Robot participating in the assembly of a Peugeot 308 at Sochaux. MaxPPP/Lionel Vadam.

Work has changed, especially in the industrial world, where Taylorism established its credentials. With the spread of information technologies, material contact is less and less frequent for many workers, even if it has not disappeared everywhere. Tasks increasingly correspond to oversight, the monitoring of automated systems, control, the management of information and risk. 

Organizational competitiveness tied to the new realities of the market and competition also exercises a determinate influence. The conditions of productivity have changed and condition another type of mobilization of employee engagement and the organization of firms: “The new forms of performance all depend on the density and relevance of the relations established between actors and the productive chains, between the functions of the firm (research office, marketing department, commercial services, production), between firms, the suppliers, and their clients, between firms and their social and technical environment.”1

The Post-Taylorist Thesis and the Emergence of New Figures of Labor

From these widely held views, some authors deduce a radical transformation of the organization of labor and even the end of Taylorism, to the benefit of the potential autonomy of workers. A current of thought has thereby taken shape, which discloses the emergence of new functions, new actors, in other words new professional identities, new arenas and new training on the basis of the significance accorded to communication, cooperation, and expertise, as well as engagement and initiative.2

The analysis of these developments is placed at the center of labor sociology, as a new factor in the workplace, and new determinant of organizational choices and competencies. 

The quality of cooperation now takes primacy, information becomes the dominant feature. Workers’ skills rests with communication. It is not so much the autonomy of movements, the regularity of labor and its conformity to procedures, to the requisite prescriptions and codes which are required, but much rather a capacity to adapt to exceptional situations, an expertise which enables an appropriate treatment of the “events” which punctuate the labor-process: Reacting to events is now becoming a key component of collective or industrial labor. Qualifications are being displaced by expertise, the analysis of specific situations… One does not only communicate between tasks; the task itself consists in communicating.”3

We are far from the individual work postulated by Taylor: “The community of networked workers is in charge of its own capacity to recompose a collective knowledge,” namely, to work together, to create spaces of reciprocal understanding.4 We are far, too, from the Taylorist worker hyperspecialized in one compartmentalized task to which they are restricted. Jean-Louis Laville defines the new professional figure that has emerged in the following terms: “Office technicians, operators in automated facilities in the manufacturing industry, monitoring operators in the process industries all share the need to situate themselves in an informational series in order to locate and circulate information on which productivity and work quality will depend. Work is increasingly referring back to the culture of workers’ involvement in a universe in motion.” This culture revolves around “autonomy, initiative, the overall perception of the procedure.”5

For the team of Sainsaulieu, Francfort, Osty, and Uhalde, “the world of firms is becoming a real social milieu, where multiple ways of being are expressed in relation to the demands of initiatives and communication, responsibilities, outcomes, creativity that cover the changing life, technical complexity, and relational involvement of work.”6

These sentences from Christian Thuderoz find resonance: 

Production, organization, institution: at these three levels of analysis of the firm, change is notable. Different elements are indeed combined in the workshops to sketch a new social and productive state of affairs: other ways of cooperating and self-organizing to produce, appeals to the initiative and responsibility of employees, encouragement of speech, experience in the management of flows, quality control, etc. The hypothesis of new models of organization in North America and Europe seems appropriate. The operators of automated machines and systems now react to contingencies and handle them, analyze sequences, anticipate breakdowns. Whence the importance accorded to communication between individuals, to mutual understanding.7

Moreover, this overlaps with the definition offered by Benjamin Coriat of the super-worker, at the entrepreneurial and managerial helm.8 By definition, these new workers are no longer enmeshed in the logic of prescribing means. Only the objectives remain prescribed for operators at the intersection of several specialities, tasked with a larger range of missions and engaged in multifunctional work groups where the notions of collective work, autonomy, and initiative take on their full meaning. 

