Work Study To Study Work

The title, in trying to play on words, hides many aspects.  Work Study is probably self explanatory as its accepted meaning is intended.  However, this is not so in the term Study Work.

We will go on to show that we mean the study of work, or any other human activity as holistically as possible.  Discovering less obvious issues both before any action is contemplated and when a course of action is decided, but hopefully yet to be implemented.

Work Study began
The renowned F W Taylor did his famous analyses of the work of manual labour around the turn of the last century.  The investigative results were vital to industrialisation as we now know it and the foundation of the great leap forward to the Model T Ford.  However, the concept of a human being little more than a cog in a machine is anathema to most managers and engineers today.

His work was finally put into sharp focus by Chaplin's "Modern Times".  This hilarious yet thought provoking film influenced 20th century unions and management as much as any other film could have.  His portrayal of man vs. machine, individual vs. group, laid out the battleground upon which many management thinkers proposed and debated alternatives until our current thinking evolved.

Recent articles have suggested that the aging, yet still fit population that will be requiring work in the next decade or so, may be about to produce even more emphasis on well being at work in terms of physical, environmental and physiological issues.

These developments are totally consistent with a memorable phase emblazoned in foot high letters over the tutor’s podium at my post-graduate college, “THERE IS ALWAYS A BETTER WAY”.  Indeed there is and there always will be.

Seismic shifts
Both World Wars changed society.  But whereas the First unleashed the recognition in wide sectors of society that old social orders where both unfair and unsustainable, the Second developed the means to bring about profound changes in an efficient way, which General Strikes and the Great Depression totally failed to do.

The abhorrence of organised labour of the stop watch led to a wealth of “measured work” techniques.   Here work study practitioners observed the worker, counting the discreet movements and then went off site to calculate the allowed time for the complete operation.  Whilst these studies set norms, they did not do more than provide basic control or a target for management to aim toward. The Second World War produced many “think tanks” trying to do more with increasingly meagre resources of the classic “3 M’s”, Men, Money & Materials.  Operational Research and Cybernetics were born.  And over the years were developed with more focused methods of SWOT and the simple questions “What, Why, When, Where & How”, whose power was first articulated by Rudyard Kipling. These techniques combined to produce dramatic changes and in my experience the reduction of shift strength from over 100 to fewer than 20, by its techniques is dramatic, the recognition that eliminating parts of a complex process, is even more powerful in modern economies.

The academic rigour of many researchers and their writings recognised that the Reductionist approach of breaking all problems down into small components had great limitations.  The creation of immense detail and yet losing an overview of the impact of what we now call one human activity system upon another, often causing most unwelcome consequences in the adopted solution.

The marriage of essentially reductionist techniques, such as BPR with a holistic approach to the brief brought about by the principles of systems thinking has  yet more value to give to modern society in all its aspects, i.e. not just business enterprise, but any, especially government agencies, that recognise that there is a customer who needs to receive added value.

There is the migration through from “hard systems”, which were totally focussed on elemental performance to “soft systems” looking to optimising a perhaps larger, but certainly more crucial component of the whole suite of related systems. The modern systems practitioner is well versed in a range of tools and experienced in which combination to use in a given situation.  The supporting academic basis is found in motivational and group physiological theories.  

For a fuller description of Systems Thinking Methodologies and Practice see other pages.

SWOT - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats
BPR - Business Process Re-engineering