In the early 1900s, Max Weber, one of the pioneers of modern sociology, designed a perfectly rational organizational form, called a bureaucracy. Among the characteristics of this "ideal" organization were specialization, division of labor, and a hierarchical organizational design.
Division of labor is a form of specialization in which the production of a product or service is divided into several separate tasks, each performed by one person. According to Weber's design, inherent within the specialization and division of labor is knowledge of the precise limit of each worker's "sphere of competence," and the authority to perform individual tasks without overlapping others.'
Adam Smith, an early economist, suggested that productivity would rise significantly when the division of labor principle was used. Output per worker would be raised while costs per unit produced would be reduced. Division of labor was applied, for example, in manufacturing plants that incorporated mass production tech niques. In organizations that used mass production, each worker specialized in completing one specialized task; the combined work of several specialized workers produced the final product. For example, in manufacturing an automobile, one worker would assemble the dashboard, an other would assemble the wheels, and yet another would paint the exterior.
Since the time of Adam Smith, division of labor has been perceived as a central feature of economic progress. Two aspects of labor exist. First is the division of labor within firms; this concerns the range of tasks performed by workers within a particular firm. Second is the division of labor between firms; this concerns the range of products or services the firm produces.
CURRENT APPLICATION OF DIVISION OF LABOR
Fred Luthans (1998) describes the bureaucratic model proposed by Max Weber as an "historical starting point" for organizational analysis. Citing "complex, highly conflicting relationships, advanced information technology, and empowered employees," Luthans (p. 519) discusses the functional and dysfunctional consequences of specialization uncovered in several research studies. For example, although specialization has enhanced productivity and efficiency, it has also led to conflict between specialized units, hindering achievement of the overall goals of the organization. Further, specialization can impede communication among units, as highly specialized units tend to "withdraw into themselves and not fully communicate with other units above, below, or horizontal to it: (Luthans, p. 519). In addition, highly specialized jobs can lead to employee boredom and burnout.
Given these concerns, a significant change is under way in management of work in organizations. According to Richard Walton (1991), the work force can be managed in two ways, one based on control and the other based on commitment. Key factors that differ between the control and commitment approaches are job design principles, performance expectations, management organization (structure, systems, and style), compensation policies, employment assurances, employee input in policies, and labor-management relations (Walton, 1991).
The control-oriented approach is based on the classic bureaucratic principles of specialization and division of labor. In the control-oriented environment, worker commitment does not flourish. Division of labor can ultimately reduce productivity and increase costs to produce units. Several reasons are identified as causes for reduction in productivity. For example, productivity can suffer when workers become bored with the monstrous repetition of a task. Additionally, productivity can be affected when workers lose pride in their work because they are not producing an entire product they can identify as their own work. A breakdown in the mass production line can bring an entire production line to a standstill. And, with highly specialized jobs, worker training can be so narrowly focused that workers cannot move among alternate jobs easily. Consequently, productivity can suffer when one key worker is absent. Finally, discontent with control is increasing in today's work force, further hindering the long-term success of the classic bureaucratic application of specialization and division of labor.
In contrast to the control-oriented approach, the commitment-oriented approach proposes that employee commitment will lead to enhanced performance. Jobs are more broadly designed and job operations are upgraded to include more responsibility. Control and coordination depend on shared goals and expertise rather than on formal position. The control and commitment oriented approaches are only one way to view the concepts of division of labor and specialization. These concepts influenced organizations in the late 1990s by a complex array of organizational dynamics.
In response to such complex organizational dynamics as intense competitive pressures, organizations were being restructured. Hierarchies were becoming flatter, meaning that fewer levels of management existed between the lowest level of worker and top management. In some organizations, web-like and network organizational structures were replacing traditional hierarchical organizations (Kerka, 1994). In these redesigned organizations, the shift was away from departments that focused on traditional organizational functions such as production, administration, finance, design, and marketing (Lindbeck and Snower, 1997).
In these redesigned organizations, the shift was away from highly-specialized jobs toward workers performing a multitude of tasks within relatively small autonomous customer-oriented teams. In these working groups, workers were given a broad task specification by management and within those loose constraints, the teams were allowed to organize, to allocate roles, to schedule tasks, and so forth (Bessant, 1991). With this design, traditional occupational barriers and clear-cut specialized job descriptions began evaporating as workers were empowered to define their own job tasks; this movement resulted in a decrease of the division of labor and specialization within firms.
