Accounting for Teamwork: A Critical Study of Group-Based Systems of Organizational Control
Ezzamel, Mahmoud, Willmott, Hugh, Administrative Science Quarterly
Teamwork is currently being championed as a way of replacing inflexible, dehumanizing, bureaucratic mechanisms with more humanistic, involving, cultural-ideological methods of coordinating productive activity (Marchington, 1992; Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). It has been strongly advocated by influential management thinkers (e.g., Drucker, 1988; Peters, 1989) as well as by the advocates of total quality management (TQM) and business process reengineering (BPR). Academics have identified moves toward teamwork as a prominent feature of a broader trend "in the direction of decentralised, flexible networks" that allegedly promote "a culture of expression and involvement" (Reed, 1992: 227, 229), claiming it to be "currently the most popular form of organizational restructuring" (Barker and Tompkins, 1994: 224). Teamwork forms part of a broader movement to develop lean production (Womack, Jones, and Roos, 1990) and high commitment workforces (Wood and Albanese, 1995) in which control is allegedly replaced by commitment (Walton, 1985). Even those who question the substance of claimed shifts away from traditional, modernist organizational forms (e.g., Thompson and Wallace, 1995) have concluded that teamwork is likely to remain in vogue because it is part of a trend in restructuring work.
In a recent literature review, Mueller (1994) noted the diversity of traditions in which teamwork has been featured, including self-management (e.g., Manz and Sims, 1987), sociotechnical work design (e.g., Trist, 1981), empowerment (e.g., Wellins, Byham, and Wilson, 1991), and employment flexibility (e.g., Marchington, 1992). Conspicuously absent from this review is any mention of studies conducted within a critical research tradition. These studies have shown how, especially when combined with supportive policies of recruitment and selection, teamwork practices can disempower employees by strengthening managerial control and intensifying work activity in the name of progress and the more effective management of "human resources" (e.g., Parker and Slaughter, 1988; Garrahan and Stewart, 1992). Others have voiced concerns about the coercive and potentially totalitarian features of "devotional" team culture and ideology (Barley and Kunda, 1992).
The analysis we present here of teamwork at StitchCo (a pseudonym for a major U.K.-based company) broadly confirms the assessment of those who have welcomed teamwork as a means of improving productivity and competitiveness (e.g., Tjosvold, 1991; Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). Teamwork appealed to StitchCo management when accounting calculations indicated that it could provide a cost-effective, continuously improving way of enhancing profitability by responding more rapidly to shifting market demands, competitive pressures, and business opportunities. Like authors of many other analyses of teamwork, we also pay attention to its psychosocial and cultural-ideological dimensions. But instead of viewing teamwork as a slicker means of work coordination that promises to "re-align individual motivation with organizational rationality" (Mueller, 1994: 386), we show how its introduction at StitchCo was embedded in a political economy of work organization. While appearing to deliver universal benefits, teamwork can conceal or dissemble a variety of unsavory features of work reorganization, including coercion masquerading as empowerment and the camouflaging of managerial expediency in the rhetorics of "clannism" and humanization (Knights and Willmott, 1987; Sinclair, 1992). When acknowledged in mainstream commentaries on teamwork, these features tend to be attributed to managers' failure to "manage the context" effectively (Jenkins, 1994). Even when there is an appreciation of the contingencies that shape teamwork in different cultural and organizational settings (e.g., Mueller, 1994), no connection is made between the difficulties encountered in realizing the ideals of teamwork (e.g., self-management, high problem-solving capability, etc.) and pressures to maintain or increase corporate profitability that invariably compromise these ideals (Danford, 1997). Moreover, critics of teamwork, such as Sinclair (1992), rarely support their claims with detailed empirical analysis. In this paper, we combine a critique of mainstream conceptualizations of teamwork with a detailed empirical study of its introduction, including the use of accounting calculations to justify and control teamwork as a way of contributing to a restoration of corporate profitability with the minimum of capital investment.
