Technology and the Transformation of White-Collar Work

By Robert E. Kraut | Go to book overview

components parcelled out to different workers. The trick has been accomplished in a way that will come as no surprise to management specialists. Some people make general decisions about design, hiring, expenditures, schedules, and so on, while other people do the work. Programming, in short, has been industrialized (see Kraft, 1977, chapter 3; Kraft & Dubnoff, in press).

There is an office where policy is made and selling is conducted. A second tier of managers supervises and evaluates designers who in turn specify and oversee the labor of the technical "detail men" who actually make the systems and applications software. Finally, there is a group whose function it is to grease the wheels and keep the customers happy. The people who make the decisions and set the specifications hardly ever get their hands dirty writing code or manuals or testing software. Similarly, the people who actually do the software work almost never make decisions about the hardware or software they use, the programs they will work on, or the direction of their organization. This is, I think, as clear a picture of what Braverman ( 1974) called the separation of conception and execution as one is likely to see, except that it has taken place in an intellectual occupation. Conception and execution have been separated in mind work.


CONCLUSION

Our findings indicate that in this most high tech of high-tech occupations the traditional differences between manager and managed are the most salient characteristics of software work, not the technological component of the work, not the emphasis on mind work, not the high capital-labor ratio, but an entirely conventional division of labor and separation of control and execution.

Computers have replicated the traditional relations of the shop floor, not transformed them. On the contrary, computer work itself has been transformed and now looks remarkably like conventional work. The shift, appropriately enough, has been reflected in techno-speak, which has transformed "programming" into "software production" (and, it should be noted, also transformed "idiot proof" into the "user-friendly professional workstation"). What is remarkable about the software shop is not how different it is from the machine shop, but how similar.

Ironically, the machine shop and other traditional industries may be more advanced in at least one respect: There are sizeable numbers of blacks and other minority Americans in the auto and steel industries. The same cannot be said of computer software occupations, which are 95% white.4 The

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4
The breakdown in our sample is white: 95%; black: 1%; other: 4%. This is essentially the same as contemporary ( 1983) BLS findings.

-109-

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