Is Commoditized White-Collar Work on the Horizon?

May 15, 2009

I thought that I would share something that I consider to be both alarming and a warning. It came in the form of a BusinessWeek book excerpt for the book "The Numerati" by Stephen Baker.

The excerpt covered a chapter describing how IBM is building complex mathematical models of 50,000 technical consultants, compiling extensive data about their skills, experience, meetings, etc, and then calculating how to best deploy them. This is an extreme attempt at capturing and reducing the nature of white-collar work to something that can be fed through a computer to optimize productivity and "automate management."

The ultimate goal (as described in this excerpt) is to enable an IBM manager to fill out a form that describes a particular project, target dates, budget, and the skills required. The computer then spits back a recommendation for a particular team. If an adjustment needs to be made based on budget—like the availability of a very knowledgeable and highly skilled star employee, but who is too expensive – the computer will recommend someone else.

Should you be worried? It depends upon who you are. If you are the high-priced star in the example above, in IBM’s world you can safely remain “on the bench,” awaiting the correct opportunity to apply your talents when and where they are truly needed.

It is the everyday worker who becomes a “commodity worker,” someone whose work is not really distinguishable from another. The real shocker was the notion that a company should keep its commodity workers laboring as close to 100% as possible.

Where is this leading?

I’ll confess that I haven’t read the book – yet. Maybe there is more to this than what the excerpt provided. Part of this appeared to be centered discovering informal networks and decision-making, implying that at least of portion of this assumes existing work arrangements. The optimist is me sees the potential for those who are truly making things happen to be recognized. The pessimist in me sees the ready opportunity for adoption and abuse of this by those managers who aren’t really interested in developing people.

IBM’s argument in support of this is that since these tools will make workers more productive, the market will reward the workers. The tools will also provide the ability to map out careers and provide ready access to information that would allow someone to calculate their own net worth with greater precision, negotiating better pay in return.

Will some work be commoditized in the future? Unfortunately, I absolutely believe that it will. I noted that this same “worker as a commodity” line of thinking surfaced in another article on the Economist.com. ("The World in 2009" November 19th, 2008 by Lucy Kellway) In it, Lucy predicts "In 2009 a more elitist shift will occur: companies will worry about the performance of those at the top of the pyramid, while everyone else will be managed like a commodity."

I’ll post my reaction to this in a few days.

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