Deconstructing Management Science: Introducing the Self-Management Notes Project

Managers supervise a time and motion study.
Man­agers super­vise a time and motion study.

All rad­i­cal the­o­rists worth their salt start with the self-activ­ity of the work­ing class. Through Mary Burns, an Irish worker he met in Man­ches­ter, Friedrich Engels dis­cov­ered the work­ing class. Years later, Karl Marx drafted a work­ers’ inquiry to gain “an exact and pos­i­tive” knowl­edge of French work­ers. Through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of all stripes tried to dis­cover the com­po­si­tion of work­ing class by leaflet­ing the fac­tory gates with ques­tion­naires, con­duct­ing inter­views with work­ers, and even find­ing jobs at work­places. The point, of course, was not just to bet­ter under­stand work­ing life, but to learn how to appro­pri­ately inter­vene in the polit­i­cal strug­gles unfold­ing all around them. For many of these groups, such as Social­isme ou Bar­barie or the Ital­ian work­erists, social­ist the­ory and strat­egy, even the very con­tent of social­ist project itself, could only be derived from the every­day expe­ri­ences of the work­ing class.

In some cases, cap­i­tal­ists con­ducted their own “worker inquiries,” albeit for the exact oppo­site pur­poses – main­tain­ing bet­ter con­trol of the work­force, increas­ing pro­duc­tion, and quash­ing dis­sent. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Hawthorne Stud­ies famously inter­viewed 20,000 work­ers to uncover social rela­tion­ships at the work­place.1 More recently, an impor­tant man­age­ment the­ory pub­lished in 2007 named the “inner work life the­ory” devel­oped its con­clu­sions from col­lect­ing diary entries recorded in a stan­dard­ized for­mat from 238 pro­fes­sion­als work­ing in 26 project teams. 12,000 diary entries were then analysed to reveal what the researchers ter­med “The Real­ity Man­age­ment Never Sees.”2 There are many other the­o­ries derived from these meth­ods. A strik­ing exam­ple of the sim­i­lar­i­ties between the work­ers’ inquiry of rad­i­cals and man­age­ment inves­ti­ga­tions can be seen in Jamie Woodcock’s inquiry into call cen­ters, where he dis­cov­ered that an “under­cover boss” was busy research­ing the very same work­place in which his inquiry was tak­ing place. This idea of an under­cover boss is now some­thing that has been worked into a real­ity tele­vi­sion show in the United King­dom, and there will soon be close to 16 ver­sions inter­na­tion­ally.

It should be no sur­prise, then, that the same rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who inquired into the work­ing class also pored over man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture. After all, Marx not only read the bour­geois polit­i­cal econ­o­mists, he spent years read­ing blue books at the British Museum. In the 1950s, Social­isme ou Bar­barie mil­i­tants engaged with indus­trial soci­ol­ogy, took account of time and motion stud­ies, and stud­ied man­age­ment tech­niques. Obvi­ously this knowl­edge could not replace that acquired directly from the work­ing class itself, but it was never dis­counted out of hand. With some excep­tions, how­ever, today we neglect to study man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture with the same rigor. How are cap­i­tal­ists strate­giz­ing work­place reor­ga­ni­za­tion? What, if any­thing, can we appro­pri­ate from this lit­er­a­ture for our own strug­gles? And, above all, how can this knowl­edge help us artic­u­late his­tor­i­cally rel­e­vant work­place strate­gies?

