Innovation
Digital Taylorism: Amazon's chief rejects depiction of "soulless, dystopian workplace"
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Aug 18, 2015 - 8:27 AM

Digital Taylorism: Amazon.com's founder and chief executive on Monday in a message to staff rejected what he termed a depiction of the company as a "soulless, dystopian workplace" and he suggested that if that was the reality, staff would be "crazy" to remain in such an organisation.

Jeff Bezos was reacting to an article in the New York Times on Saturday. "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace" which had a strapline: "The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions."

In contrast with Silicon Valley companies such as Google which have a reputation for lavishing staff with enviable perks, America's biggest e-commerce company which was founded 20 years ago and is headquartered in Seattle, is more comparable in the frugality stakes with Ireland's Ryanair.

"Work hard. have fun. make history." is Amazon's motto and Bezos told the Harvard Business Review in 2008: "I always tell people our culture is friendly but intense, but if push comes to shove we'll settle for intense."

In 2012 The Seattle Times began a report from Kentucky: "On an average day, 51-year-old Connie Milby covered more than 10 miles in her tennis shoes, walking and climbing up and down three flights of stairs to retrieve tools, toys and a vast array of other merchandise for Amazon.com shoppers.

She filled online orders for more than a decade, working through summer heat and winter chill inside the company's south-central Kentucky warehouse.

One constant was the pace that Milby tried to keep to avoid write-ups from her supervisors that could put her $12.50-per-hour job at risk."

On Saturday, The New York Times wrote: [At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another's ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are "unreasonably high." The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another's bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: "I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.")]

"This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren't easy," said Susan Harker, Amazon's top recruiter, according to the NYT. "When you're shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn't work."

[Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. "You walk out of a conference room and you'll see a grown man covering his face," he said. "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."]

The Times said it interviewed more than 100 current and former Amazon employees, including many who spoke on the record and some who requested anonymity because they had signed agreements saying they would not speak to the press.

The newspaper said Amazon spokesmen declined to comment further on Monday. Jay Carney, Amazon's chief spokesman and President Obama's press secretary until June 2014, appeared on "CBS This Morning" to defend the company. "This is an incredibly compelling place to work," he said, having traded one job for another where a brass neck is a more important attribute than telling the truth.

Saturday's report says: "Amazon employees are held accountable for a staggering array of metrics, a process that unfolds in what can be anxiety-provoking sessions called business reviews, held weekly or monthly among various teams. A day or two before the meetings, employees receive printouts, sometimes up to 50 or 60 pages long, several workers said. At the reviews, employees are cold-called and pop-quizzed on any one of those thousands of numbers."

Vox quotes Brad Stone in his history of Amazon: [During one memorable meeting, a female employee pointedly asked Bezos when Amazon was going to establish a better work-life balance. He didn't take that well. "The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority," he answered bluntly. "That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can't excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you."]

Vox adds: [The Amazon exposé's clearest analogue is Anne-Marie Slaughter's viral Atlantic article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," which limned the difficulty of working a top job at the State Department while also trying to be a good parent. Slaughters records her frustration at "how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be."

Slaughter's article was the most-read piece in the Atlantic's history.]

Jeff Bezos' message to Amazon staff

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven't already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu

Here's why I'm writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn't describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it's rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don't recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don't, either. More broadly, I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don't recognize the company described. Hopefully, you're having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,

Jeff

Digital Taylorism

When I was a student at University College Cork I first encountered the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American who died one hundred years ago this year. He remains famous for what he termed "scientific management" - which promoted the breakdown of work processes in manufacturing and areas such as bricklaying to movements and the use of tools that would enable work to be standardised to achieve consistent high productivity.

He highlighted separating planning from doing in production and he could be termed the inspiration for people who are called "Ambots" - the individuals who thrive at Amazon.

A decade after Taylor's death, a series of longitudinal studies lasting from 1924 to 1933 on the use of Taylor's scientific management system began at the Western Electric Company telephone equipment manufacturing plant in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago. More than 40,000 people worked at what was known as the Hawthorne Works and two Harvard academics, Elton May and Fritz Roethlisberger, were commissioned to interpret the results.

"Instead of treating the workers as an appendage to ‘the machine'," Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, currently professor in the Practice of Management at Yale School of Management, noted in his detailed analysis of the studies in 1985. He said that the Hawthorne experiments brought to light ideas concerning motivational influences, job satisfaction, resistance to change, group norms, worker participation, and effective leadership.

The Economist noted in 2008: "The experimenters concluded that it was not the changes in physical conditions that were affecting the workers' productivity. Rather, it was the fact that someone was actually concerned about their workplace, and the opportunities this gave them to discuss changes before they took place.

A crucial element in Mayo's findings was the effect that working in groups had on the individual."

There is a common assumption in the global knowledge economy that there is a straightforward relationship between learning and earning. The key finding of research conducted by Phillip Brown (Cardiff University), Hugh Lauder (University of Bath) and David Ashton (University of Leicester) challenges this assumption. In contrast, they argue we have entered a global cut-price competition for brainpower.

At the same time that some occupational elites have been able to use their market power to hike-up their salaries, many university graduates in Britain and the United States, confront a reverse or Dutch auction in which they will be competing with much cheaper graduates in countries like India and China.

Key findings:

  • Multinational companies have global skill strategies, which affect the job prospects of many graduates in the West;
  • Many graduates in Britain and the USA are competing for jobs with lower cost graduates from East Asia;
  • High quality, low cost goods and services can be produced anywhere, provided there are basic transport and communications infrastructures;
  • Many ‘knowledge' jobs are now standardized, routinized and digitalized. The rise of ‘digital-Taylorism' has meant a further squeeze on graduate jobs;
  • A few graduates from top universities are recruited as ‘talent' and they will gain highly paid jobs with ‘permission to think'. The majority in Britain and the USA will receive lower wages than their parents, unless a new business model is created.

The researchers say that "Digital Taylorism...takes the form of a power struggle within the middle classes, as future productivity gains will reduce the autonomy and discretion of the majority of managers and professionals. This encourages the segmentation of ‘knowledge' work so that ‘permission to think' is granted to a small proportion of employees responsible for driving the business forward."


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