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            Flexibilty within a framework of internal labour markets is now widely seen to be an important factor in the ability of manufacturing firms to respond quickly to changes in market conditions — which is increasingly coming to be the form that competitive advantage takes in advanced industrial economies. An emerging and flourishing literature has identified a number of ‘new production concepts’ being developed in manufacturing industries, that depart from time-honoured Taylorist systems of job fragmentation and skill minimisation. The new concepts, such as ‘flexible specialisation’, ‘human-centred production’, and ‘diversified quality production’, are all in one way or another seeking to characterise a form of ‘functional flexibility’, that both enhances productivity and offers workers themselves a greater sense of involvement with their activity. The new concepts rest on the identification of a critical linkage between work organisation, skill formation and advanced manufacturing technology; they point to a convergence between the previously separate worlds of work and of learning.

            In this paper the new production concepts are characterised as elements of an emergent ‘post Fordist’ technoeconomic paradigm. The present period of uncertainty can be construed as a transition between the Fordist paradigm centred on mass production, and its successors. There is nothing predetermined about the shape of these successors: this will be the outcome of a prolonged economic, industrial and political process as much as of a technical process. The choices are identified as falling between a continuation and intensification of Fordism, dubbed Computer-Aided Taylorisation; or a break with Fordism, dubbed Skill-Dependent Innovation. The new production concepts are characterised as instances of the latter approach to manufacturing management and technology. It is through this notion of ‘competing paradigms’ that this paper formulates an approach to the ‘politics’ of technological change.


            Author and article information

            Critical Studies in Innovation
            Pluto Journals
            June 1989
            : 7
            : 1
            : 129-148
            8629045 Prometheus, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1989: pp. 129–148
            Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

            All content is freely available without charge to users or their institutions. Users are allowed to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of the articles in this journal without asking prior permission of the publisher or the author. Articles published in the journal are distributed under a http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

            Page count
            Figures: 0, Tables: 0, References: 54, Pages: 20
            Original Articles

            Computer science,Arts,Social & Behavioral Sciences,Law,History,Economics
            work organisation,new production concepts,human-centred production,New technology,skill formation,productivity,flexible specialization


            1. For a comprehensive and authoritative account of these changes in the post-war period, see the OECD report, Structural Adjustment and Economic Performance., Paris, OECD, 1987.

            2. Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. London, 1832. Reprinted New York, 1963.

            3. See D. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932: The development of manufacturing technology in the United States., Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1984.

            4. On the rise of corporations, see M. Piore and C. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity., New York, Basic Books, 1984.

            5. Taylor's life spans the transition from the 19th to the 20th century. He was born in 1856 into a wealthy Philadelphia family. He was to go to Harvard but dropped out because of poor eyesight, and in 1874 began an apprenticeship as a pattern maker and machinist. In 1878 he took a job at the Midvale Steel Company and quickly rose to be foreman. It was here that he enforced a greater pace of work, but in the end had to leave because of his unpopularity. At the Bethlehem Steel Company he re-organised the handling of pig iron, using the unfortunate Schmidt as his celebrated subject. It was this experience that allowed him to formulate the principles of management, which he began to discuss in papers in the 1890s. By the early 1900s he was the dominant figure in the new ‘scientific management’ movement, and he and a small group of disciples were busy as consultants to companies through the period to the First World War.

            6. For a statement of his principles in his own words, see F. W. Taylor, ‘The Principles of Scientific Management’, in F. W. Taylor, Scientific Management., Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, 1972.

            7. For a commentary on his place in management history, see D. Wren, The Evolution of Management Thought., New York, Wiley, 1979; and R. Reich, The Next American Frontier., New York, Times Books, 1983.

            8. For an account of the establishment of the Ford assembly line, and the social struggle that surrounded it, see David Gartman, in A. Zimbalist (ed.) Case Studies in the Labor Process., New York, Monthly Review Press, 1979.

            9. Piore and Sabel, op. cit.

            10. Much of the literature on this complex of factors has been developed within what is now called the French ‘regulation school’. Decisive contributions have been made by M. Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience., London, Verso, 1970; and by Alain Lipietz, Mirages and Miracles: The crises of global Fordism., London, Verso, 1987. Useful reviews of the portmanteau category of Fordism are contained in: Annemieke Roobeck, ‘The crises in Fordism and the rise of a new technological paradigm’, Futures., April 1987; and R. Mahon, ‘From Fordism to? New technology, labour markets and unions’, Economic and Industrial Democracy., 8, 1, 1987. pp. 5–60.

