Why is the Division of Labor within the Factory/Workplace so Controversial?
The phenomenon of division of labor pertains to the specialization of interdependent and cooperative labor in particular tasks to achieve the highest level of overall efficiency. Although this phenomenon has been prevalent through the human history, its prominence in management themes in the recent times is associated with industrialization and the subsequent growth of trade and capitalism. Division of labor is often view as a controversial practice since it leads to unequal distribution of rewards against labor.
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However, this practice has also made it possible for the society at large to achieve a high level of efficiency. Thus it is worthwhile to explore various perspectives regarding division of labor to assess why this theme sparks so much controversy among academics. This essay explores various viewpoints associated with the controversy behind the issue of the division of labor in management practices. The essay will base its critical analysis upon theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx regarding division of labor.
Understanding Division of Labor
According to Adam Smith, division of labor is the most important improvement towards achieving the productive power of labor (Smith, pg. 11). He contends that the value of division of labor can be clearly understood by applying its phenomenon in practice. He employs an example of a pin-making trade; wherein an uneducated, skilled labor can hardly make a single pin in an entire day even after putting his best efforts; let alone twenty. However, this labor of manufacturing a pin, if divided into different tasks, can be much more industrious. If, the whole work is divided into a number of branches, for instance drawing out wire; straightening; cutting; pointing and grinding it at the top to receive the head, and each distinct operation is performed by distinct but highly specialized hands, the total number of pins produced by such a collective effort of labor could be enormously higher. Smith recalls a factory where he saw a group of 10 men, with each performing distinct specialized tasks, collectively making around 48 thousand pins each day. Smith asserts that had these 10 men worked separately and independently, they would not have made more than 20 pins each at best (Smith, pg. 11).
Division of Labor and its Impact upon Productivity
Smith contends that “in every other art and manufacture, the effects of division of labor are similar to what they are in this very trifling one…” (Referring to the example of pin manufacturing) (Smith, pg. 12). He mentions that the increased productivity achieved through division of labor owes to three circumstances. One, to the increased dexterity of workers in performing specific tasks; second, to the timed saved which is otherwise lost in shifting from one type of work to another; and third to the utilization of machines that facilitate and abridge labor (Smith, pg. 13). The proponents of division of labor are of view that it occasions a proportional increase in the productive powers of labor in every art and work. They adhere to Smith’s line of thinking that the increased productivity of labor through its division affects both the quality and quantity of production at much greater extent in case of manufacture of finished goods than in the production of raw materials (Smith, pg. 13). Therefore, the industrialized nations, which are heavily involved in manufacturing of finished goods, reap the greatest benefit of implementing division of labor. It is through this practice that they are able to sustain their economic superiority and the overall wealth of nation.
Adversarial Impact of Division of Labor
Frederick Taylor, who is widely acknowledged for his scientific approach towards management, regards that the principle objective of management is to ensure the highest level of productivity, with creates maximum prosperity for the employer and subsequently the employee. Taylor states that “maximum prosperity can exist only as a result of maximum productivity” (Taylor, pg. 9). Considering the generic contention derived from Adam Smith’s assertion that division of labor increases the productivity and efficiency of labor manifolds in a manufacturing setup, this practice should be deemed as the best approach towards utilizing of human capital per se. However, there are several underlying concerns associated with division of labor that make this practice controversial.
Deskilling of Labor
The most adversarial impact of division of labor pertains to the deskilling of labor. Although specialization of employees increases their efficiency for a specific skill, it renders them less skillful overall. This viewpoint was first proposed by Karl Marx. He described this phenomenon as alienation of employees in which employees become more specialized for a specific task through repetitiousness while being constantly deskilled at others. Marx criticizes the practice of division of labor for it depresses a worker both mentally and physically, lowering him/her to a status of machine (Fine and Saad-Filho, 2003). According to Marx, production efficiency through division of labor should only be employed as a temporary necessary evil for human liberation. However, Marx drew a sharp distinction between social and technical division of labor. He acknowledged that technical division of labor was inevitable in that both pleasant and unpleasant jobs had to be performed by a group of people; however, he opposed the social construct of division of labor wherein functions were determined by class and hierarchy (Fine and Saad-Filho, 2003).