From Taylorism to Toyotaism

Iden­ti­fy­ing and dis­tin­guish­ing trends in the evo­lu­tion of man­age­ment sci­ence is key to under­stand­ing how work­ers today should aim to orga­nize resis­tance at the point of pro­duc­tion. Fred­er­ick Winslow Tay­lor devel­oped his the­ory of how man­age­ment should ori­ent itself under the moniker of “sci­en­tific man­age­ment.” For all its over­tures to sci­ence, it was later shown to con­tain a series of fatal flaws by more con­tem­po­rary man­age­ment the­o­ries, call­ing its pre­sup­po­si­tions into ques­tion. For exam­ple, although the pur­suit of what Tay­lor ter­med “task frag­men­ta­tion” did indeed pave the way for the use of cheaper unskilled labor, its direct effects have been crit­i­cized by mod­ern man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture: increased apa­thy and dis­sat­is­fac­tion within the work­force, con­sid­er­able drops in worker moti­va­tion, cul­mi­nat­ing in absen­teeism and sab­o­tage. Cur­rent orga­niz­ing strate­gies, espe­cially in work­places that set only a mild degree of task frag­men­ta­tion, can­not eas­ily uti­lize or chan­nel these types of dis­con­tent.

Today new forms of man­age­ment sci­ence dom­i­nate the fac­tory, one of the pri­mary being the Japan­ese-devel­oped “lean man­u­fac­tur­ing” prin­ci­ple, oth­er­wise known as “Toy­otaism.” This sys­tem depends upon what it describes as “nat­u­ral work teams.” Toy­otaism bor­rows ele­ments from Tay­lorist meth­ods, includ­ing the “one best way” model for task del­e­ga­tion; how­ever, it also car­ries with its own set of worker dis­sat­is­fac­tions. For exam­ple, in the Toy­ota Pro­duc­tion Sys­tem (TPS), work­ers are required to make a cer­tain num­ber of sug­ges­tions toward the improve­ment of the pro­duc­tion process each year. Because this aim is linked to pay and pro­mo­tion, man­age­ment receives many bogus sug­ges­tions that ulti­mately prove to be inef­fec­tual. Man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture these days tends to describe the TPS as effi­cient, but par­tic­u­larly unpleas­ant for work­ers. Some man­agers are now unsur­pris­ingly con­cerned with mak­ing their work­ers hap­pier.

Vertical Loading

One of the con­stant themes run­ning through man­age­ment sci­ence today is find­ing ways to expand work­ers’ auton­omy and con­trol over the work process as a way to increase per­for­mance, out­put, and the over­all prof­itabil­ity of the firm. In other words, man­agers now are encour­aged to actu­ally increase the level of respon­si­bil­ity work­ers have to lever­age work­ers’ desires for self-man­age­ment. This can lead in vary­ing direc­tions, whether this takes the form of the research, as can be found in the Hawthorne Stud­ies which revealed the emer­gence of gang-like for­ma­tions among dif­fer­ent groups of work­ers, or the “Qual­ity of Work Life” movement’s sug­ges­tions to give work­ers man­age­rial respon­si­bil­i­ties. The point is that man­agers are encour­aged to dis­tance them­selves from early Tay­lorist the­o­ries of “sci­en­tific man­age­ment,” which treated work­ers as blank slates, and instead fos­ter work­force par­tic­i­pa­tion in inter­nal orga­ni­za­tional processes.

This is exactly the rea­son why in cer­tain chains and stores, such as Star­bucks, indi­vid­ual work­ers are given super­vi­sory roles with a small degree of man­age­rial power; they lessen the bur­den on man­age­ment proper and help to relieve burnout among higher-level employ­ees, while simul­ta­ne­ously decreas­ing what is ter­med “bore­out” among work­ers. This even has a spe­cial term within the man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture: “ver­ti­cal load­ing.” Work­ers are urged to take on the respon­si­bil­i­ties of work sched­ul­ing, track­ing their own work times and breaks, direct­ing train­ing ses­sions, and han­dling recruit­ment deci­sions instead of man­age­ment. One can there­fore observe a very inter­est­ing con­ver­gence here with clas­si­cal notions of rad­i­cal self-man­age­ment – the idea that the work­force could quite eas­ily take on the tasks of man­age­ment with­out the need for an exter­nal­ized and top-heavy man­age­ment struc­ture – and which has recently been glimpsed in the Argen­tinian exam­ple, where work­ers took over fac­to­ries aban­doned by cap­i­tal and ran them as coop­er­a­tives.3


