Introduction

Organization is uncertain by definition because it is a dynamic that is forever and unceasingly exceeding the parameters of the frame that members of organization, in their search for order and stability, have temporarily frozen. In other words, organization is always more fluid than our conception of it can grasp. This means that our rationalized perceptions of organization are invariably at odds with our lived experience.

As a consequence, there is often a mismatch between decisions and actions within any organizational event and outcomes, a phenomenon described first by Weber (1947) and subsequently by organization theorists (e.g. Selznick, 1949; Gouldner, 1954; Merton et al., 1957) as the unintended consequences of action. It is partly for this reason that organization theorists have distinguished structure from action, the formal from the informal, and the rational from the non-rational in everyday organizational life. These are basically ways of accounting for the discrepancy between the static frozen picture or representation that is a necessary condition of human organization and the lived experience of organizing. It is what Cooper and Law (1995) describe as the difference between a distal and a proximal way of thinking about organization. Within such an analysis of organizations versus organization, this article seeks to examine struggles over skill/knowledge following the introduction of an automated production line in a case study from the manufacturing sector.

In seeking to innovate, it is our argument that management disclaims the emotional and practical significance of skill/knowledge for employees and, as a result, sows the seeds of future dissent. This is because management adheres to a distal conception of skill/knowledge. This involves perceiving shopfloor skill/knowledge as a completed object that one either possesses or is dispossessed of. In this sense it is wholly disembodied from the human and social relations of production. It results in management having a plausible case in refusing to acknowledge that new working arrangements may deskill employees, because on the new production lines employees will still be able to perform the skills that they had under craft production. Such rationalizations should not necessarily be seen as a Machiavellian, calculated act of deceit on the part of management. Instead, it needs to be understood that in many ways, management is simply acting in accordance with the logic and unfeeling grinding dynamics of capital and the “informatics of domination” (Haraway, 1990: 214), the effects of which involve insecurity and work intensification.

We argue that employees, in their struggle to retain a position of strength in relations of power, also subscribe to a distal conception of skill/knowledge. Thus it is their belief that skill/knowledge is a possession that can be lost or retained. Nonetheless, one can understand this interpretation given that the introduction of a new line may have an impact on the material conditions of work in such a way, from a distal perspective, that it may be detrimental to employees.

We examine an alternative conception of skill/knowledge, recognizing that distal perceptions traditionally drawn on in collective bargaining may be discrepant with everyday practice. We interrogate our case-study data in order to explore different ways of thinking about the conflict over skill/knowledge in Manutec (pseudonym) than those of the people practically involved in the problems. This entails considering skill/knowledge in proximal terms, which focuses on:

the continuous and unfinished; it’s what is forever approached but never attained, what is always approximated but never fully realized … always partial and precarious. (Cooper and Law, 1995: 239)

Such an approach requires an analysis of details, relations, processes, and representations of skill/knowledge. It recognizes that one never possesses skill/knowledge because such conditions are always in a process of becoming. In this sense, skill/knowledge are bound up with contextual relations, they are a site of struggle and indeterminacy, and a product of representations that make truth claims that have power effects.

We suggest that organizational power and identity relations render a distal approach difficult to avoid for both employees and management. Of course, management may adopt a more proximal and empathetic approach. But for the roots of empathy to take hold, management would have to abandon its claim to power and open itself up to uncertainty and challenge. Such abandonment seems unlikely without a fundamental change in the world of work and the conventional structures of power, hierarchy and inequality.

Our arguments are illustrated through a case study from the manufacturing sector, which is of a low-volume manufacturer of highspecification products. We attempt to provide some perhaps unique insights into the deskilling of craft work through automation. We say unique, because the case can be understood to be a throwback to the situation facing Henry Ford in the early part of the twentieth century and the battles waged over skill/knowledge at that time (see Womack et al.,1990). Our focus is on how management, through various guises, seeks to legitimize deskilling while denying its existence. We suggest that by attempting to obfuscate deskilling, management renders the process even more problematic than it might otherwise have been. Thus, through seeking to camouflage that which is felt by employees, management is likely to arouse emotions and antagonisms rather than deflect dissent.