            11. See B. Bluestone and B. Harrison, The Deindustrialization of America., New York, Basic Books, 1982.

            12. For an unfluential example of this genre, see R. Reich, The Next American Frontier, op. cit.

            13. See W. Skinner, ‘The productivity paradox’, Harvard Business Review., July-August 1986; pp. 55–59; and R.H. Hayes and S.C. Wheelwright, Restoring our competitive edge: Competing through manufacturing., New York, Wiley, 1984.

            14. Hayes and Wheelwright, op.cit., pp. 19–20.

            15. Charles Sabel, Work and Politics: The Division of Labor in Industry., Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982. For similar arguments in the Australian context, see P. Ewer, W. Higgins and A. Stevens, Unions and the future of Australian Manufacturing., Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1987.

            16. This is now widely agreed in the literature. For an authoritative statement, see the report of the US Manufacturing Studies Board, Human Resource Practices for Implementing Advanced Manufacturing Technology., Washington, DC, National Academy Press, 1986.

            17. For a recent statement of this view, see R. Hayes and R. Jaikumar, ‘Manufacturing's crisis: new technologies, obsolete organizations’, Harvard Business Review., September-October 1988, pp. 77–85.

            18. R. Jaikumar, ‘Post-industrial manufacturing’, Harvard Business Review., November-December 1986, pp. 69–76.

            19. The literature on the ‘dual’ use to be made of FMS installations — a productive, skill-based approach versus an extension of Taylorism — is growing fast. For excellent examples, see: Fix-Sterz et al., ‘Flexible Manufacturing Systems and Cells in the Scope of New Production Systems in Germany’, Final report of the German part of the project commissioned by the Commission of the European Communities, FAST. Occasional Paper No. 135, Brussels, 1987; R. Schultz-Wild and C. Kohler ‘Introducing new manufacturing technology: manpower problems and policies’, Human Systems Management. 5, 1985, pp. 231–243; and H. Hirsch-Kreinsen and R. Schultz-Wild, ‘Implementation processes of new technologies — managerial objectives and interests’, Proceedings of IFAC conference on Skill-Based Automated Manufacturing., Karlsruhe, September 1986.

            20. There is now an extensive management and engineering literature which documents the cost advantages of flexibility, in detail. See for example, G. Boothroyd, ‘Economics of assembly systems’, Journal of Manufacturing Systems., 1, 1, 1982; and G.K. Hutchinson and J. Holland, ‘The economic value of flexible automation’, Journal of Manufacturing Systems., 1, 2, 1982; and D.M. Zelenovic, ‘Flexibility — a condition for effective production systems’, International Journal of Production Research., 20, 3, 1982.

            21. See R. Kaplinsky, Automation: the technology and society., London, Longman, 1984.

            22. See P. Adler, ‘New technologies, new skills’, California Management Review, 39, 1, Fall 1986, pp. 9–28; and O. Bertrand and T. Noyelle, Human Resources and Corporate Strategy: Technological change in banks and insurance companies., Paris, OECD, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 1988.

            23. Horst Kern and Michael Schumann, Das Ende der Arbeitsteilung?. (The end of the division of labour?), Munich, 1984. (English translation forthcoming, Temple University Press, 1989.) For a statement of their views in English, see H. Kern and M. Schumann, ‘Limits of the division of labour: new production and employment concepts in West German industry’, Economic and Industrial Democracy., 8, 1987, pp. 151–170. For an extended review of their text, by Arndt Sorge, see Economic and Industrial Democracy., 6, 1985, pp. 501–503. For a recent statement of their position, see H. Kern and M. Schumann, ‘New concepts of production in West German plants’ in P.J. Katzenstein (ed.) The Third West German Republic., Cornell University Press, 1989 (forthcoming). For commentary on the work of Kern and Schumann, see C. Lane, ‘Industrial change in Europe: the pursuit of flexible specialisation in Britain and West Germany’, Work, Employment and Society., 2, 2, June 1988, pp. 141–168 and D. Hoss, ‘Technology and work in the two Germanies’, in P. Grootings (ed.) Technology and Work: East-West Comparison., London, Croom Helm, 1986.

            24. Kern and Schumann, 1984; p. 98. Translated and cited in W. Streeck, 1987, ‘Industrial relations and industrial change: the restructuring of the world automobile industry in the 1970s and 1980s’, Economic and Industrial Democracy., 8, November 1984, p. 437–462.

            25. M. Piore and C. Sabel, 1984, op. cit. For commentary, see C. Lane, 1988, op. cit.

            26. Piore and Sabel, op. cit., p. 17.

            27. Arndt Sorge and Wolfgang Streeck, ‘Industrial relations and technical change: the case for an extended perspective’, in R. Hyman and W. Streeck (eds), New Technology and Industrial Relations., Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1988.