Another uncanny con­ver­gence can be seen in the lit­er­a­ture that makes up the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary field of Orga­ni­za­tional Behav­ior, and its usage within the broader field of Indus­trial Rela­tions. Indus­trial Rela­tions delin­eates four “frames of ref­er­ence” to indus­trial con­flict, typ­i­cally between unions and man­age­ment.4 Of the four frames, there are two that, in par­tic­u­lar, are of inter­est for our con­cerns here. The first is the “inter­ac­tion­ist frame,” which sees orga­ni­za­tional con­flict as cru­cial to the process of inno­va­tion within the work­place. Man­agers are actu­ally encour­aged to stim­u­late a cer­tain level of con­flict, with the assump­tion that con­flict between work­ers and man­age­ment is an inevitable occur­rence that sets dynam­ics of self-crit­i­cism, change, and inno­va­tion in motion. Man­age­ment is encour­aged to deploy speci­fic tac­tics in order to foment work­place “crises”: allow­ing a finan­cial loss to occur, not cor­rect­ing repeated errors, or set­ting tar­gets so high that they can’t be reached through busi­ness as usual. The con­flict that results is then employed to advance and impel the orga­ni­za­tion for­ward.

There are super­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties between the inter­ac­tion­ist frame and Mario Tronti’s the­ory of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, in terms of the per­pe­tu­ity of work­place con­flict. Tronti fun­da­men­tally refined the par­a­dig­matic the­sis of Ital­ian operaismo: cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment fol­lows from the strug­gles of the work­ing class. In “Lenin in Eng­land,” his 1964 essay later included in Work­ers and Cap­i­tal, Tronti argued that “at the level of socially devel­oped cap­i­tal, cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment becomes sub­or­di­nated to work­ing class strug­gles; it fol­lows behind them, and they set the pace to which the polit­i­cal mech­a­nisms of capital’s own repro­duc­tion must be tuned.”5 While Tronti ulti­mately looked for ways in which work­ing class power could be polit­i­cally recom­posed on the basis of these con­flicts, the sim­i­lar­i­ties are evi­dent.

The other frame par­tic­u­larly of inter­est is the “rad­i­cal frame” of ref­er­ence, influ­enced in part by Marx­ism. The rad­i­cal frame of ref­er­ence for indus­trial rela­tions states that con­flict between work­ers and man­age­ment is an inevitable out­come of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions. Today’s man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture within the rad­i­cal frame actu­ally shows an aware­ness of Marx’s the­ory of alien­ation, and explores in detail the ways in which work­ers resist alien­ation through elab­o­rate infor­mal sys­tems of work avoid­ance and sab­o­tage.

Self-Management Notes Project

Our present moment is marked by the fact that a grow­ing num­ber of cap­i­tal­ist firms – some, like Zap­pos, more explic­itly than oth­ers – are exper­i­ment­ing with forms of self-man­age­ment and test­ing orga­ni­za­tional the­o­ries that in some senses uncan­nily echo many of the ideas social­ists have his­tor­i­cally devel­oped to guide work­place orga­niz­ing. This con­ver­gence poses enor­mous strate­gic chal­lenges for social­ists today, which is why I have ini­ti­ated a Self-Man­age­ment Notes project to help sharpen our strate­gic ori­en­ta­tion toward work­place orga­niz­ing. Since we need to tai­lor our strate­gies to the his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ties of the work­places, and there­fore the man­age­ment struc­tures, we con­front, we need to begin a col­lec­tive research inves­ti­ga­tion of man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture.