Analytical perspective

Within organization studies there is a diverse range of theoretical perspectives, but predominantly these can be defined as reflecting a static picture of their topic—the organization and its personnel—that is already constituted rather than always in the process of constitution. This distal way of thinking about organizations

privileges results and outcomes, the “finished” things or objects of thought and action … and stresses boundaries and separation, distinctness and clarity, hierarchy and order. (Cooper and Law, 1995: 239)

In short, the organization, from a distal point of view, is a concrete entity with very clear and precise, politically, legally and/or economically defined boundaries between it and the environment in which it is seen to be located. While what is “inside” and what is “outside” are effects of organizing, the distal perspective transforms these spatial entities into a fixed, pre-existing basis for conducting analysis. It does the same with temporal dimensions of, say, the past, the present and the future—assuming them to exist prior to analysis, thus perceiving temporal effects or outcomes as something that can be taken for granted as a knowledge that need not be explored rather than as a process of flux, interpenetration and reordering, which always remains as a topic of analysis.

Cooper and Law (ibid.: 241) provide an example of this when they discuss the concepts of programming, planning and predicting, terms that are significant because they can be seen as equivalent to the act of organizing, but also show us how organization is “the anticipation of action in space and time” (ibid., authors’ emphasis). Whereas the distal approach to organization focuses on final outcomes such as the structure and functions of an organization as the pre-given framework in which action takes place, an alternative proximal view is to see action as primitive, preceding “thought, ordering or organization” (ibid.) and only “becoming ordered and organized” in retrospection when placed “in the network of what has already happened” (ibid.: 242, authors’ emphasis). So just as the spatial boundary between organization and environment is only a temporary fixture as an effect of organizing, so also the temporal distinctions of “before” and “after,” so prevalent in causal analyses of organization, are also blurred. We only know what we anticipate in programming, planning and predicting when we have produced it repeatedly as an effect in retrospection. In this sense, “production is also prediction—an attempt to anticipate; that is products (or effects) are really pre-dicts” (ibid.: 241, authors’ emphasis).

The proximal view of organization does not, as it were, displace the distal view; organizations with boundaries do exist, but this existence reflecting a temporary closure for an organization is always an effect of processes that are unfinished. Because organization theory subscribes more predominantly to a distal approach, tending “to repress, displace or forget the proximal,” more attention needs to be given to exploring “the proximal processes that generate the possibility of the distal” (ibid.: 264). Despite this refocusing of analysis on the proximal, we have to avoid dualistic approaches that elevate one over the other since, just like the distinctions discussed of organization/environment, past/future, and production/prediction, they are conditions of each other’s possibility. As many authors (Abrams et al., 1976; Giddens, 1979; Knights and Willmott, 1983; Haraway, 1990) have indicated, there is a very strong tendency for social scientists to fall into dualistic ways of thinking about distinctions, treating them as ontological realities rather than merely as heuristic devices (Knights, 1997).

This tendency, however, is not reserved or exclusive to social science for, as we shall see in our case study, the distinctions between skill/ knowledge and non-skill/knowledge are also reified in everyday organizational practice such that the demarcations they produce can become an organizing principle of work and employee relations. While this is another example of the way in which the distal conception of skill/knowledge as a fixed or absolute property of persons forgets the proximal conditions of its possibility and transformation, it is deeply subscribed to by both employees and management, especially in manufacturing. In its “command-control-communication-intelligence” (Haraway, 1990: 191) activities, management seeks to transform existing working arrangements so that they are more visible and capable of prediction and control, but this is engineered within a framework that denies any erosion of skill/knowledge. Consequently, distal perceptions of skill/knowledge dominate while everything around them is challenged in order that revolutionary new processes and methods of working can be developed.

One point of our argument is to show how it is not just theorists but also practitioners who freeze boundaries within and around organizations, despite these continually being in a process of construction and reconstruction. We therefore now turn to our empirical case study to illustrate these and the points raised in the introduction. Our concern is simply to show how, in relation to skill/knowledge but probably many other issues, distal conceptions of organization are preserved even when dramatic transformations are being sought. Ironically, this distal perception of skill/knowledge prevents management escaping from the suspicion that they are deskilling the work purely for purposes of management control. Despite the continuous claims not to be deskilling and perhaps some plausibility in the view that the transformations are about the reassembly of bodies, machines and the information that flows between them, the workforce remain incensed by what they quite rightly see to be the restructuring of jobs in the direction of lower levels of worker autonomy and control. But because control is viewed by managers as their prerogative, employees are forced to fight over skill/knowledge, conceived in such a way as to exclude their grievance over autonomy. Employees are forced into adopting a distal approach towards skill/knowledge that ignores interrelationships, processes and indeterminacy.