            28. M. Cooley, Architect or Bee? The human price of technology.(Revised edition), The Hogarth Press, London, 1987, p. 149. Howard Rosenbrock, professor of control engineering at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, has long been a proponent of ‘human-centred’ industrial design. His description of a number of years of work is contained in Rosenbrock, ‘The combined social and technical design of production systems’, paper presented to International Seminar on Advanced Information Technology, Milan, October 1987.

            29. Firms mounting such projects in the UK include Rolls Royce and BICC. On BICC's approach to ‘human-centred’ computer-integrated manufacturing, see A.W.S. Ainger, ‘CIM — the human centred approach’, Technology in Action., January 1988, p. 28–31. A number of demonstration projects are being mounted in BICC Technologies Group factories in the UK. These projects, and others like them, are supported financially by the European Economic Community through its Esprit project 1217 (1199), ‘Human-Centred Computer-Integrated Manufacturing’.

            30. See for example, the special issue of the journal Applied Ergonomics. on ‘Ergonomics matters in AMT’, March 1988. In particular, see Martin Corbett, ‘Ergonomics in the development of human-centred AMT’, Applied Ergonomics., 19, 1, 1988, p. 35–39. See also the Proceedings of the IFAC Workshop, Skill Based Automated Manufacturing., P. Brodner (ed.), London, Pergamon Press, 1987. For a specific application within computer-aided design, see A. Majchrzak et al., Human aspects of CAD., Philadelphia, Taylor and Francis, 1987.

            31. See V. Juergens, K. Dohse and T. Malsch, ‘New production concepts in West German car plants’, Wissenschaftszentrum (WZB/IIVG), Berlin, 1984.

            32. See Juergens, op. cit.; and W. Streeck, ‘Industrial relations and industrial change: the restructuring of the world automobile industry, Economic and Industrial Democracy., 8, 4, November 1987, p. 437–462.

            33. See the special issue of the German Industrie magazin., April 1987.

            34. For the ‘official’ tripartite report on Kalmar, see S. Aguren and others, Volvo Kalmar Revisited: Ten Years of Experience., Efficiency and Participation Development Council, SAF/LO/PTK, Stockholm, 1984.

            35. Australian Council of Trade Unions/TDC, Australia Reconstructed., Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1987.

            36. For a description of the FMS installations at Volvo, Skovde, see C. Edquist and S. Jacobsson, Flexible Automation: The global diffusion of new technology in the engineering industry., Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1988. For an account of the ‘techno-culture’ out of which the Volvo ‘factory of the future’ arises, see Per-Olaf Berg, ‘Techno-culture: the symbolic framing of technology in a Volvo plant’, Scandinavian Journal of Management Studies., May 1985, pp. 237–55.

            37. On new systems of management organisation to complement the ‘new production concepts’, see B. Gustavsen, ‘Workplace reform and democratic dialogue’, Economic and Industrial Democracy., 6, 1985, p. 461–479; and B. Gustavsen and L. Hethy, ‘New forms of work organisation: a European overview’, Labour and Society., 11, 2, May 1986, p. 167–188.

            38. On Japan, see for example W. G. Ford, ‘Learning from Japan: the concept of skill formation’, Australian Bulletin of Labour., 12, 2, March 1986, pp. 119–27; and Kazuo Koike (trans. Mary Saso), Understanding Industrial Relations in Modern Japan., London, Macmillam 1988; and the chapter on Japan in Hayes and Wheelwright, op. cit. It is not denied that Japan has a distinctive culture; but this cannot be allowed to obscure the real innovations in work organization and relentless attention to detail that underlie Japanese prodictivity.

            39. On the ‘Toyota Production System’ see S. Shingo, Study of Toyota Production System from Industrial Engineering Viewpoint., Tokyo, Japan Management Association, 1981; K. Suzaki, The New Manufacturing Challenge: Techniques for continuous improvement., New York, The Free Press (Macmillan), 1987, and on SMED see S. Shingo, A Revolution in Manufacturing: The SMED System., Cambridge (MA), Productivity Press, 1985. On ‘Toyotism’, see K. Dohse et al, “From ‘Fordism’ to Toyotism? The social organization of the labour process in the Japanese automobile industry, Politics and Society., 14, 2, 1985.

            40. Shingo is the originator of Single Minute Exchange of Die (SMED) techniques, which have reduced the time for die changes in press lines from 3 or 4 hours to 3 or 4 minutes. Shingo argues that this is the key to flexibility, because rapid die change favours small-lot production; long set-up times have always been an obstacle to flexibility. However, while Shingo explicitly supports a notion of full consultation with skilled operators to learn how to reduce set-up times, he slips into Taylorism when he states (1985, p. 177): ‘The ease of tooling changes eliminates the need for skilled workers’; and on p. 126: When the SMED system is imposed, needed levels of skill are reduced. by means of improved and simplified operations, set-ups are simplified, and set-up times are cut drastically, (emphasis added) This is why SMED in the form advocated by Shingo cannot be counted as a ‘new production concept’.

