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Amazon is no stranger to controversy and media accounts of relentless work practices and management style have caused a predictable outcry. But they should be seen in a wider context.
Amazon, consistently voted one of the world’s most admired companies, may be more systematic than others, but it is far from alone in its hard-driving style. Studies suggest that work-related stress costs 120,000 lives and $190bn a year in additional healthcare expenses in the US alone. That is not all down to one company. The harsh reality, says Professor Julian Birkinshaw of London Business School, “is that today’s large business organisations are . . . miserable places to spend our working lives. Fear and distrust are endemic. Aggressive and unpleasant behaviour is condoned.”
Do not expect the pressures and insecurities to go away. It’s not just that innovations made in downturns, such as zero-hours contracts, rapidly become part of the employment landscape. The difference now is that digital technology makes real-time performance management easy and tempting for managers constantly seeking to boost performance. Big data and the “quantified self” movement have spawned a plethora of start-ups offering time-tracking, performance-monitoring and instant-feedback apps of the kind that Amazon urges its employees to use to comment privately on the activity of peers and supervisors.
Indeed, cynics suggest that big companies such as GE, Accenture and Deloitte are trumpeting their abandonment of the annual ritual of performance appraisal not through realisation that “they were a terrible idea in the first place because they are based on an elementary misunderstanding of what it is to be human”, as FT management columnist, Lucy Kellaway hoped, but because it is much easier and less time-consuming to do them in real time via an app on a smartphone. The creators of these techniques reject such Big Brother intentions. Capital markets are demanding every ounce of efficiency, they argue, and the resulting transparency and accountability will lead to greater engagement in the long run.
“In the office of the future you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it,” says one entrepreneur. But they don’t deny that work intensification is the result. And while some people can live, or more disquietingly collude, with always-on surveillance (as in Dave Eggers’ chilling internet-age satirical novel, The Circle), for others the consequence is stress and illness. One employee likened 24/7 location-tracking software to wearing an offender’s ankle bracelet.
The other threat in these data-driven work practices is less obvious but no less insidious. Working to multiple goals at machine-tracked tempo inevitably puts people in competition with computers. As Martin Ford warns in the Rise of the Robots, if you’re working with software, you’re probably training it to replace you. Automation is just the logical next step. Running this forward, the digital revolution would just supercharge trends of inequality, winner-takes-all and the hollowing out of employment: the triumph of anti-humanity, in fact.
Yet these are not inevitable outcomes. For example, Carlota Perez, the socio-economic scholar, argues that, as in past waves of creative destruction, the boom-and-bust cycle has left behind the potential for a new global “golden age” that could see digital technology driving “green” growth and sustainable global development, benefiting all humankind.
But tapping that potential won’t be easy. Again, as in previous cycles, it would require bold governments and international bodies to use the crisis to reshape the conditions that caused it. Institutional imagination being in conspicuously short supply from governments and international bodies still in thrall to the failed Washington consensus puts managers in the hot seat.
As it happens, they have an opportunity to face up to the challenge next month at what has become management’s unofficial annual summit, the 2015 Global Peter Drucker Forum. Under the banner “Claiming our Humanity”, it poses urgent questions, such as how digital technology can be deployed to improve the human condition generally; whether it can be used to augment human capacity rather than replace it; and how management can be reframed as richly human rather than the desiccated economic ideology of the past three decades. It is an historic responsibility that cannot be shirked. As Drucker remarked: “We are becoming aware that the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human.” And yes, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s contribution on that would be welcome, too.