What is problematic in all of this both for workers and management is an attachment to skill/knowledge as an outcome to be possessed or dispossessed of, and yet such an understanding cannot be escaped when one realizes that representations of the world have both truth and power effects in the material world.

A case study from manufacturing

Manutec (a pseudonym) is a low-volume manufacturer of high specification products based in the UK that has undergone a period of substantial change in the 1990s. The international character of its market meant that the domestic recession of the early 1980s had a relatively minor impact on its performance and the 1980s were the best years of sustained growth and profitability in the company’s history. The worldwide recession of the 1990s, however, had a significant impact and its sales collapsed by two-thirds, plunging the company into the red. To avoid closure, the company began a period of rapid reconstruction that involved introducing more flexible working practices, teamworking, outsourcing, downsizing, and delayering. Following a series of large-scale redundancies the workforce was halved from approximately 4000 to 2000 in the plant where our research took place. The company is heavily unionized and, prior to the anti-union legislation of the Thatcher regime and the buoyant economic conditions of the late 1980s, management had been unwilling to confront the unions as the demand for sales far outstripped production capacity. In the early to mid-1990s, however, management endeavored to restore what it saw as its right to managerial prerogative and, in so doing, sought to marginalize the unions.

Largely concerned with the impact of management innovations, our case study was conducted over a six-month period between July and December 1996. The research involved interviews with 30 middle managers from the quality, personnel, engineering, and manufacturing functions and 30 shopfloor employees including 10 team leaders and 20 shopfloor employees. In broad terms, an ethnographic approach to case study work is deployed as a means not of providing accurate representations of organizational life so much as facilitating a process whereby our constructions are not wholly independent of those of practitioner participants. This is what makes empirical research more reflective of the lived experience rather than simply a product of abstractions that have virtually no relationship to the world that they purport to describe. We do not, however, believe that our representations are more true or exhaustive of the “reality” that they represent than are those of others. They are still constructions, but hopefully more intelligible to the reader by virtue of their lived concreteness.

At the time of our research, a new automated production line was being introduced that required a faster turnaround time of assembled parts. Work used to be organized so that various specialist areas produced parts that were transferred to an assembly area. The product was then assembled by teams of employees who manually moved the product between different work stations. The vast bulk of the employees are male and have served an apprenticeship, so view themselves as “skilled men.”

The first phase of introducing the new line involved a six-month period during which the strategy was formed. The concept was then presented to, and approved by, Manutec’s parent company. Subsequently, a six-month planning phase commenced whereby management attempted to involve the workforce. In 1994 management presented the manufacturing strategy to groups of 60-90 people and invited comments. This was deemed by Bob, the chief management negotiator, to have been a “disaster. Death by a thousand foils.” There was no real communication and no feedback. Bob attributed this to the strategy being at an early stage and to employees “not believing” that it would be enacted. Employees at this time did not comply with the distal understanding of the new line that management presented. It was not seen as a fixed and finished entity and employees viewed management’s plans, in proximal terms, as simply an attempt to predict the future.

Not to be put off, in 1995 management introduced further presentations, which included a display using watercolor paintings of what the new line might look like. This presentation gained a greater response from employees because they began to realize management’s determination to carry out its predictions, especially as holes were being dug for the new rolling line. Such holes in the factory floor are important symbols that added weight to management’s representations.

A further stage in this process occurred between late 1996 and early 1997. Hidden from the public’s and employees’ gaze, with its symbolic forcefulness all the more poignant for its being “hidden,” the factory floor was divided by large wooden partitions. On the side inaccessible to employees, management experimented with the production and therefore prediction of the new line. Management conducted guided tours to explain the new line to employees on a voluntary basis. A video was used to illustrate similar lines in use in other companies. Moreover, there were photographs of production lines on display. Although the production line was only in a state of becoming, these symbols represented the concreteness and apparent inevitability of management’s predictions.