            41. See Tom Pettigrew, ‘Process intent, statistics and participative management in a new model programme — the EA26 experience’, Paper delivered to International Workshop on Engineering Design and Manufacturing Management, University of Melbourne, November 1988. For an earlier account of productivity gains achieved at Ford through the ‘Process intent’ approach to quality control, see T. Pettigrew, ‘Process quality control: The new approach to the management of quality in Ford’, SAE (Aust) Journal., July/August, 1983.

            42. For a description of this BHP program, see I. C. Thomas, ‘Innovative training: a creative approach’, address to conference on ‘Education and Industry for Development — Gippsland Region’, Victorian Ministry of Education, Melbourne, June, 1988.

            43. For a description and analysis of these innovative agreements, see J. Mathews, Towards an ‘Australian Model’ of wages. — linked regulated structural adjustment., Stockholm, Swedish Centre for Working Life, January, 1989.

            44. On labour market flexibility, of which ‘functional flexibility’ is a sub-category, see the special issue of Labour and Society. on ‘Labour market flexibility’. In particular, see D. Meulders and L. Wilkin, ‘Labour market flexibility: critical introduction to the analysis of a concept’, Labour and Society., 12, 1, Jan 1987, pp. 2–17. On the ‘flexible firm’ see J. Atkinson, ‘Manpower strategies for flexible organisations’, Personnel Management., August 1984.

            45. There are of course many examples of firms that are attempting to restructure along lines that are very different from those of ‘flexible specialisation’ and use of ‘new production concepts’. An example is provided by the ‘flexible firm’ approach that is popular at the moment in the UK. A recent Australian study of electronic outwork has demonstiated contrasting approaches, in the case of domestic word processors and that of professional programmers — see B. Probert and J. Wajcman, ‘Technological change and the future of work’, The Journal of Industrial Relations., September 1988, p. 431–448. However, much of the literature perversely seeks to use such examples in an effort to ‘refute’ Piore and Sabel, by demonstrating how much of industry is still determined to introduce advanced manufacturing technology along Taylorist lines. See for example T. Bramble, ‘The flexibility debate: industrial relations and new management practices’, Labour and Industry., 1, 2, June 1988, pp. 187–209. This literature misses the point that Piore and Sabel are not describing. an already dominant trend, but pointing to a tendency. that could become manifest in the 1990s given appropriate conditions. For further discussion of this critical literature, and defence of the ‘new production concepts’, see R. Badham and J. Mathews, ‘The ‘new production systems’ debate: A reformulation of competing paradigms and strategies’, Labour and Industry., (forthcoming).

            46. For a comprehensive discussion of these issues, see J. Mathews, Tools of Change: New Technology and the Democratisation of Work., Sydney, Pluto Press, Australia, 1989.

            47. Piore and Sabel, op. cit., p. 5.

            48. See C. Perez, ‘Structural change and assimilation of new technologies in the economic and social systems’, Futures., October 1983, pp. 357–375; and C. Perez, ‘Microelectronics, long waves and world structural change: new perspectives for developing countries’, World Development., 13, 3, 1985, pp. 441–463.

            49. Perez, 1985, op. cit., p. 441.

            50. See R. Boyer, ‘New technologies and employment in the 80s’, Report No. 8526, CEPREMAP, Paris, 1985; and R. Boyer (ed.) The Search for Labour Market Flexibility; The European Economies in Transition., Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1988.

            51. This is the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) School. Stemming from work in the sociology of science, that seeks to apply the same principles and methods to the development of technology. This ‘school’ is associated mainly with the names of Law, Latour, Callon, Pinch and Bijker. For a representative sample of their work, see W. Bijker, T Hughes and T. Pinch, The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology., Cambridge (MA), MIT Press, 1987.

            52. On scientific paradigms, see the original exposition by T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1962, 1970 (second edition). For a critique, see S. Toulmin, Human Understanding., Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1972. On the transfer of the notion to technology, see R. Laudan (ed.) The Nature of Technological Knowledge: Are models of scientific change relevant?., Dordrecht, Reidel Publishing, 1984.

            53. See R. Badham, ‘Technologies and public choice: strategies for technological control and the selection of technologies’, Prometheus., 4, 2, 1986; pp. 288–305. For further elaboration of ‘competing paradigms’ and politics of technology, see Badham and Mathews, op. cit.

            54. On education in a ‘post-Fordist’ era, see J. Mathews, G. Hall and H. Smith, ‘Towards flexible skill formation and technological literacy: challenges facing the education system’, Economic and Industrial Democracy., 9, 4, 1988, pp. 497–522.


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