Power Sharing May Transform the Workplace

John F. Lawrence is The Times' economic affairs editor

One of the biggest tasks facing business schools is to turn out graduates able to manage tomorrow's businesses, not just yesterday's. It requires spotting change early.

So it's not surprising that some of the language is changing in MBA programs, with new words such as "informating," and a new emphasis on concepts such as "power sharing" and "self-managing." Personnel matters, of course, are fast becoming "human resource management" and there's a new way to refer to people in the factory--call them "manufacturing professionals," not production workers.

It's all part of a basic transformation that some teachers at Harvard Business School believe is already affecting American business. The evidence is there if you look for it, they insist--although even Harvard may have been a little slow to catch on.

"The curriculum had gotten behind the innovation" taking place in some businesses, Professor Richard Walton remarked at a Harvard seminar last week. Now, however, Harvard has strengthened its MBA curriculum in hopes of turning out future executives with a radically different view of the management function.

In simple terms, companies are shifting to a far more participative form of organization, blurring distinctions between the manager and the managed. The change is an outgrowth of many factors, ranging from the alienation produced by high-speed production lines and narrow, repetitive jobs to the desire for greater job satisfaction that generally accompanies higher living standards. Old military-style direction and blind obedience are less acceptable, and proving less productive.

Shift to 'Commitment'

Walton describes the shift in management style as one from "control," in which the lines of authority are clear and strong, to one of "commitment," where employees share some power and responsibility with leaders and thus are encouraged to be more involved and dedicated. Jobs become less narrow and dull as workers are asked to use their heads as well as their muscles.

What may propel business to the greatest change, however, is computer technology and the impact it has on job routines.

Computers already operate some production facilities, moving workers off the line and in front of computer screens. The risk, of course, is that computers could make operations even more remote from the worker.

After extensive on-site research with computerized manufacturing operations, however, Harvard's Shoshana Zuboff, an assistant professor in the business school, concludes that there is an opportunity to produce quite a different result. The computer can make available to the individual worker a far broader picture of the production operation, including the interrelationship of many factors. For the first time, many of these individuals are in a position to make judgments and decisions that previously only a manager had the information to make. That assumes that the employer allows such data to be broadly available, a process she calls "informating."

Everyone Is Manager

The net result ultimately is that operations become more self-managing and the job of the manager becomes more that of a teacher. "The way I think of it, everyone is a manager," Zuboff says. "At some companies I work with, I suggest they call everybody 'manufacturing professionals.' "

There's still an important role for management in such areas as strategic planning, where managers' broad understanding of the business is particularly useful.

Nonetheless, the concept threatens some old management precepts, one of which is that only managers can be trusted with key information. It reduces the need for hierarchy and raises difficult questions about different status and compensation levels for workers and their managers.

Still, the concept could boost productivity and harness computer technology so that jobs become more satisfying. Now the trick is to get the idea from classroom to factory floor.

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