The manufacturing strategy focused on three main areas: the automated line, test facilities and feeder cells. The feeder cells referred to parts of the product that the company produces in-house. These included wooden (the wood shop) and leather and upholstery parts (the trim shop). Although working practices had become more flexible in these areas over the years, the work could still be described as “craft” based. Thus employees still produced by hand final parts from basic materials. The work involved a considerable amount of discretion and autonomy and required a substantial period of training. The introduction of the new line would mean relocating feeder cell areas next to a moving assembly line. Consequently, the aim was for each feeder cell not only to produce a final part but also to fit or assemble that part on to the product’s frame. As of 1996/1997, teams of workers within these feeder cells were given presentations as to what the new line would entail. The intention was to maintain the momentum of change, but also to generate feedback and comments from the workforce in order to develop new working practices within the feeder cells. Concurrently, teams of workers were developing new working practices on the assembly line itself. Thus the production line was not an outcome or a finished object. It did not have clear, predetermined boundaries, despite management’s predictions to the contrary. The prediction of production within the feeder cells was open and it was here that struggles over skill/knowledge were occurring. As we shall now explore, management was attempting to enforce its representation of the future on employees. The stakes were high, however, because such representations would ultimately have power effects.

Polarized perspectives non skill/knowledge

The new line necessitated management breaking tasks down within the feeder cell areas so that work came on to the line in a highly regulated and predictable way. Therefore work that involved a considerable amount of employee discretion and autonomy was to be subdivided so that management could secure overarching coordination and control of the work processes. From the employees’ point of view, the work was to be deskilled. Formerly, a craftsperson built a component almost in its entirety, which involved a long leadtime. Management’s knowledge of how parts were produced was limited and each craftsperson built them in their own unique way. It is here that disputes over skill/knowledge were occurring.

Management wanted to gain control over work by breaking it down into discrete tasks and they wanted to ensure that each individual performed each task in precisely the same way. Thus for management, to introduce the new line it was necessary for them to wrest control away from the shopfloor. This would appear to align with Braverman’s (1974) argument that deskilling involves the separation of conception from execution. In short, management were concerned to appropriate organizing activities so that employees executed clearly defined and predictable tasks in an orderly and systematic manner. The new line manager explained the situation as follows:

You know it’s “we’ll give you one of these when it’s ready” … We are trying to get them [employees] to understand that we need to run this business differently … So we’re saying “I understand that. We don’t want to take any of those skills off you” … We are saying to them “what we are not trying to do is deskill. What we are trying to do is break down the processes so we can understand it” … So we’ve not got ten different people doing the same job but doing it according to a different process. We want everybody building it to the same process … Controlling if you like as well as not taking their skills off them, they can still go through that range of work but we’ve broken the process down into standard chunks.

The extract indicates a distal conception of skill as simply relating to the content of tasks rather than the relationship between the subject as a body-mind-social complex and tasks performed that are comprised of equally complex human/material hybrids. This conception of skill, of course, coincides with that used by certain employees in their political and ideological arguments to defend or enhance what management might see as historical occupational privileges, and what employees interpret as historically won organizational rights. In practice, however, skill/knowledge is not an issue of individual attachment to a task so much as the way in which tasks defined in that way can be associated with degrees of autonomy ordinarily reserved for those in senior management positions.

In seeking to deny the deskilling that the new line entailed, this manager was subscribing to a view of skill/knowledge that sustains a “fixed” conception of both the skill/knowledge embodied in tasks and the boundary between that skill/knowledge and the individual who performs it. As has been suggested, for political purposes employees often equally subscribe to this view of skill/knowledge as if it were an object to possess, but in practice skill/knowledge is inseparable from the social relations in which work is carried out. For this reason, even though the “real politics” of labor markets and industrial relations would suggest otherwise, skill/knowledge is not a property of tasks that can be treated solely as a commodity for which a price is extracted. It is also an embodied feature of human existence and that is why it is attributed with such symbolic, almost to the point of ritual, significance.

Within an enlightenment humanity, skill/knowledge is an essential feature of what it is to be human. This is why in seeking to transform production in Manutec, management denied that they were taking skill/knowledge away. However, because skill/knowledge was treated as a property of the person, management could, without fear of contradiction, argue that employees would still be capable of performing the same tasks after the introduction of the new line and therefore were not being deskilled. Management could sustain this line of argument while at the same time saying that it was simply control that management was concerned to secure:

What we are not trying to do is deskill. What we are saying is we need to get control of things. (New line manager)

The chief management negotiator, who was also involved in introducing the new line, remarked that some areas were always more “militant” than others and at Manutec it was the trim shop. This reference to militancy was a rejection of the legitimacy of the workers’ case:

One guy sez “eer, you’re taking our skill away from us”. And the answer was “we’re not but we are trying to get control over everythin’” … We’re not taking the skill off anybody. How do you take a skill off somebody who’s already got it?