Adam Smith adds to the criticism of the tendency of division of labor in deskilling workers. Smith proclaims in his work ‘the wealth of nation’ that “the man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of this mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life” (Smith, pg. 51). By strictly continuing a repetitious set of tasks each and every day with the same results, a worker fails to experience new situations, and thereby face new challenges/problems which would require him/her to utilize his/her cognitive and problem solving skills. In order words, a worker would be never pushed out of his very limited comfort zone. Turning the worker to become as “stupid” and “ignorant as it is possible for a human creature” is similarly cruel and ignorant as suppressing him/her to the condition of a machine. In this, the dexterity of a working in a specific task is achieved at the expense of his/her social, intellectual and personal virtues (Smith, pg. 782). This in turn serves the vested interest of those who believe in dominating others by suppressing their capabilities.
Commoditization of Workers
Another aspect of criticism related to the practice of division of labor pertains to the commoditization of workers. Commoditization of workers is similarly controversial and demeaning consequence of the division of labor in that it turns human labor into a quantifiable skill. When division of labor is put into practice, each individual is set to carry out a small, particular task that enables the creation of the final product after each worker has placed his input. Taylor, who was one of the first to seek industrial efficiency and look at management from a scientific, empirical approach, emphasized that “highest state of efficiency” of a man is when he is “turning out his largest daily output” (Taylor, pg. 11). However, achieving the highest level of efficiency through division of labor raises a great concern in that the division of labor does not place a man’s skill at the highest of value but rather, his level of output. In a sense, it matters not what he is doing but rather, how much of it he is doing.
Adversarial Impact of Division of Labor upon Motivation of Smart Workers
Taylor even goes on to state that division of labor is in fact adversarial for achieving the highest level of productivity, a purpose for which it was put into place. In his view, the managerial approach of division of labor fails to sustain the motivation of high performing workers. Contrarily, it spurs a ‘take it easy’ approach among highly potent, energetic and smart workers. This is mainly because the management usually needs to hire men to perform relatively similar work, at relatively the same rate, with relatively the same pay. In doing so, it successfully eliminates the smart working practices of skillful workers and demeans their energy and motivating for over-performing. If the work is to be broken down into the same basic, redundant routine that any one man can easily adapt to, at the same pay, working the same number of hours, the practice itself turns workers to give relatively the same level of output. For instance, Taylor presents a scenario of an energetic smart employee working alongside a lazy one. Taylor states that even if the energetic and smart man puts in all his effort at the beginning of his work, after working for some time next to the lazy one, the energetic man eventually begins to adapt the ‘take it easy’ approach, as he realizes that his energy and work ethic has no more recognition nor financial rewards than that of the lazy worker since the overall output of a manufacture is affected by the input of all. The energetic man eventually adopts a mentality that questions why he is putting in extra effort when the lazy worker is putting in minimal and receiving the same pay and recognition as he is (Taylor, pg. 20).
The smart and energetic is de-motivated by the fact that he/she has placed himself in the same position as all the other workers, thus making him irrelevant and worst of all, dispensable. Here lies one of the central issues to the problems of the division of labor in the modern day business environment wherein the knowledge based industries especially in the service sector are highly dependent upon skills of its employees and any adversarial impact upon their motivation level can have devastating impact for organizations.
Division of labor associates a human’s value based on the wealth he/she is able to generate, deeming his/her natural skills and character immaterial. In such a society, human beings become dependent on their work and their value is placed simply by the wealth they are able to generate for their employers. In such, government and society places the working class or the proletariat in not only a subordinate position but also where they are kept under social and economical control simply through their dependency on the limited wealth they are in need of obtaining. As Smith states that “in free countries, where the safety of government depends upon very much the favorable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it” (Smith, pg. 788). This contention captures the objective of autocratic governments and dominating corporations whose main objective is often to remain in power and keep the people under control. In the case of modern societies, maintaining control is not exerted through intimidation or violence, but rather, on the workers dependency on wealth as they know that their value depends on it. Here lies that main issue of labor commoditization.
Division of labor is conceptually an ideal approach towards increasing the productivity of the labor in that it is more efficient in terms of time, reduces dexterity of employees, and allows the utilization of machines and modern technologies. However, this practice can render the overall productivity of an organization and a nation at large as stagnant in long-term. That is due to its tendency of causing increased dependence and lack of flexibility. Moreover, it can have adversarial affect upon the motivation of smart and high performing employees. Therefore, organization and nations aiming to sustain productivity and foster innovation and creativity in long-term should try to achieve a critical balance between short term labor productivity and flexible and smart human resource development practices.
Fine, B. and Saad-Filho, A (2003) Marx’s, Capital. Pluto Press
Smith, A (1977). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. University of Chicago Press,
Taylor, F. (2003) Early Sociology of Management and Organizations: Scientific Management. Routledge,