Over the last decade, a pivotal theme within management and organisational research has been the identification of new industrial methodologies and technologies which focus on the generation of greater workforce commitment and flexibility. The hope is that the new information-based technologies will allow of the tenets and practices of Taylorism and Fordism, once the basis for industrial development, to be swept away, thus developing an environment of commitment and trust. This would be exemplified by “empowered” semi-autonomous units of production, where a highly trained and skilled workforce could exercise freedom and authority within a decentralised mode of control and co-ordination. (Wilson, 1995)
The introduction of information technology (IT) into organisations has brought about a techno-centric interpretation of its affects on management-worker relationships and changes in structure. However, it is more reasonable to view the changes affected by IT as goal determinant rather than technology determinant. Many authors have sought to produce a singular theory of how IT affects relationships within the organisation and the structure of the same.
However, this debate masks rather than clarifies realities about the differing roles of IT. This paper will present a conceptualisation of the uses of IT within organisations in relation to varying organisational goals and the corresponding management and worker roles. It will be shown how four different ways of categorising the use of IT within an organisation can be based on the level of worker empowerment provided by the IT and the amount of management control it is necessary to maintain.
The definition of IT used for this analysis is of the broadest possible nature. The definition given by Scott Morton is useful, broadly siting IT to consist of “computers of all types, both hardware and software; communications network, from those connecting two personal computers to the largest public and private networks; and the increasingly important integrations of computing and communications technologies…” (Scott Morton in Sharpe, 1998). Power, Authority, Control, Obedience and Initiative in the context of IT
Coombs, Knights, and Willmott (1992) set about showing how information and communication technology (ICT) is mediated by the three concepts of culture, control and competition in its affects on organisations. They postulate that ICT has a social aspect in relation to organisations in which “power and subjectivity is a means of understanding the dynamics of the practices through which the presence and power of ICT’s is interpreted, supported, resisted and redefined.” Indeed, power, authority, obedience, responsibility and control are important to understanding the role that IT plays in reorienting the relationships that constitute the structure of organisations.
Power, the ability to get things done (Kanter, 1979), is important to this discussion because the access to information afforded by the technology can have the affect of shifting power relationships. Power results from access to resources, information and support, thus power is augmented when a position provides the holder with discretion, recognition and relevance (Kanter, 1979). The three main bases of power are control of a resource, a technical skill, or a body of knowledge, which is essential to the organisation, in short supply, and non-substitutable (Mintzberg, 1983). It is then apparent that access to information or the commodification of skills that result from the introduction of IT into an organisation can change the relationship between worker and manager. IT can empower the worker and change the type of control management is able to, or desirable of applying.
The relationship between worker and manager can be characterised as one of control and obedience. The manager has control over the worker through the legitimated power that constitutes authority (Pfeffer, 1981). This authority allows the manager to subject workers to control and expect their obedience. As Pfeffer (referencing Mechanic, 1962) points out, “…what is interesting is not that subordinates accept the instructions of managers because of the greater power possessed by the managers. Rather, it is interesting that in spite of the considerable degree of power possessed by lower level employees, these employees seldom attempt to exercise their power or to resist the instruction of their managers… ” (Pfeffer, 1981).
IT changes the balance of power between management and workers within an organisation insofar as it changes lines of access to resources, information and support, or provides workers with technical skills or knowledge which make them valuable to the functioning of the body. When workers have access to IT, they may be empowered through greater access to information and technical skills. IT positions may also require higher levels of responsibility because, as IT systems integrate broad ranges of information covering various aspects of an organisation, “newly visible data becomes the responsibility of those who see it” (Zuboff, 1988). As a result of this empowerment, IT workers may also have greater access to resources and support.