A Need for Caution

We can note two observations in regard to these arguments asserting a break with the principles of Taylorism in the emergence of new forms of the organization of labor. The first is that the majority of these authors have been influenced by investigations carried out mainly in the process industries, that is, a specific type of manufacturing (among them: cement production, petrochemicals, nuclear sector, steel). In these industries, organizational innovations have indeed been uncovered, notably in the sense of a real multifunctionality involving, for example, worker-technicians who participate in the improvement and optimization of production. 

There have always been doubts, however, as to the very presence of actual Taylorism in these industries, considering the division of workstations is problematic given the nature of continuous work. Furthermore, these are industries where labor costs are insignificant compared to capital costs and where questions of reliability and security are paramount, imposing concessions on worker professionalism. For the proponents of post-Taylorism, there is no doubt however that series production industries are beginning to acquire some important characteristics of continuous work, namely increasingly significant investments in information and automation as well as a greater fluidity of the production process with the decrease in inventory, and that they will necessarily adopt their post-Taylorist model. Zarifian states matters in abundantly clear terms: “It is not steelmaking that we want to present as a model, but through it the demonstration of the contemporary characteristics of the evolution of the cooperative dimension of labor.”9

As for the authors who draw on observations carried out in industries of series production or in services, they evince a strong tendency to generalize on the basis of limited cases, in this instance the emergence of new functions, particularly interfaces which require more specialized communication competencies, and thus a professional know-how marked by autonomy and initiative. And moreover, was not the process of deskilling for a majority of workers within Taylorist rationalization always accompanied by the overqualification of small professional groups? 

The second observation we might make is that these analyses define more of an “ideal type” than a reality, and curiously abstract from a whole fundamental part of social reality. In this optic, everything happens as if a given type of market constraint and a given type of technical tools necessarily determine a given type of work organization and a given form of employee engagement. As if Taylorism, inter alia, necessarily corresponded to a now superseded specific economic and technological conjuncture. As if, back then, there were no other possible choices. 

This overlooks the fact that the forms of the organization of labor are social constructs, that is, they constitute a kind of response to the relation of forces between different actors involved in the situation, relations of forces that they effectively illustrate. 

Production line for galvanized or lacquered steel sheets, Usine Arcelor-Mittal, route de Saint-Leu, Montataire. Olivier Pasquiers and Caroline Pottier/Le Bar Floréal.

The Multiple Stakes of the Organization of Labor

Taylor never hid that the mode of organization he devised was a means of restraining the workers of the time. The scientific organization of labor thus corresponded to the institutionalization of a certain mode of compulsion, of coercion in the process of labor itself, to an organizational detour that forced workers to work not according to their own interests, but according to what Taylor presented as the good for the greatest number, the good of the nation. We know that this became above all a war machine against the workers. 

In the present context, what we are seeing does not really resemble the establishment of innovative organizations breaking with the Taylorist logic, but much more a mixture of genres where innovations are introduced but within a logic that remains fundamentally Taylorist. Management is engaged in a constant project to seek out another mode of control, domination, and coercion of employees before preparing the passage toward possible reforms of the organization of labor which could be rendered more compatible with the demands for responsiveness imposed by the market and new forms of competition.

The authors who sustain the post-Taylorist current of thought all discuss a new type of labor that profoundly involves workers’ subjectivities, their resourcefulness, their communicational capacity without ever raising the question of workers’ acceptance of cooperation, of open and voluntary collaboration with management and with hierarchies. Is it definitely the case that workers, who not long ago were engaged in an ideology of class struggle (during the “Trente Glorieuses”), that is, in an open conflict declaring the non-convergence of interests between workers and bosses, today accept engaging their subjectivity in the service of the enterprise? Certain elements might lobby in favor of this hypothesis: the decline in trade unionism as well as an exceptionally high and stubborn unemployment rate. But its success does not, for all that, seem guaranteed. At least, this is the conviction that modernized management has. As proof you can point to the tremendous effort undertaken by management to “work” the subjectivity of employees, to transform an identity that appears to them still too rooted in the values of the past.