Here the chief negotiator views skill/knowledge as a property of the person. In doing so he understands skill/knowledge as having nothing much to do with social relations, power, processes and representations. While actually objecting to the loss of autonomy, power and control embedded in their skills/knowledge, employees can only argue that they are being deskilled. For in contrast to autonomy, power and control, skill is seen as a legitimate area of workplace struggle. Yet in practice the boundary is an artificial one constructed through the reification of analytical distinctions—a routine feature of distal thinking. Interestingly, discussions of empowerment go in exactly the opposite direction, treating autonomy as if it can be extracted from the self, independently of its integral relationship to knowledge and skill as an embodied sense of what it is to be human.

As of December 1996, teams of trim shop workers had been meeting with management for over six months. According to the chief management negotiator, “problems” still remained “because they say ‘We’re not interested. We’ll tell you what we want’.“ Nonetheless, management continued to justify breaking the trimmers’ work down into more basic tasks:

What we want to do is actually control the process, so if Joe doesn’t come in, we know exactly where someone is up to on that process and we can train people. So, if we put in a new guy, instead of training them up on a seven-and-a-half-hour operation, it’s a damn sight easier to train them on a 40-minute operation, and stick them there. But they’re [employees] not catching on to that. “You want to deskill us, you want them to walk off the streets and do our jobs.” We say “we’re not deskilling you we want you to do every job”. (Chief management negotiator)

Here we see another distal conception of skill/knowledge—one that was popularized in the 1960s in the form of job rotation, enlargement and enrichment. The suggestion is that employees are not being deskilled because they can continue to perform a variety of tasks. While these industrial psychology innovations may have had some limited success in removing some of the monotony in jobs that had been broken down into a limited range of repetitive tasks, skill/knowledge continued to be seen as a discrete object that resided in the task.

Management in Manutec was adopting a Japanese technique called gamba kanri, which aims to change the behavior of employees. The idea is to standardize work so that everyone adopts the most efficient working practices. This standard method is then documented and any further changes/improvements in working practices have to be recorded. Management is concerned to overcome what it refers to as “black arts,” whereby individuals use techniques of working that are known only to themselves. One manager explained that such techniques might include putting a “packet of Woodbines under a fixture” to ensure that something was the correct height to work on. The term “black arts” was repeatedly used as a means of stigmatizing these practices that could, from another point of view, be seen simply as an expression of the proximal nature of skill/knowledge that can never be fully known, documented or probed. It adds to the representation of current skill/knowledge relations as something negative and holds out the new representation, encompassing the new line, as an irrefutable good.

Similarly, other phrases were used such as “mystery” and “knack” to describe working practices over which management had little knowledge and control. It is important to note that “such a representation, whether good, bad or indifferent, is not given in the order of things” (Cooper and Law, 1995: 253). Instead, it is highly “selective” and involves an exercise of power that denies alternative possibilities. It was abundantly apparent, however, in this struggle over knowledge that indeed “power is knowledge.” The concern was to develop new work practices to eradicate these spaces of employee autonomy and conditions of employee knowledge that were a source of great uncertainty for management. But again, because these practices were not seen as a legitimate area of debate, employees could not challenge management’s right to seek to remove them. They could only turn it into a charge of their jobs being deskilled.

The wood shop and assembly area

The problem was not simply within the trim shop. It also covered the assembly and wood shop locations. Management set up natural work teams in each of these areas, which included operators, with the intention of writing process instructions. These defined, according to the manufacturing engineering manager, “how you do it.” Employees were given a basic minimum engineering standard that was “what” employees must do

(i.e. you must have two wings on an aircraft), and employees were to determine “how” they performed the work. Employees were required to justify “why” they did what they did. Once documented and rendered visible or knowable, these procedures could then be scrutinized by management.

