of unreason. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 1989.

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