We have, for over ten years now, elaborated the idea of a paradoxical consensus to describe the dominant attitude among workers during the prior period of strong growth.10 A paradoxical consensus, because workers’ very distance in relation to the dominant rationality of the firm, their dissenting attitude prompts them to develop professional behaviors which objectively serve the interests of the firm while contesting its legitimacy, its hierarchical order, the distributions of statuses and powers that it establishes to the detriment of workers, who receive the bare bones; they have developed a whole stock [capital] of knowledge, expertise, know-how, that they clandestinely apply, in other words by resisting commands, prescriptions, hierarchical orders. In the framework of a resistant, recalcitrant, and rebellious subjectivity, they have adopted a more effective and better-adapted attitude than what was required of them by scientific management. And this is because of the reference to the profession, to the job well done, to the shared values of workers which found their collective identity, because of a will to impose, in a world of coercion and subordination, their own vision of economic rationality.11 These behaviors constitute what Jean-Daniel Reynaud calls autonomous regulation, as opposed to the regulation of control coming from management. The effective functioning of labor in firms brings results, in equilibrium according to this theory, in a complementarity between these two kinds of control, which brings about a “joint regulation.”12

Now, what is expected of these employees is consenting cooperation on the subjective plane: here there is an important shift [revirement] whose significance has not escaped managers. The challenge would be to pass to a new phase of control and domination of workers. 


It is important to emphasize that managers are striving to develop a new type of social control, which is directly exercised on minds, on subjectivity, without actually initiating transformations in the corresponding organization of labor. We find ourselves in a specific moment of history where new forms of discipline precede, at least partially, the evolution of the organization of labor itself, which leads to a whole series of contradictions indicative of contemporary forms of modernization. 

Work has of course changed, in connection with new technological tools: new practices are developing such as just-in-time production, flexibility, automatic control, first-level maintenance, the “management” of flows by operators, for instance. Tasks, as mentioned above, increasingly fall under facility oversight, operations, monitoring. But if we closely observe the new forms of labor, we notice that in the majority of cases these operations are subjected to processes of rationalization, standardization, which empties them of all professional skill and turns them into extremely routinized and simplified tasks, in the same way that the activity of oversight itself has been very codified. 

The principles which carefully delineate between tasks of conception and organization, on the one hand, and tasks of execution on the other have hardly changed. 

That technological development and new forms of competition open onto new possibilities in the organization of labor, that the place occupied by information flows in the labor process encourages the consideration of new modalities of definition and function does not mean, however, that these possibilities are necessarily implemented. We should not lose sight of the social dimension of Taylorism which corresponds, as noted, to an institutionalization of control and coercion in the labor process itself. Directorates for the most part do not appear, for the moment, to have renounced central Taylorist principles of the organization of labor, because they are not convinced they have access to a sufficiently reliable workforce. On the other hand, these directorates have already launched into what might be called a battle of identity to modernize employees’ minds, that is, to make them internalize the values, culture, the standard methods of reasoning in the firm, in the mode of the one best way approach to management, on the basis of the dominant rationality in the firm and excluding any debate, possible discussion, or possible alternative concerning management style.13 It is a matter of forcing workers to eschew professional solidarities, class solidarities, to embrace only the company’s values. 

Even if it is done under influence (controlling and disciplining their subjectivity), directorates are consequently seeking to position employees as full-fledged interlocutors in the firm. And it is here that a very problematic discrepancy intervenes, between the effects of this approach of “enveloping” employees, of transforming their subjectivity as well as their symbolic place in the firm, on the one hand, and on the other the reality of their role in the organization of labor where they most often remain confined within Taylorist horizons, limited by still quite standardized prescriptions and definitions of procedures. 