Our study contributes to a small but growing number of critical, in-depth studies of teamwork (e.g., Barker, 1993; Pollert, 1996; McKinlay and Taylor, 1996; Marks et al., 1997; Danford, 1997) by building on and illustrating a comparatively well-established critique in a way that incorporates two sparsely researched aspects of its practical organization. The critique contends that exhortations to "take collective responsibility" are a feature of teamwork but that their practical realization may well be impeded when teamwork is adopted as an extension of and supplement to a traditional management system. The intent to abolish some features of this system, such as close supervision, should not be uncritically conflated with a dilution or demise of an established top-down structure of control. From a critical perspective, it is understood that team-based work organization neither eliminates "the control imperative," nor does it "smother worker dissent and resistance" (McKinlay and Taylor, 1996: 289). While we acknowledge that teamwork can deliver managerially desired, cost-effective outcomes, as it did at StitchCo, we challenge the claim of those commentators, including critical analysts (e.g., Barker, 1993), who have claimed that teamwork involves a significant shift from a traditional management system (Womack, Jones, and Roos, 1990). We extend this critique in two ways. First, we highlight the role of accounting calculations in justifying the introduction of teamwork and supporting its day-to-day operation, a topic generally neglected by sociologists of organization (but see Meyer, 1986; Zald, 1986). Our examination of the use of accounting measures in establishing and sustaining teamwork contributes to a small but growing body of research undertaken by accounting academics that explores how accounting is implicated in processes of organizational change (e.g., Hopwood, 1990; Ezzamel, 1994; Jones and Dugdale, 1995). Second, and of greater theoretical importance, we address the issue of how employees' sense of self-identity renders them more or less receptive to moves in the direction of teamwork. While some studies have suggested the significance of self-identity for facilitating management control or stimulating employee resistance (e.g., Kerfoot and Knights, 1992; Barker, 1993), it has not been a focus of analysis.
Coordination and Control
In much of the administrative science literature, the concept of control is used in a broad, nondiscriminating way to identify diverse ideologies and practices - from Taylorism to TQM - that have been developed to organize productive activity. When the term control is deployed to represent these ideologies and practices as technical means of securing unproblematical ends, there is little recognition of their political construction and representation in relations of domination. For example, Tjosvold (1991: 85-86) has suggested that teamwork, as a new means of management control, yields "ultimate competitive advantage" as "workers invent new ways to reduce costs and improve product quality."
For employees, the benefits of teamwork are routinely represented in terms of their empowerment as they are enabled to assume a degree of supervisory and managerial responsibility for the organization of their work facilitated through "individual responsibility and team accountability" (Tjosvold, 1991: 35; emphasis omitted). Teamwork is assumed to be a "win-win" situation in which conditions of work are improved and future employment prospects secured. The needs ascribed to employees for more fulfilling jobs are satisfied, and the needs attributed to the organization for more effective working methods are simultaneously fulfilled. This understanding assumes that employees find the new ways of working more interesting and value greater responsibility for managing their work. A particular, humanistic and essentialist, conception of identity is assigned to employees in which it is taken for granted that any normal human being will embrace the opportunity to assume increased individual responsibility. The self-identity of employees is abstracted from the historical and cultural context in which it is constructed. This humanistic, normalizing vision assumes that employees will welcome the incorporation of managerial responsibilities within teamwork as an unequivocal benefit and that refusing this "empowerment" is irrational because it violates their essential human needs.
Mainstream discussions of teamwork assume a top-management perspective in which an instrumental humanism is uncritically embraced. No distinction is made between the use of mechanisms of organization to coordinate complex divisions of labor and their use to control and legitimize structured social inequalities of wealth and status. As a consequence, it is assumed that the existence of hierarchical control to coordinate the division of labor is dictated by a technical imperative of functional necessity. Yet in capitalist enterprises, people do not "come together freely and spontaneously to set up work organizations" (Fox, 1974: 284). Rather, lacking other forms of wealth, they are compelled by material necessity to sell their labor as a way of providing for themselves and their dependents. Likewise, work is not organized or reorganized to establish a more technically rational or functional way of coordinating productive activity. Rather, improved rationality or functionality is ascribed to changes that are introduced in an effort to reproduce a political-economic system in which socially produced wealth is privately appropriated (Marglin, 1974; Willmott, 1997).