Working practices within the wood shop had gone through a variety of changes in recent years, but the introduction of computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines would have a major impact. Seventy seven employees were employed within the wood shop and many felt threatened by these developments, not necessarily because the tasks in themselves would become less interesting but because their autonomy and control in performing them could be seriously eroded. Nonetheless, as long as skill/knowledge was defined in distal terms, management could continue to deny that the workforce was being deskilled:

Obviously they are a highly skilled workforce and they think we are deskilling them. Some people would think CNC machines is deskilling their job because you are taking it away from hand carving, the hand machinery and you are putting it onto a machine. Actually we are not deskilling the job we are just moving into the twentieth century. Our competitors are using the CNC equipment and we need to use the same to stay competitive … So we’re not deskilling the job we are just moving into the twenty-first century actually. (Woodshop production manager)

Here the manager could appeal to notions of “modernization” and the necessity of responding to “competition” as a way of legitimizing the new working practices. While continuing to refuse to acknowledge the workers’ charge of deskilling, any questioning of the new practices was deflected further by drawing on a discourse that assumed the inevitability of future events. Change was deemed to be “progressive,” “modernizing” or “moving into the twenty-first century” and as necessary to remain “competitive.” Here the boundary between the organization and the environment or between the “inside” and the “outside” was denied, in that modernizing was bringing the outside world in, leaving the organization helpless in the face of historical change and what the competition demands.

At the same time as subscribing to this proximal view of the organization, however, the distal conception of skill/knowledge remained and rendered the conflict between management and the employees impossible to debate, let alone reconcile. While the conception of the organization was seen as having to change to accord with the twenty-first century, the conception of skill/knowledge was not to be made more consistent with everyday practice. Presumably this is because the definition of skill/knowledge as tied to particular tasks or jobs supported the exercise of power by management in the form of the new line. In response to a question as to whether employees were expressing concerns about deskilling, the woodshop manager responded:

the workers express that yes. Some workers believe that the high-tech machinery is deskilling their job … I think it’s because they see an item which is produced solely by hand is more skillful than one that comes off a machine and is finished by hand. Personally I wouldn’t agree with it. You’ve got to live in the real world and understand it’s the way that everybody else is producing. Manufacturing has changed a lot. Why they believe it you’ll have to ask them … We just need to retain the competitive edge. It’s either that or go bust.

This dismissal of the employees’ perspective is perfectly understandable in terms of the exercise of power and the sustaining of managerial identity. Managers secure their own identity partly at least by claiming to be “progressive” and “competitive,” and exercising power over employees to ensure that they comply fulfills this claim. Moreover, by adopting a distal view of organization as something that is measurable, predictable and certain, managers retain a stable sense of self.

The process manager for the new line went so far as to argue that employees would be upskilled following its introduction. Providing further evidence of a concept of skill/knowledge as related purely to tasks and not the embodied ways in which skills are accomplished, he explained that trimmers would be required to fit cushions or seats as well as produce them and that this would require them to learn a new skill. Of course, this disregards the way in which breaking down the trim work into separate parts deprives employees of exclusive knowledge that previously was critical to their bargaining power.

In response to the workers’ resistance, the process manager actually dismissed employees’ fears as “emotional,” with the unstated implication that they were “irrational.” This is again not dissimilar to the stigmatizing of workers who use idiosyncratic and tacit techniques to manage a problem. It was essential to the representation of the new line that alternative constructions were denied legitimacy. For the representation to become reality it must persuade others of its “truth”; “truth then, is integrally linked to … power. And power depends on truth” (Cooper and Law, 1995: 256). Both the representation and the claim to truth need to be understood in terms of a managerial identity that elevates management “rationality” over the “irrationality” of workers, as the following quotation demonstrates:

the argument that I put forward about increasing skills is a logical argument. The argument which says you are deskilling is an emotional argument. If you’ve decided that you are being deskilled right? No logical argument will appeal to your emotions. The issue is more about logic versus emotion. From my perspective I can look at it totally logically because I am an engineer—I was designed to think … I think on a logical plane. (Bob T., Process manager)

The process manager’s view of himself as “logical” placed him outside of power in a way that those shopfloor workers who are emotional cannot be. In this sense, Bob reflects and reproduces another distal boundary between rationality that affords an objective view and irrationality/emotionality where subjects are vulnerable to power. Much of this is evident in the following account:

