Fighting Back against the algorithms — Community and the redemption of Taylorism?

Rita McGrath
7 min readFeb 16, 2024

As algorithms have come to dominate the lives of gig workers, treating many like poorly performing robots, community structures are emerging that allow workers to spontaneously organize — and create a potentially powerful counterforce.

Piecework and the labor/management divide

Frederick Winslow Taylor was the very first management guru, indeed the first management consultant. His ideas, which were radical at the time, posited that for any physical task, there was one best way to get it done. To get to the heart of the one best way, he did time-and-motion studies, compared how different workers stacked up and experimented with different techniques. Once the best way had been found, it would be codified in manuals, used to train workers and ultimately to deliver higher productivity across the board. Indeed, at one of his early employers, Midvale Steel Company, he managed to double productivity.

This did not come without tension between the bosses and their labor force. Workers, paid on a piecework system, received a specific amount of compensation for each “piece” produced or action performed. The disadvantage is that both sides of the production equation are incented to game the system. Employers want prices as low as possible. Workers want to produce as much as possible, which can have terrible impacts on both quality and learning.

Taylor’s own career put him smack in the middle of these tensions. As he writes in The Principles of Scientific Management, at the age of 22 at Midvale, he “was given work as a machinist in running one of the lathes, and, as he turned out rather more work than other machinists were doing on similar lathes, after several months was made gang-boss over the lathes.” (p. 48). He observed that “the shop was really run by the workmen, and not by the bosses. The workmen together had carefully planned just how fast each job should be done, and they had set a pace for each machine throughout the shop, which was limited to about one-third of a good day’s work. Every new workman who came into the shop was told at once by the other men exactly how much of each kind of work he was to do, and unless he obeyed these instructions, he was sure before long to be driven out of…

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Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.