Economic and psychological dependency may induce employees of capitalist enterprises to comply with management's requirements, but cooperation for the purposes of earning a wage does not necessarily imply an acceptance of corporate priorities. Even when subscription to a work ethic prompts entry into work organizations, the employment relationship invariably restricts employee control over the nature and conditions of available work. Sellers of labor are not concerned about corporate profitability per se, even though the former is conditional on the latter. Employers cannot, and do not, assume that employees can be "'trusted' to identify with the goals of management" as if they owned or co-managed the enterprise (Salaman, 1981: 164). Symptomatic of the social division of labor between managers and managed, the managers of capitalist enterprises repeatedly encounter a "problem of control, direction and legitimacy" (Salaman, 1981: 164) as they strive to develop and harness the capacities of employees so that an acceptable return on invested capital is secured. In an effort to redress the deficit of unconditional cooperation, often represented as a lack of motivation or as poor communication, managers, consultants and academics have prescribed the development of elaborate organizational means of controlling the potential recalcitrance of employees. Notably, seemingly neutral, functionally necessary systems and procedures (e.g., Taylorism, Fordism) have been devised that are intended to render processes of accumulation more predictable and sustainable by discharging business "according to calculable rules and without regard for persons" (Weber, 1948: 80).
In the traditional management system of work organization, the productivity of individual workers is raised by increasing their proficiency at performing narrowly defined and closely supervised tasks. When demand is buoyant and there is little pressure to reduce costs or innovate, the rigidities as well as the dependencies engendered by this design of work organization are preserved. During profitable times, the managerial task of eliminating less than fully efficient manufacturing practices is subordinated to maximizing profit by ensuring production flow (Ezzamel, Willmott, and Worthington, 1996). When markets become saturated, rates of innovation accelerate, and competition intensifies, however, the viability of this system for sustaining profitability becomes increasingly precarious, as anxieties are expressed about low rates of innovation and an overburdened management hierarchy. There is then pressure to scrutinize established practices, including the organization of work within a highly specialized division; hence, the sustained wave of interest during the 1990s in new, leaner manufacturing systems, including the shift from line work to teamwork as a way of improving quality, reducing waste, increasing throughput, and thereby securing desired levels of profitability.
Typically, all this is ignored when processes of coordination are conflated with structures of control. Attention is narrowly and uncritically focused around technical questions of whether a particular system of work organization offers the most cost-effective means of securing the required level of corporate performance in a specific context (e.g., Donaldson, 1985). Conversely, resistance to such "rational" mechanisms is diagnosed as symptomatic of managers' incompetence or as the irrational reaction of recalcitrant employees. Such diagnoses simply omit, or refuse to acknowledge, that the business of organizing employees in ways that yield a surplus from their productive activity is inherently problematical for social and political, and not just technical or functional, reasons. Even when employees are resigned to the exploitative principles of capitalist economic organization, coordinating a complex division of labor necessitates the imposition of a structure of control, including normative controls, because employees cannot be "'trusted' to identify with the goals of management" (Salaman, 1981: 164).
Central to the design of new, leaner systems of production is the use of various forms of "management at a distance." Close, personal supervision is relaxed or removed in favor of programs that, for example, seek to increase employee identification with corporate values (Willmott, 1993a) and/or use accounting measures to improve performance (Ezzamel et al., 1995). The objective of these methods is not simply to improve the coordination of productive effort but, more fundamentally, to induce and discipline employees to work at a pace or in ways that are intended to increase or at least maintain profitability. New methods of control, including teamwork, are welcomed so long as it is anticipated that they will enable managers to ensure that capitalists will continue to own and appropriate what employees produce. This requires capitalists and their managerial agents to "convince workers, through means subtle or brutal, to produce goods that they (the capitalists) will profit from" (Edwards, 1994: 89). It is at this shifting frontier of control that the exploitative dynamics of capitalism clash with the practical concerns of employees. These concerns include the implications of changing working practices for sustaining a sense of self-identity, as well as their consequences for future working conditions and employment prospects. The existence and relevance of this clash for understanding work organization is ignored when control is conflated with coordination.
