Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Management and the Abstraction of Workplace Knowledge into Big Data

Posted on | August 30, 2014 | No Comments

The factory of the future will have only two workers: a man and a dog. The human being’s job is to feed the dog, whose function is to keep the man away from the machine. – Warren Gameliel Bennis

Understanding information technologies and the emergence of “big data” in the workplace requires some scrutiny of work processes, the relationship between labor and human bodies, and the historic role of management. In particular, how has a worker’s laboring activities been transformed into knowledge that could be collected, analyzed and used by managers? What are the implications of this abstraction of labor and its transformation into abstract data and technology-assisted management?

This post looks at how industrial intelligence has been removed from the site of the working body and relocated to the electronic space of cybernetic analysis, control and communication. It also discusses how this process has been transferred to other aspects of economic and social and has been part of a new phenomenon called “big data.”

Shoshana Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (1988) was one of the more interesting inquiries into the processes of computerization and electronic communications to emerge out of the 1980s. It was a significant contribution to the organizational and sociological discussion on the way information technologies were being used in manufacturing and service sectors. One of her main contributions, the verb “informating,” provided important insights into the key practice of the new technologies and the construction of digital data in the cybernetic age.

Analyzing pre-Internet computerized environments, she identified informating as the process of digitally registering a wide range of information related to computer tasks. She both connected and compared informating to the processes of automating. Computers have historically been involved in automating – the process of replacing human activities and work with machinery. Zuboff distinguished automating from informating because the latter “produces a voice that symbolically renders events, objects, and processes so that they become visible, knowable, and shareable in a new way.”[1] Consequently, informating is an effective concept for approaching that vast data gathering and analysis project that is currently consolidating a wide range of structured and unstructured data from throughout the cybersphere.

The data collection processes involved in computerization are significant. They lead to an accumulation of information that is intimately related to the individual, and yet are essential for the continuance of modern private and public bureaucracies. As they monitor the various activities of everyday life as well as industrial production, they also keep a record that can be accessed or fed into larger databases across the Internet. For example, in a supermarket, your groceries’ barcodes are read and fed into a computer. Not only does it tabulate the price but it enters the information into database files for inventory, finance, and marketing that can later be analysed, examined, graded, and shared. In conjunction with loyalty programs and recommendation engines, big data is used by supermarkets to identify customer attributes like parenting or gluten-free preferences and tailor digital coupons and other promotions through email and social media.

Zuboff’s concern with the codification of the work environment intricacies into machine-compatible texts opened up a range of inquiry that is applicable to other facets of modern life. Drawing on what she terms the dual capacity of information technology: its ability to both automate and informate productive activities; she was able to analyze how technology changes the practices of work, managerial authority, and the supervision of employees. The “Internet of Things” (IoT), a connective network of electronic devices or “things” embedded with microelectronics, algorithmic software, and multi-faceted sensors, collects and exchanges data from dispersed objects in cloud-based data facilities for analysis. For example, “solar roads” that collect sunlight for electricity will be equipped with sensors that monitor highway conditions and alert oncoming cars as well as transportation authorities. If there’s debris or snow on the road, sensors in the smart pavement will detect it and relay the data.

The simultaneous growth of industry and bureaucracy at the beginning of the twentieth century created new demands for skills, machinery and control mechanisms that could be implemented in the workplace. Industrialism was maturing as was the consumer society, and manufacturing was gearing up for mass production. Work and workers became objects of intense study so that their skills and knowledge could be abstracted and translated into new work procedures and technologies. This process also created a growing class of managers whose job it was to study, refine and supervise these processes.

Frederick Taylor emerged as the leading figure in the trend towards observing, describing, and then systematizing worker’s skills so that they could be “re-engineered,” to use a modern buzzword. Taylor’s studies of minute worker activity lead to “time studies” designed to refine muscular movement in manufacturing and other work activities. They were also meant to “provide the quantitative empirical basis for a more rationalized control of industrial production.”[4] In Zuboff’s terms: “Taylorism meant that the body as the source of skill was to be the object of inquiry in order that the body as a source of effort could become the object of more control.”

She elaborates on the use of the information:

    Once explicated, the workers know-how was expropriated to the ranks of management, where it became management’s prerogative to reorganize that knowledge according to its own interests, needs, and motives. The growth of the management hierarchy depended in part on upon this transfer of knowledge from the private sentience of the worker’s active body to the lists, flowcharts, and other systems of measurement in the planner’s office.[2]

Taylor’s work was published as The Principles of Scientific Management (1911). His ideas were a major inspiration for the efficiency movement that sought to identify and eliminate waste in all social and economic areas of what would be called the Progressive Era in the US.

