Why Taylorism prevails in the knowledge economy (and what to do about it)


I have been blogging quite substantially about Lean Management lately and I have noticed a common purpose with Agile methodologies (which get me blogging 4 years ago) and Enterprise 2.0 (which has kept #hypertextual busy for the last 2 years) : they all address complexity and permanent change, the key characteristics of our business world. This is one of the key ideas of the great book by Yves Caseau Processus & Entrerprise 2.0 [FR].

They also all fight the same plague : the standard hierarchical organization inherited from Frederick Winslow Taylor, and its specific characteristics : division of labor, strong hierarchy, economy of scale, centralized decisions, command and control management, top down processes etc …

They don’t fight it because it’s uncool (even though it deadly is) but because it does not work in the 21st century. We now have many evidences that this type of organisations is not appropriate in an economy where complexity and perpetual change are the rules (for french readers, refer to this awesome interview by french paleo-anthropologist Pascal Picq).

Peter Drucker has taught us that in the knowledge economy the main sources of wealth are knowledge and innovation. Gary Hamel and John Hagel both stressed how fostering employees passion is critical for organisations to thrive.

While Lean, Agile and Enterprise 2.0 lie on the Republican Side (Douglas McGregor‘s Theory Y), Taylorism lies on the Dark Side (Theory X). Let’s make it clear : such vertical and hierarchical organisations as the latter don’t scale in this horizontal and networked world.

Yet, it still prevails. The questions are how come and what can we do about it … (warning long truck ahead)

The Irony of knowledge economy

An irony in some product organizations is that the manufacturing engineers have revolutionized and adopted lean production, moving away from “economies of scale” toward flow and flexibility in small batches without waste. But these lessons—which fit well to New Product Development —remain unused by development management, who continue to apply practices found in older economies-of-scale manufacturing management. (Craig Larman, Bas Vodde – Lean Primer)

This irony basically applies to the whole knowledge economy. We use the latest technologies, we mention innovation in every other sentences and yet we lag behind manufacturing in terms of management innovation as they’ve successfully implemented Lean Management.

Gary Hamel presents the same problem in a far more direct way in The Future of Management :

Right now, your company has 21st-century Internet-enabled business processes, mid-20th-century management processes, all built atop 19th-century management principles.

Empire University

In his inspiring speak during Agile Tour in Bordeaux [FR], Laurent Bossavit (director of French Agile Institute) told us that when he integrates fresh graduates on a project from software engineering schools, the first thing he teaches them is to forget what they’ve learned.

Interestingly enough, David Heinemeier Hansson makes a pretty similar statement regarding MBA’s in this great video of a talk he gave in Stanford : to succed in today’s world, you need to Unlearn Your MBA.

Something we find in the The Future of Management. Gary Hamel is on the same wavelength and provides examples of exceptional leaders (WL Gore,  John McKey, Larry Page …) who didn’t have management educational background and who innovated in management because they never were told what NOT to do during an MBA.

Reason #1 : Taylorism prevails because this is main management philosophy taught in university to tomorrow leaders.

Action #1 : As Laurent Bossavit rightly said : if we want alternative organisation approaches to thrive, we (evangelists, practictioners, etc …) need to create close relationships with universities (Technology and Business), and spread these philosophies amongst the students.

Behavioural Sciences

This defiance towards business school also is depicted in the famous article Management Myth article where the author argues that you don’t need MBA to be a good manager but a degree in philosophy.

The impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.

Complexity and Permanent Change probably are the main characteristics of today’s economy. In his talk at Lean IT Summit, Steve Bell drawn on Ben Zimmerman and Sholom Glouberman study on complicated and complex systems and insisted on the relative importance of Behavioural Sciences versus Technology to solve complex problems.

This echoes Jamie Pappas statement in Enterprise 2.0 Conference : “to thrive in social business requires more soft skills than hard skills”.

I’m not sure about MBA’s (we even have in France an Enterprise 2.0 Institute under the lead of Richard Collin). But for sure, these sciences are not taught in IT Universities as Laurent Bossavit noted.

Reason # 2 : Taylorism prevails because this need to tackle complexity with Behavioural Sciences is not taught in university to tomorrow leaders.

Action #2 : If we want people on organisations to understand the complexity we are in, to be able to assess how appropriate Lean/Agile/Enterprise 2.0 are to tackle it and how inappropriate Taylorism is, we need to add Cognitive and Behavioural sciences in their curriculum and trainings.

The Sith

(Disclosure : I’ve been a manager for the last 7 years).

During Lean IT Summit, many speakers mentioned the need of a fundamental management shift, from managers to teachers and enablers. Pierre Pezziardi, Daniel Jones, Michael Ballé, Yves Caseau : all mentioned this at some point in their speak.

This is another common point with Agile and Enterprise 2.0. Incidentally, this also is one of the main obstacle to adoption. We are humans, we like power and we are not so keen on getting out of our comfort zone.

So why people having power and an enviable social status would accept giving up on these assets and get into something new ? Why would they put themselves in a position where they need to learn new ways of getting things done ? Why would they spend their energy putting people in the best position to succeed, and losing all the credit they used to get from their team work ?

Besides, as Yves Caseau explains in his enlightening book [FR], learning requires humility. Managers enjoying their status are not really subject to humility. Not to mention that more often than not they were graduates in exclusive schools where, there again, humility is not one of the most important part of the curriculum.

