Employee Engagement: Workers of the world, unite!

Karl Marx, the Division of Labor, and Employee Engagement

One of the single most important elements of industrial efficiency and technical progress is the concept of “division of labor.” The original thesis behind division of labor was stated succinctly by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, with his classic description of the pin factory, where each task was divided into standardized steps to be completed more cost-efficiently by different people and machines. When an analogous principle is applied to nation-states we get the theory of comparative advantage, which underlies the benefits of free trade. Both division of labor and comparative advantage presume that people can perform separate tasks and then trade with each other for mutual benefit. Trading is critical. Without trading, among people and nation-states alike, progress is stunted.
By dividing labor and trading for mutual benefit we have now progressed to the point where virtually every artifact around us that is “man-made” can only be produced through the collective efforts of many, organized in a way that is far too complex for top-down management (or state planning), and using expertise that no single individual can possibly possess on his or her own. The economist Leonard Read may be most famous today for an essay he wrote more than 50 years ago to illustrate this point, using an ordinary wooden pencil as his example.

As simple as a pencil is, he says, “not a single person on the face of this earth” knows how to make it! Why? Just consider the task of harvesting the cedar wood for making the pencil, using saws and axes, ropes and other gear. Of course, you’d first have to mine and smelt the ore to make these tools, then raise and prepare the food to feed the lumberjacks, clear the land for a road, manufacture and assemble the flatcars or trucks that will ship the wood to the mill, and even pour the concrete for the hydroelectric dam to provide the mill’s power. You’d also have to travel to Sri Lanka to mine the graphite for the pencil’s core, mixing it with clay enriched with ammonium hydroxide, and then combining the mixture with wetting agents made from sulfonated tallow. Finally, you’d have to cut the graphite mixture to size, dry it and bake it at almost 2000 degrees Fahrenheit before treating it with a hot mixture composed of candelilla wax, paraffin, and hydrogenated natural fats. Read’s point is not just that no single human being could ever do all these things, but that no single human being even knows how to do all these things. No one. (Quick: Have you ever heard of candelilla wax or sulfonated tallow? Could you recognize graphite when it is in the ground, before being mined?)
Pin factory or lead pencils, in other words, division of labor and economic progress clearly go hand in hand.
But carried to its logical extreme, division of labor has a dark side as well. Frederick Taylor’s landmark theory of “scientific management” was famous for its controversial contention that the best laborer would be a tireless and unthinking automaton.
Enter Stage Left: Karl Marx. More than 150 years ago he suggested that sooner or later workers of the world would unite against their capitalist oppressors. One of the reasons he gave for this prediction was that specialized work was alienating. Marx believed that workers who were tasked with doing repetitive, uniform tasks became disconnected not only from the completed products that would give their work meaning, but from themselves and from their essence as human beings, as well. Today, we would say that such workers are “disengaged” in their work. “Engagement” is one of those fashionable management terms that can have a range of exact meaning, but Hay Group’s definition of employee engagement is good enough: “a result achieved by stimulating employees’ enthusiasm for their work and directing it toward organizational success.”
Division of labor, scientific management and the alienation of the worker are all concepts that pre-date information technology. The modern production process doesn’t need efficient workers to be automatons, robotically inserting Tab A into Slot B eight hours a day at the pin factory in order to collect their pay. This is something easily automated. But technology is a two-edged sword. When we aren’t conscious of the human need to be engaged and interested in the work to be done, technology can alienate even the information worker. Dan Ariely, in his new book The Upside of Irrationality, tells an interesting story of his own research assistant, Jay. Jay is an information worker, in that he spends most of his day managing Ariely’s research projects and budgets. But according to Ariely,

“…accounting software he used daily required him to fill in numerous fields on the appropriate electronic forms, sending these e-forms to other people, who filled in a few more fields, who in turn sent the e-forms to someone else, who approved the expenses and subsequently passed them to yet another person, who actually settled the accounts. Not only was poor Jay doing only a small part of a relatively meaningless task, but he never had the satisfaction of seeing this work completed.”

When it is used more thoughtfully, however, technology also allows us to re-integrate the mechanical tasks assigned to individual people, engaging them in their work and improving their enthusiasm and output simultaneously. When a customer service representative is allowed to handle a complaint as a “case” to be tracked from first call to final resolution, for instance, or when a line engineer at an automobile assembly plant suggests a better way to handle a technical support process – these are both examples of how labor is being re-integrated. It is information technology and the increasingly efficient electronic connections we make with others that allow this to happen. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, in their book Wikinomics, suggest that ubiquitous electronic connectivity is changing the very nature of work, making it “more cognitively complex, more team-based and collaborative, more dependent on social skills, more time pressured, more reliant on technological competence, more mobile, and less dependent on geography.” Because of this, they suggest, firms are decentralizing their decision making, relying more and more on individual initiative and responsibility.
Another way to view this is that computer technology now allows us to divide labor not by the rote, physical steps involved in manufacturing and assembly, but by the actual planning and decision-making processes involved in managing these steps. In effect, rather than just trading physical tasks and manual skills with each other to improve productivity, we are using technology to trade ideas and insights to improve productivity. And our rate of technological progress and economic growth is accelerating as we continue to move “up market” with the division-of-labor concept.
So, as social media tools allow ever more pervasive, immediate, and complex communication and collaboration among people, it may be that the ultimate form of “division of labor” is not turning people into alienated automatons at all. Instead, it will eventually involve replacing hierarchical, top-down organizations with self-organized social groups of individuals, each pursuing a commonly agreed set of goals. We can catch glimpses of this future now, from large companies such as Cisco and ExxonMobil flattening their organization charts to push decision-making down down down, to retailers and up-and-coming firms such as Best Buy and Zappos encouraging their individual employees to use their Twitter accounts to distribute the customer-service task more effectively.
Workers of the world, unite!