As a consequence of these changes, during the 1990s, increased division of labor between firms was often accompanied by a reduction in the division of labor within firms. In other words, while firms were becoming more specialized in the products and services they offered, individual workers within firms were handling an increasing range and depth of job responsibilities. As mentioned earlier, this work was often completed in autonomous teams.
EFFECTS OF SIZE, COST, AND PERFORMANCE ON DIVISION OF LABOR
In some organizations, division of labor and the degree of specialization are being reduced, while in other organizations, division of labor and specialization are increasing. A number of factors can influence this discrepancy among organizations.
For example, the degree of specialization and division of labor can be related to the size of the organization; typically, small and mid-sized employers are not able to cost justify specialized division of labor. Lindbeck and Snower (1997) report that, as the costs of communication among workers declines, the degree of specialization, and consequently, division of labor within organizations, may rise. Some literature reports that, as the size of the market increases, it sup ports more division of labor. The degree of division of labor within firms can also depend on the degree to which performance on particular tasks is measurable, and the degree to which wages affect task performance. Implementation of technology can also have a profound influence on the division of labor in organizations.
EFFECTS OF TECHNOLOGY ON DIVISION OF LABOR
Computerization has enabled organizations to increase the variety of tasks performed by workers, consequently reducing specialization and division of labor. For example, information technologylexible machine tools and programmable multipurpose equipmentan reduce the division of labor within firms as workers transfer their knowledge from task to task more easily. Information and manufacturing technology can also enable individual workers or work teams to combine different tasks more readily to meet a customer's needs while enhancing productivity. For example, customer information gained from production activities can be used to improve financial accounting practices, and employee information gained from training activities can be used to improve work practices.
Eric Alsene (1994) reported that increased integration of computer databases has the potential to profoundly alter task and functional assignments in organizations, consequently affecting division of labor and specialization. Originally, the purpose of integrating computers into organizations was to merge the various functions of labor. Computer integration was designed to restructure businesses around their core business processes, outsourcing some activities to specialized external organizations and strengthening partnerships with suppliers and subcontractors. In the newculture shaped by computer integration, every worker was to have a broader view of the organization. Workers were expected to work in teams with enhanced communication, participation, teamwork, and an enhanced sense of belonging and continuous learning. In this new organizational model enabled by technology, the classic bureaucratic mass production model in which workers performed functions separately and sequentially was eliminated.
The computer integration model was designed to ultimately lead to the dismantling of vertical and horizontal barriers while supervisory control concentrated increasingly on work methods rather than on final products (Child, 1987). In other words, the new design enabled organizations to focus on how products and services were delivered rather than on what products or services were delivered. This design facilitated continuous improvement in the organization. The newtechnologies assisted in blurring the boundaries among departments while information flowed freely throughout the organization, thereby disregarding the traditional bureaucratic hierarchy. As work groups and task forces were formed, units no longer worked in isolation.
The new model enabled by technology calls into question the traditional division of labor in organizations. For example, flexible manufacturing systems eliminate the barrier between maintenance and production. This increased automation supports the movement described earlier of work becoming more diversified, independent, intellectual, and collective.
The classic principles of division of labor and specialization still exist; however, their application produces both functional and dysfunctional consequences in the increasingly complex organizations of the twenty-first century. A number of factors affect the modern application of division of labor. Along with other complex organizational and market dynamics, these factors include information technology, worker empowerment, human factors, communication systems, organizational size, competitive pressures, and organization structure.
Alsene, Eric. (1994). "Computerization Integration and Organization of Work in Enterprises." International Labor Review. 133(5-6) 657-676.
Bessant, J. (1991). Managing Advanced Manufacturing Technology: The Challenge of the Fifth Wave. Oxford, Blackwell.
Child, J. (1987). "Organizational Design for Advanced Manufacturing Technology," in T.D. Wall, C.W. Clegg, and N.J. Kemp eds. The Human Side of Advanced Manufacturing Technology. Chichester: Wiley.
Kerka, Sandra. (1994). "NewTechnologies and Emerging Careers. Trends and Issues Alerts." Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.
Lindbeck, Assar, and Snower, Dennis J. (1997). "The Division of Labor Within Firms." Stockholm, Sweden: Institute for International Economic Studies, University of Stockholm.
Luthans, Fred. (1998). Organizational Behavior. Boston, MA: Irwin McGraw-Hill.
Walton, Richard E. (1991). "From Control to Commitment in the Workplace: In Factory After Factory, There Is a Revolution Under Management of Work." Readings on Labor-Management Relations. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor-Management Relations and Cooperative Programs.
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