Reason #3 : Managers are much keener on enjoying their power & status than giving it away to learn a new way of getting things done.

Action #3 : While evangelising, spend significant amount of time and energy on showing how important managers are in this new frame. A good model to base this on could be The middle-up-down model advocated by Nonaka and Takeushi (the godfathers of the Scrum Agile framework) in the Knowledge Creative Company essay :

“Middle Managers play a key role in the knowledge creation process. They synthetize the tacit knowledge of both front-line employees and senior executives, make it explicit, and incorporate it into new products and technologies”

Operational Benefits and credibility

This another great takeaway from Laurent Bossavit talk : he admit that Agile Evangelists should do a much better job in bringing factual evidences of how well it works.

The Standish group has regularly presented Agile Methodologies as Software Projects success factor : this is a great starting point. Another opportunity Agile community could make the most of is the is the Agile PMI certification. This is a massive step towards business recognition of Agile methods capabilities. Yet the Agile community is mostly against the very idea of certification : this shows a bad understanding of corporate psyche : this really is adding needless obstacles on the path of adoption.

This is the exact problem Deloitte decided to address in their Social Software for business performance improvements for Enterprise 2.0 : showing results achieved by Social Software in terms of operational benefits.

In that respect, there is no doubt on how efficient Lean Management is as we have bucket loads of data proving how efficient this approach is.

Reason #4 : Taylorism prevails because Agile / Enterprise 2.0 don’t provide enough credibility and factual data regarding what  they’re bringing in terms of operational benefits.

Action #4 : Do not (only) rely on “rah rah” rhetoric to sell the case of Agile/Enterprise 2.0. Provide regular scientifically measured set of data proving the value of these methodologies as Lean has been doing ever since it appeared. Besides, encourage any institutional initiative that will improve credibility of these approaches as per corporate culture.

Anti-Taylorists of the world unite

During the researches I’ve been doing related to Lean, I’ve noticed some tensions between Lean and Agile communities. How sad. Michael Ball in a belligerent mood during Lean IT Summit, David P Joyce and Peter Middleton presenting Lean Kanban as a competitor to Agile methodologies, Jeff Sutherland drawing on Nonaka and Takeushi to minimize Lean influence and sing the superiority of Scrum.

I understand this can be identified as passion for the topic they’ve been working for. But eventually, this serves only one purpose : making Taylorism and bureaucracy as we know it feel secure and not really challenged in our organisation.

Reason #5 : Lean / Agile quarrels provide Legacy Management with ammunitions to discredit them both and to maintain the status quo.

Action #5 : If we really want to give Taylorism and last century forms of management a go, we should unite to try to bring Taylorism down rather than losing time and credibility in trivial skirmishes arguing what is the best approach to get things done. The thing we know for sure is that it’s not Taylorism : this is the black star to bring down.


  1. 45 links in the article. Are you sure people are going to read them all?

    Is it enough to show you’ve read some stuff before writing this article? sure it is.

    But it also shows you seem to have problems with speaking (thinking?) by yourself. You really should speak with your words, not the others’.

  2. Hi Arcae, this is a good point indeed. Thanks for reading (and counting the links !)

    The name of this blog is hypertextual. I strongly believe hypertext links are the greatest value of the internet as it allows to connect ideas and make this connection activable and real-time. I understand it may be confusing/boring to have all these links while reading. Yet, I believe there is more value in showing the links so that people can follow them afterwards if they would than not giving any.

    Now my objective is not to tell my words but to discuss ideas I found valuable. In other words : I’d rather speak about other people great ideas than lousy ones of mine.

  3. You are completely correct on the analysis and what you are describing has been put on the table long ago by Jesus as he turn up-side down the priorities of the leader, who become the the servicer to his follower.
    I tried in my professional life to make a less impressive change providing in a Taylorisme inspired organisation suggestion to improve the management efficiency link to the new concept developed. Some time with very honnest people the approach worked, but with people confronted to organisation with competition as the main driver it failed.
    So the fundamental is to give people the comfort that they are important and that they will improve their abilities while improving their firm’s efficiency

  4. Hi Arcae,

    Interesting article, and what makes it more interesting for me is that I read a post a couple of weeks ago on why we should stop adopting Taylorism (the author of that article is a huge Agile supporter)…

  5. Hi, The purpose of the talk Dr Middleton and I gave was not to state that one approach was better than another as you describe in your blog post. The purpose was to describe a case study.

    Incidentally, I’ve spent the last couple of years researching the roots of current management thinking and why it still prevails today. It’s been published free here at http://www.theoriesofwork.com


  6. I’m way late to the game here, but I very much disagree with @arcae’s commentary and felt I had to drop this note. I find that the manner in which the author has credited those that have influenced his thinking commendable. That took time, and it’s very helpful to be able to click through and get deeper knowledge on the topics if I’m so inclined – on the things that I don’t care so much about, I simply don’t click. I didn’t interpret their inclusion as showing off as seems to be the implication – I took them as proof that the author carefully collected his thoughts and resources and provided them as a courtesy for his readers. Even five years later this article is helpful!

    Ideas are not generated in a vacuum, they are usually formed out of or inspired by other ideas. Having access to those ideas is a wonderful luxury. I’m very appreciative of that (thanks, @ceiiil).

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