Rhetoric and the Politics of Workplace Innovation
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Rhetoric and the Politics of Workplace Innovation

Struggling with Empowerment and Modernization

Martin Beirne

This book provides a critical insight into the ongoing debates and controversies that surround employee empowerment and workplace innovation. It highlights competing interests and conflicting values, and illuminates some basic tensions between confident rhetoric and everyday realities.
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Chapter 3: Technology and user empowerment

Struggling with Empowerment and Modernization

Martin Beirne


The search for alternative and progressive forms of organization has been heavily influenced by reflections upon the nature and role of work technology. Since the Tavistock mining studies (Trist and Bamforth, 1951; Trist et al., 1963), researchers have been acutely aware that there are choices to be made about the organization of human activity around a given technology (Benders et al., 2006). Rejecting the fatalistic argument that technology strictly determines the conduct and experience of work, enthusiasts have claimed space for humanization, even around Fordist technologies, as the previous chapter indicated. By the late 1970s, however, this sense of choice and capacity for influence had developed to include the design and shaping of the technology itself, as opposed to job (re)design after the fact of its creation. Socio-technical systems theorists were again at the forefront of research and activism. Indeed, it is possible to discern a second wave of interest in the principles of socio-technical design as debates around the development and deployment of computer and communications technology progressed through the 1980s (Beirne and Ramsay, 1988). With the growing realization that organizations faced problems in harnessing the most sophisticated technology, critical accounts of rationalistic tendencies and influences on the workplace resurfaced (Mowshowitz, 1980; Briefs et al., 1983). Perceptive authors realized that organizational problems were constraining technological innovation, and that this offered new opportunities, access to a new area, and a means of taking the reform message to an important category of professional actors, technologists and computing scientists (Mumford, 1983, 2003).

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