The Era of Fragmentation


Driven by a combination of capital-intensive new technologies, newly emerged mass markets, and global trade based on national competitive advantage, in industrial era production was organized around the idea of division of labor instead of craft specialization. The work formerly done by one artisan was broken down into its component parts, which in turn were mechanized where possible, and semi-skilled workers were hired to do part of the job or to tend the machines. New roles, those of supervisor, middle manager, and production planner, were created to provide the oversight and coordination that were formerly the responsibility of individual journeymen or masters. In brief, authority over the content of jobs was given to people who, themselves, were not actually doing this work. The newly created managerial authority took “from workers the right to define their own job, their own skill level, and their own standards of quality.”

The division of labor, originally intended to create a rapid growth economy based on a low-skill work force, did help assimilate nineteenth century agricultural workers into industry. But once there, it imprisoned them.

Division of labor is an addictive practice. Work breakdown—promoted by those whose authority and careers tend to benefit from it—tends to beget more work breakdown, taking the pressure off the employer or the educational system to continually upgrade employee skills. Once started, the practice tends to be self-reinforcing, producing a de-skilled work force.

By the mid-twentieth century, most corporate organizations were based on the concept of functional specialization. Work that was once whole had become fragmented. The focused skill of an individual was diffused into the skill of an entire factory. The common view was that mechanics check their brains at the gate when they come to work.

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