The Discipline of Teams: The Control of Team-Based Industrial Work through Electronic and Peer Surveillance

By Sewell, Graham | Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Discipline of Teams: The Control of Team-Based Industrial Work through Electronic and Peer Surveillance


Sewell, Graham, Administrative Science Quarterly


PERSPECTIVES ON THE LABOR PROCESS

Surveillance and Teamwork: An Unexpected Combination

Surveillance in the workplace, previously a relatively neglected issue in organizational theory, is becoming the focus of much attention. New information technologies have increased the scope and reach of workplace surveillance, and never before have employees been subjected to such intense scrutiny and monitoring. Using the word surveillance to describe a feature of the contemporary workplace courts controversy, as it tends to convey negative images of suspicion, distrust, and disobedience. This is ironic, as we now celebrate positive images at work like empowerment, trust, and increased discretion. Teamwork, another feature of many contemporary workplaces and an intense focus of attention from practitioners and theorists alike, is strongly associated with these positive images. This article undertakes a critical analysis that advances our understanding of the perhaps unexpected relationship between surveillance and teamwork.

Numerous theorists (e.g., Poster, 1990; Lyon, 1994; Bogard, 1996) have provided disturbing visions of the way in which surveillance is displacing bureaucracy as the principal mode of rationalization and control in contemporary life, particularly in the workplace. This pessimism stands in sharp contrast, then, with the messages of empowerment, devolved responsibility, and the widespread reversal of repressive workplace control structures that are now commonly found in popular management books. A recurrent theme in these books is their emphasis on replacing the individual with teams as the basic unit of work organization (Barley, 1990). For its advocates, this change represents a reversal of the rationalization of Taylorism and holds a promise of mutual gain. Teams provide a means of working "smarter, not harder," and work itself becomes more effective and more fulfilling.

Given that the two positions outlined above appear antithetical, the contention that increased workplace surveillance and teamwork could be in any way related may come as a surprise. In this article, however, I will argue this very point through an examination of contemporary labor process theory. In particular, the article shows that labor process theory can retain its relevance and critical thrust despite the current popularity of teamwork as an ostensible means of moderating some of the more unattractive aspects of capitalist organization. By demonstrating that the apparently consensual workplace relations associated with teamwork are, in certain circumstances, founded on new technologies and organizational practices that ensure discipline in obtrusive and unobtrusive ways, the article sets the scene for the construction of a new model of labor process control. Reviews of empirical studies, combined with theory, provide the basis for the proposed model.

The substantive focus of this article is the role of surveillance in the control of the industrial labor process, where group objectives are pursued. This is why the model developed below may not necessarily resonate with other work situations that are closely monitored electronically but do not occur in socialized, interdependent, and synchronized organizational settings - for example, the activities of supermarket checkout operators, telesales staff, or long-distance truckers. This article does show, however, that in certain industrial settings where teamwork has been implemented, we must moderate the rhetoric of greater worker autonomy and empowerment with theoretically informed empirical studies of the labor process that reveal the possibility of heightened managerial control.

The Importance of Control in Labor Process Theory

The origins of contemporary labor process theory lie within neo-Marxist critiques of the capitalist mode of production, and its substantive focus draws on preoccupations that have changed little since the publication of Marx's Capital (Goldman, 1983). …

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