Taylor’s “scientific management” ideas were never implemented by any one company without some modification. However, Henry Ford was able to simplify the process with his moving assembly line for automobile production. He implemented a series of conveyor belts, overhead rails and planned sequences that would keep production in constant flow. Based on the Midwest’s great meat-packing “disassembly” lines, Ford aspired to the ease in which oil and other liquids and gasses could be moved and processed.[4]

By further reducing the need for physical effort and skill, Ford was able to develop economies of scale and create the gigantic new automobile industry that could grow and include new unskilled immigrants and rural laborers. One of the costs involved, however, was the loss of skilled labor. Worker’s capabilities became “congealed” in the machinery, in the sense that their energies and skills are designed into the machinery of production, including robots. Also, one working body could be replaced easily by another. Often the benefit was an easier job for the worker in terms of physical toil, but it came at the price of the autonomy and negotiating power.

Managers facilitated the movement of bodily effort and skill into the machines and industrial techniques and then expanded into the intellectual areas of the owner/executive. Workers and managers operate with different types of literacies. Workers have been generally body-oriented and utilize the action-centered skills developed in physical labor. They develop implicit knowledges gained through performance and learned by observation and imitation. Zuboff called the activities when laborers use their bodies to work on materials and tools “acting-on.” Whether stirring paper pulp, operating a forklift or typing on computer keyboards, their major concern is with working with things rather than people.[5]

Conversely, white-collar workers use their bodies in significantly different ways. Although differences occur between top managers and middle managers, she uses the term “acting-with” to distinguish managers’ main responsibilities from the “acting-on” activities that monopolize workers’ activities. Top managers are also very much engaged in bodily activities, but primarily those that call on their abilities to interact with other people. Bodily presence, manifested primarily through the voice but also through dress and non-verbal behaviors are key to their success. Face-to-face verbal interchanges culling gossip, opinion, hearsay, and physical cues while transmitting in a way that heightens their personal charisma and sociability is a primary responsibility of top managers. Zuboff returns to the word “sentience” to describe the way top managers develop a “feel” for people and situations.

Zuboff’s study of working environments was conducted in the era of traditional databases that collected, sorted, and retrieved data according to prescripted formats and stored on a mainframe’s magnetic tape. With the introduction of Internet, cheap servers, data centers and software solutions like Hadoop, a new system became possible. It was feasible to collect unstructured data from mobile devices, PCs, and the whole Internet of “things” in the workplace. Information from data sources such as environmental sensors, production schedules, timesheets, etc., increasingly became fodder for analysis and innovative value creation.

She also drew on the politics of Michel Foucault, who focused, in part, on the “panopticon” of procedures of examination and file-building that were a crucial for the exercise of modern power. The examination works to hold their subjects of attention “in a mechanism of objectification.”[6] Examination turns the economies of surveillance and visibility into an operation of control. It proceeds by the textualization, the informating of data according to a set of prescribed protocols and knowledges. The file has an agenda and not just a loose collection of random documents. Under this official gaze, individuals become blank slates to be evaluated, classified, and registered in the official system of files. Max Weber had already identified the file to be crucial for the organization of bureaucracy. The examination that places individuals in a field of surveillance also situates them in a network of big data collection; it engages them in a whole mass of documents that capture and fix them.”[7]

These “cybernetic identities” are characteristic of the information age where the proliferation of multimediated information is changing the way people operate in the arenas of their lives. Furthermore, since information technology is largely developed out of institutional requirements, it is inherently political. Cybernetic identities are connected to the great bureaucratic spaces of credit, education, and production. They are the result of types of observation, classification, and registration. They result from a penetrating gaze which codes, disciplines, and files under the appropriate heading. Actions lose their actuality, and bodies lose their corporeality.

Mark Poster used Foucault to think about the consequences of computer databases on subjectivity and its multiplication of selves to feed an extensive array of organizational files. He was less concerned with databases as “an invasion of privacy, as a threat to a centered individual, but as the multiplication of the individual, the constitution of an additional self, one that may be acted upon to the detriment of the ‘real’ self without that ‘real’ self ever being aware of what is happening.” The texture of postmodern subjectivity is dispersed among multiple sources of information production and storage. In The Mode of Information, he warned of the “destabilization of the subject,” a fixed self no more but rather one “multiplied by databases, dispersed by computer messaging and conferencing, decontextualized and re-identified by TV ads, dissolved and materialized continuously in the electronic transmission of symbols.”[8] In an age when Google wants to “organize the world’s information,” we are still trying to determine the implications of that multiplication of identity within the networks of institutional power.


[1] Zuboff, Shoshana. In the Age of the Smart Machine: the Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic, 1988. Print., p. 9.
[4] Beniger, The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Revolution. 1986; p. 298-299.
[2] Beniger, JamesThe Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. 1986; p. 294.
[3] Zuboff, S. In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power. 1988; p. 43.

[5] Distinctions between “acting-on” and acting-with” from Zuboff, S. In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future Of Work And Power. 1988; p. ??.
[6] Rabinow, Paul, comp. The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin, 1991. Print., p. 200-201.
[7] Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990. Print. p. 98
[8] Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990. Print. p. 15.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor of global media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.


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