The goal of the Self-Man­age­ment Notes project is not to develop a social­ist form of man­age­ment the­ory – in the dis­as­trous way, for exam­ple, that the Bol­she­vik gov­ern­ment in the Soviet Union attempted to apply whole­sale Tay­lorism to replace the fac­tory com­mit­tees, via the imple­men­ta­tion of forms of “one-man man­age­ment.”6 Rather, the goal of untan­gling the intri­ca­cies of man­age­ment sci­ence serves a dual pur­pose. First, the strands that pro­mote the need for a self-man­ag­ing work­force in cap­i­tal­ist enter­prises serve to show, by exam­ple, that work­ers really don’t need cap­i­tal­ist man­age­ment struc­tures to effec­tively admin­is­ter the means of pro­duc­tion, should they pass into com­mon rather than pri­vate own­er­ship. This helps to demon­strate – con­tra the skep­tics – the pos­si­bil­ity of a world in which work­ers can con­trol the means of pro­duc­tion. As the­o­rists such as Amadeo Bor­diga have long argued, self-man­age­ment is by no means equiv­a­lent to the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal. But it is nev­er­the­less a cen­tral axis of rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle.

Sec­ond, if social­ist activists can under­stand and prop­erly inte­grate stud­ies on the nature of group dynam­ics and how work­ers socially inter­act with one another, this could provide a pow­er­ful frame­work that can con­tribute to the orga­niz­ing process as a whole. Orga­nizer-train­ing pro­grams devel­oped by unions like the Indus­trial Work­ers of the World already make use of con­cepts adapted from the SEIU, includ­ing socially map­ping the work­place to reveal infor­mal group dynam­ics. Fur­ther research into the niches of social psy­chol­ogy from which these tech­niques were drawn – heav­ily ref­er­enced by man­age­ment sci­ence – can help cre­ate new the­o­ret­i­cal tools for work­ers in order to devise bet­ter tac­tics and strate­gies through­out the orga­niz­ing process. This is impor­tant con­sid­er­ing the changed nature of the work­place today, espe­cially in the United States and United King­dom, where a great deal of the econ­omy is made up by an expan­sive “ser­vice sec­tor.”

Building New Strategies

Cur­rent work­place strat­egy is nec­es­sar­ily very dif­fer­ent from that of the past. Many orga­ni­za­tions today devote exten­sive resources towards train­ing their man­agers, and as a result, man­agers are bet­ter pre­pared and equipped with soci­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal instru­ments to bet­ter under­stand the work­place than ever before. The effec­tive­ness of a moti­va­tional rewards sys­tem, for exam­ple, is high­lighted in Dou­glas McGregor’s famous dis­tinc­tion between The­ory X and The­ory Y as two dif­fer­ent options for man­age­ment strat­egy.7 The­ory X posits that work­ers lack cre­ativ­ity, inher­ently dis­like work, and require direct super­vi­sion and orders, but has been greatly dis­cred­ited over time. The­ory Y on the other hand, allows for a cer­tain degree of work­ers’ auton­omy within the pro­duc­tion process, and sees work­ers as inven­tive, and thus more inclined to take pride in a “job well done.” Although The­ory Y is still essen­tially a the­ory of human nature, and very much a part of an over­all cap­i­tal­ist strat­egy designed to increase prof­its, it is sig­nif­i­cantly more advanced or pro­gres­sive when com­pared to the tra­di­tional, bla­tantly dom­i­neer­ing and repres­sive view of The­ory X.

Many post-work­erist the­o­rists have traced this shift in man­age­rial prac­tice, if out­side of the The­ory X/Theory Y vocab­u­lary. While the lat­ter is osten­si­bly a wel­come change from the repet­i­tive con­fines of Fordist vari­eties of labor-dis­ci­pline, it is poten­tially more insid­i­ous due to the short-cir­cuit it draws between sub­jec­tiv­ity and value pro­duc­tion. Mau­r­izio Laz­zarato, for one, has argued that many enter­prises and employ­ers today have con­ceded and trans­ferred a cer­tain amount of “auton­omy and free­dom” to pro­duc­tive activ­ity, espe­cially within forms of “imma­te­rial labor.” The exem­plary man­age­rial role is now envi­sioned as facil­i­ta­tive and com­mu­nica­tive, and direct dis­ci­pli­nary or moti­va­tional inter­ven­tions are dis­cour­aged. But, as Laz­zarato notes, “today’s man­age­ment think­ing takes work­ers’ sub­jec­tiv­ity into con­sid­er­a­tion only to cod­ify it in line with the require­ments of pro­duc­tion” – any demands for the redis­tri­b­u­tion of power within the work­place or com­pany are strictly off the table.8