The contradictions are of two orders. Symbolic and psychological above all, since employees find themselves caught in conflicting roles (executants and pawns in the context of a very codified and prescribed organization of labor, interlocutors and actors in another time and space of the firm, that of participative groups, individual discussions with management). But very concrete contradictions, too: the prolongation of the logic of personal growth (an alibi discourse which accompanies the battle of identity and the work of subjectivity), within the organization of labor, is reflected in the keyword of accountability [responsabilisation]: each person is deemed accountable at their job post for the quality of the work they provide and the deadlines in which the work is carried out, and no longer have “management on their back” since the chains of command have been considerably streamlined by the same logic. These changes would be welcome in the framework of a post-Taylorism as some sociologists say they see it. But in the majority of cases, operators have to assume the responsibility imposed on them in what is still an extremely codified universe, where decision-making possibilities are very standardized and without help from management. Operators thus feel trapped: they are not capable of influencing the way in which their work is defined and organized, and the higher-ups, nowhere to be found, no longer provide assistance. If problems arise (breakdowns, various dysfunctions), they find themselves blocked, incapable of undertaking their job and responsibilities.14

We can advance the hypothesis that a very real misery [souffrance] is bound up with these kinds of contradictions which maintain employees in a state of permanent unease, in an exacerbated feeling of increased dependence, especially through the incredible possibilities for control offered by information technology. 

Translated by Patrick King and Paul Rekret

This text was first published in Jacques Kergoat, Josiane Boutet, Henri Jacot, and Danièle Linhart (eds.), Le monde du travail (Paris: La Découverte, 1998), 301-309.



1 Pierre Veltz, Mondialisation, villes et territoires: L’économie d’archipel (Paris: PUF, 2014 [1996]), Chapter 6.

2 Renaud Sainsaulieu, Florence Osty, Isabelle Francfort, and Marc Uhalde (eds.), Les mondes sociaux de l’entreprise (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1995); Pierre Veltz and Philippe Zarifian, “Vers de nouveaux modèles d’organisation?,” Sociologie du Travail 35, no. 1 (1993): 3-25.

3 Veltz and Zarifian, “Vers de nouveaux modèles d’organisation?.”

4 Philippe Zarifian, “Vers une sociologie de l’organisation industrielle,” Rapport pour l’habilitation à diriger des recherches, Université de Paris X-Nanterre, 1992; Philippe Zarifian, Travail et communication (Paris: PUF, 1996).

5 Jean-Louis Laville, “Participation des salariés et travail productif,” Sociologie du Travail 35, no. 1 (1993): 27-47.

6 Sainsaulieu et al. (eds)., Les mondes sociaux de l’entreprise.

7 Christian Thuderoz, La sociologie des entreprises (Paris: La Découverte, 1997).

8 Benjamin Coriat, L’Atelier et le Robot. Essai sur le fordisme et la production de masse à l’âge de l’électronique (Paris, Christian Bourgois, 1990).

9 Zarifian, “Vers une sociologie de l’organisation industrielle.”

10 Daniele Linhart & Robert Linhart, “Naissance d’un Consensus, la Participation des Travailleurs”, in D. Bachet (ed.), Décider et Agir au Travail (Paris: Cesta, 1985).

11 Robert Linhart, The Assembly Line, trans. Margaret Crosland (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981).

12 Jean-Daniel Reynaud, Les règles du jeu: action collective et la régulation sociale (Paris: Armand Colin, Paris).

13 Jean-Pierre Durand, “Vers la société du post-travail?,” L’Homme et la société 109 (1993): 117-126; Danièle Linhart, Le Torticolis de l’autruche: l’éternelle modernisation des entreprises françaises, (Paris: Seuil, 1991); Danièle Linhart, La Modernisation des entreprises (Paris: La Découverte, 1994); Yves Clot, Le Travail sans l’homme? Pour une psychologie des milieux de travail et de vie (Paris: La Découverte, 1995).

14 Danièle Linhart and Robert Linhart, “Les ambiguïtés de la modernisation: Le cas du juste-à-temps,” Réseaux 13, no. 69 (1995): 45-69.

The post The Evolution of the Organization of Labor (1998) appeared first on Viewpoint Magazine.

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