The reluctance of mainstream thinking to acknowledge the structure of control in which mechanisms of coordination are embedded is illustrated by Mintzberg's (1979)influential The Structuring of Organizations. He identified five coordinating mechanisms - mutual adjustment, direct supervision, and the standardization of work processes, outputs, and skills - but abstracted these technical mechanisms from their development and application within the established social relations of production. According to Mintzberg, mutual adjustment - a key feature of the substitution of teamwork for a more fragmented division of labor - is most likely to be adopted when "the divided tasks of the organization prove impossible to standardize" (Mintzberg, 1979: 8). Yet, in many manufacturing organizations, there is no technical problem in standardizing the tasks, which is perfected to a fault in line work, and a division of tasks is often retained in moves to teamwork.
Similarly, in a text that has been especially influential in the field of management accounting, Anthony and Drearden (1976) abstracted management control from the social relations of production as they represented it as a series of activities, such as planning and evaluating information. As Puxty and Chua (1989: 126) commented about seemingly neutral and objective accounting techniques such as performance measurement and budgeting, "Not only can the redoubtable plan, for example the annual budget, be used to close off unwanted alternatives and to advance one's own agenda, it may obscure class-based issues." This assessment echoes our earlier argument that when mechanisms of organization are represented as universal or contingent techniques, no analytical distinction is made between mechanisms of coordination undertaken by those actively engaged in productive activity and structures of control designed and mobilized by others (i.e., owners and managers) to construct and maintain their position of relative material and symbolic advantage. This understanding has been elaborated by the few critical researchers who have paid attention to the role of accounting in supporting the hierarchical control of productive labor (see Morgan, 1990; Puxty, 1993 for overviews).
Beyond Orthodox Labor Process Theory
In contrast to mainstream theory, where coordination is conflated with control, labor process analysis has focused on the dialectic of management control and worker resistance arising from the clash between the exploitative dynamics of capitalism and the practical concerns of employees (e.g., Braverman, 1974; Edwards, 1979). The particular merit of this approach, as Giddens (1982: 39) has argued, is that it moves beyond mainstream forms of analysis to show that "the rationality of technique in modern industrial enterprise is not neutral in respect of class domination." As Giddens (1982: 40) has also observed, however, a major limitation of labor process analysis is its incapacity to provide "an adequate discussion of the reactions of workers, as themselves knowledgeable and capable agents, to the technical division of labour." More specifically, orthodox labor process analysis lacks a "theory of the subject" (Willmott, 1993b) that can provide an explanation of why employees will value and defend work practices even when they recognize these practices to be oppressive and designed to increase the rate of exploitation (Barker, 1993).
Departing from the economistic analysis advanced by orthodox labor process theory, we contend that the development of structures of control in capitalist enterprises is mediated by the social construction and maintenance of a sense of self-identity by those who are engaged in changing or defending these structures. Self-identity is conceptualized as an experience of continuity across time and space as interpreted by the agent (Giddens, 1979: 128; 1991: 53). It "is not to be found in behaviour, nor - important though it is - in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going" (1991: 54; emphasis in original). A feeling of comparative well-being and security accompanies the process of keeping the narrative going, just as anxiety about being "engulfed, crushed or overwhelmed" by events is associated with its disruption (Giddens, 1991: 53). Importantly, self-identity is not given or fixed; to …
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Publication information: Article title: Accounting for Teamwork: A Critical Study of Group-Based Systems of Organizational Control. Contributors: Ezzamel, Mahmoud - Author, Willmott, Hugh - Author. Journal title: Administrative Science Quarterly. Volume: 43. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 1998. Page number: 358+. © 1999 Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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