An orga­niz­ing praxis today would have to take these trans­for­ma­tions into account. Rather than using dis­sat­is­fac­tion over the lack of auton­omy expe­ri­enced by work­ers, as would have been the case in a work­place stuck in a The­ory X point of view, it would be a mat­ter of using the rel­a­tive ‒ but still ten­u­ous and recu­per­a­ble ‒ auton­omy that The­ory Y ascribes to the work­force for the pur­pose of orga­niz­ing against man­age­ment.9

The cre­ation of new tools for orga­ni­za­tion, strat­egy, and move­ment-build­ing is, of course, the end goal of the Self-Man­age­ment Notes project. An impor­tant step in approach­ing this goal is decon­struct­ing the full body of man­age­ment sci­ence, through the read­ing and crit­i­cal com­pre­hen­sion of con­tem­po­rary orga­ni­za­tional behav­ior lit­er­a­ture and the the aca­d­e­mic dis­ci­plines that have proved influ­en­tial for man­age­ment knowl­edge. This is only a step, how­ever, within a larger process, and the project’s revis­able form can help us adjust our strate­gies in light of new mate­rial, research, and strug­gles.

You can start to read the pre­lim­i­nary notes out­lin­ing and decon­struct­ing var­i­ous man­age­ment the­o­ries, strate­gies and prac­tices by vis­it­ing the Self-Man­age­ment Notes wiki.10

Ongo­ing sum­ma­tions and decon­struc­tions will be posted to the wiki, and there is a plan to pub­lish pam­phlets or a book con­nected to more con­crete orga­niz­ing strate­gies and con­cerns within work­places and enter­prises. The wiki is free for all work­ers to read, and it is rec­om­mended to link directly to it rather than post­ing its con­tent else­where, due to fre­quent addi­tions and the chang­ing nature of the texts as the project moves for­ward.

Thanks to Salar Mohan­desi and the View­point edi­to­rial col­lec­tive for com­ments and edits on ear­lier drafts.

  1. Itzhak Revaz, “Moti­va­tion – Group For­ma­tion Notes,” 2015.

  2. Itzhak Revaz, “Moti­va­tion - Self-Man­age­ment Notes,” 2015.

  3. Nora Lec­cese, “A Decade After The Take: Inside Argentina’s Worker Owned Fac­to­ries” (2013).  

  4. Itzhak Revaz, “Con­flict,” 2015. 

  5. Mario Tronti, “Lenin In Eng­land,” (1964) in Work­ing Class Auton­omy and the Cri­sis: Ital­ian Marx­ist Texts of the The­ory and Prac­tice of a Class Move­ment: 1964-1979, (Lon­don: Red Notes, 1979), 1-6.  

  6. Vladimir Lenin, “Speech Deliv­ered At The Third All-Rus­sia Trade Union Con­gress,” in Col­lected Works, Vol­ume 30 (Moscow: Inter­na­tional Pub­lish­ers, 1965), 502-515. Cf. Robert Lin­hart, Lénine, les paysans, Tay­lor (Paris: Seuil, 2010 [1976]), 101-219. 

  7. Cf. Dou­glas McGre­gor, The Human Side of Enter­prise (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960). 

  8. See Mau­r­izio Laz­zarato, “Imma­te­rial Labor,” trans. Paul Col­illi and Ed Emory, in Rad­i­cal Thought in Italy: A Poten­tial Pol­i­tics, ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1996), 133-147, 136. 

  9. To read more about the­o­ries of human moti­va­tion see the cor­re­spond­ing page on the Self-Man­age­ment Notes web­site. 

  10. Itzhak Revaz, “Self-Man­age­ment Notes,” 2015.

Author of the article

received his diploma in Politics in 2014, and began the Self-Management Notes project in response to attending a management course at a business school.