If you are the recipient of change and you are being forced into a change. Forced isn’t the right word. Then you tend to think at an emotional level. “We’re being deskilled, it’s less craftsmanship.” I don’t subscribe to that but then I’m not a skilled trimmer. Skilled in inverted commas. (Bob, Process manager)

The assumption here is that those subjected to power or “force” cannot help being “emotional” because they are on the receiving end of change. By contrast, managers are presumably comparatively “free” agents, able to think rationally and without the contamination of their emotions, even though, in justifying the changes, management had appealed to the inevitable grinding wheels of “progress” and competition as “forces” that they could not ignore. Although the reference to “force” and to “a skilled trimmer” were subsequently retracted, their accidental disclosure revealed much. Thus management “were” using “force” to achieve change and otherwise “skilled” trimmers were likely to be deskilled. The latter was underlined by Bob’s placing himself in the position of a trimmer and acknowledging that they would look at the situation differently. But he was then careful to retract this insight so as to have the jury out on the skill/knowledge of trimmers and therefore the legitimacy of their case.

Discussion and summary

The case study of Manutec indicates how managerial identity is such that often managers are unprepared to empathize with their workforce. Instead, on occasions they seem to adopt an almost sociopathic outlook. Thus, through adopting the corporate world view, management reveal an incapacity to feel the pain of employees or to look at the world through their eyes (Deetz, 1992). This suspension of feeling allows managers to tell themselves truths in support of actions bearing little relation to an understanding of the situation of those most closely involved in having to live with the consequences of innovations. As discussed above, these included we’re not deskilling the workforce but only seeking to “understand” what employees do; or only endeavoring to “control” the work; or only trying to match competitors; or trying to come into the twenty-first century; or only behaving “rationally” rather than “emotionally.”

We can see then that managers blot out empathy that enables them to be oblivious of the damage inflicted on their employees or simply justifies them in exercising power over others. Management views employees through the lens of the corporate agenda rather than considering how employees may feel. This emotional detachment characterizes everything that follows. All is pursued as if employees do not have any legitimacy in countering the corporate agenda. In this context, managers are glib, willing to say anything to get what they want, and they attempt to manipulate their victims’ emotions with this same cynicism. In such instances managers become the grinding dynamic of capital that feels no compassion or remorse.

But it should be said that managerial identity is such that managers are often unable to see or countenance an alternative world view and simply see things differently, looking as they do through corporate eyes. Thus, the use by managers of terms such as “militant” to describe employees who do not follow the corporate line and “black arts” to describe working practices over which they have no control reveals a way of thinking that is distinct from the world view of employees. Although clearly involved in what Foucault (1982) describes as “dividing practices,” intent on constructing the employees’ case in a negative stereotyping light and as such exercising power over them, this is not a conspiracy because from where it stands, management genuinely believes its own rhetoric. It is indeed a significant aspect of its own identity and, as we suggest below, perhaps a necessary rhetoric in sustaining the artificial boundary between management and non-management skill/knowledge.

The case study illustrates some of the ways in which, despite much evidence that organizations are always in a process of dynamic change, distal conceptions of various features of organization as completed outcomes can be drawn on to create and sustain specific power-knowledge relations. In particular, the focus has been on a distal conception of skill/knowledge that both management and employees have, for various political reasons, adopted but which in practice is routinely contradicted. This distal perception identifies skill as a disembodied feature of an employee’s performance of a particular task or job such that the task or job is itself eventually seen as skilled. In order to sustain occupational power/privileges around such skilled jobs, employees struggle to avoid workplace changes that could in any way challenge existing skill/knowledge relations. In manufacturing, the outcome of historical struggles over skill/knowledge has assumed an almost sacred place in the traditions of industrial relations and therefore goes unchallenged.

Consequently, both management and employees subscribe to a conception of skill/knowledge as a finished outcome of past events. Although tied to “objects” such as tasks or jobs, individuals can only secure power/privileges by claiming some exclusive ability to perform these skilled tasks, such that the skill/knowledge becomes a property of the person or group of persons. While skill/knowledge then ends up as a relationship between persons and activities, this relationship tends to be simply one of attachment through identity. In practice, however, skill/knowledge is not separate from a whole set of relationships, both material and human, bodily and symbolic. So, for example, skill may be seen as an ever-changing hybrid (Latour, 1993: 31) in which bodies, machines, money, and materials are brought together through the exercise of power and the use of knowledge within hierarchical orderings of status and identity. Skill/knowledge is then an embodied feature of human endeavor that is inseparable from the power-knowledge relations in which it is embedded. Because of this, skill/knowledge can never be the finished outcome that distal perceptions presume.

Had skill not assumed this distal status, the claims of management and the counter-claims of the workforce concerning the effects of the new working arrangements on skill/knowledge would have had to be re-examined. Instead of being an abstract property of persons and/or tasks, skill/knowledge would be examined in terms of its embodiment in human and social life and involving, in addition to working practices, such issues as human autonomy, ingenuity, initiative, power, meaning—paradoxically, all the virtues that management claims or seeks to reserve for itself.

This understanding helps us to put in perspective Bob’s concern to place inverted commas around the skill of the trimmers, as reported in the final quote of our case study. For what is at stake here is a professional and exclusive claim by management for a monopoly over skill/knowledge that goes beyond any simple technicist understanding of its content. It would seem from this study that skill/knowledge has to be understood as a struggle over power. The preparedness of those lower down the hierarchy to challenge management’s representations and decisions reveals that the outcome of such struggles is always uncertain. Management innovation creates some tension for retaining the boundaries that distal conceptions of organization reflect and reproduce.

The dichotomy of skilled/unskilled is problematic because it implies a “specific and stable location” (Cooper and Law, 1995: 243), as if one can ascertain where and when skill/knowledge begins and ends. Of course, while there are no such fixed points, the material conditions of work may well change to the detriment of one group or another and it is this uncertainty, not the absence or presence of skill/knowledge, over which managers and workers are really embroiled.

The events at Manutec can be understood in proximal terms as being about details, relations, processes and representations—the falling demand for vehicles, increased competition, the weakening of trade unions, redundancies, a new production line, the partitioning of the factory, the digging of holes, videos, photographs, woodwork, upholstery and leather, CNC machines, employees, and managers. These heterogeneous materials were in a process of becoming something other than that which they were. A craft system was giving way to an automated production line. Tensions had arisen and were manifest in the representations of this process of becoming. Managers represented what they do as preparing for the twenty-first century (modern times). Yet through gaining control, planning and anticipating the future they were endeavoring to predict the future. At a distal level management was introducing a new line, but this is the effect of a process that had yet to arrive, the upshot of numerous details which, as we have sought to describe, was fraught with difficulties/tensions.

It was a process which, at the time of the research, was far from being realized/resolved and so it is important to remember that “Prediction may break down” (ibid.: 253). The new line may prove impractical, markets may dry up, employees may successfully resist. Uncertainties abound not only in terms of management versus shopfloor representations, for employees may find that power relations are redrawn after the introduction of the new line in their favor; divisions may break down between the trim, wood and assembly areas leading to enhanced consensus/solidarity (see Bacon, 1997), and just-in-time work processes have enhanced workers’ control elsewhere (Oliver, 1990).

To conclude, we have sought “to uncover the processes which create both knowledge and power” (Cooper and Law, 1995: 254). As the process of representation does not describe something that already exists but produces what it depicts, then whether a representation comes to be accepted will be a question of truth and power. In our case study two discourses were at work: deskilling versus upskilling. Which representation wins out will be linked to the resources that are wielded in support of either discourse. The outcome is precarious, not least because it is contingent on a complexity of details, processes and relations involving such heterogeneous materials as markets, technology and resistance. It is the product of such details and their relations that will inform the new relations and the accepted representation.

Of course, this does not mean than any representation can become established, for this would reflect a distal understanding of representation. Instead, drawing on proximal theory representations will continue to reflect existing relations of power that can be challenged and are in a state of flux. The stakes are high, however, for which representation holds true will have power effects; shaping the experience of work as established power relations are broken, replaced, reproduced or reinforced. Thus such issues “are not simply epistemological in import, but also ontological” (Cooper and Law, 1995: 257). It is their ontological import that leads managers who have invested millions of pounds in a new line to be loathe to give up their representation (the product of complex and heterogeneous processes). Indeed, management had already dug holes, partitioned the shopfloor, presented photographs, shown videos, and conducted workshops, symbols that said that their representation would hold true. However, this representation is far from inevitable—the company was financially insecure, the technology not operationalized, the market precarious…