The development of modern technology has improved the lives of many throughout the developed world. Despite this progress, working conditions are sometimes oppressive for those who support customers of the technology. Of particular interest in this context is the working conditions of call-centre agents in India, individuals who deal with customer support telephone calls for multinational corporations (MLCs) throughout the developed world. A D’Cruz and Noronha (2009) study of Indian call centre agents’ working conditions provides the focus for the exploration of this issue from a critical management perspective.
Critical management studies (CMS) provides a theoretically based critique of management techniques that arose from considering a critical theory perspective and which address more traditional business management theories and practices. Four key theoreticians vital to CMS are Marx, Weber, Foucault, and Habermas, with each offering different perspectives on the issues of business management.
Marxist thought centres around the concept of materialism and notes that material circumstances of individuals strongly shape their perspectives and their ideas Work becomes the central issue that defines human experience in Marx’s view (Sayers, 2003). In particular innovation, as displayed by the technological revolution, becomes a force that increases the separation of individuals from the innovation, pushing ahead regardless of human needs or ecological concerns; innovation becomes an end of itself rather than serving needs of those who are innovating (Wallis, 2008, pp 230-231). Thus, it is not ideas which shape the world, but the world which shapes ideas. In particular, Marx was focused on issues of alienation in which people and characteristics of the world that should by, by their nature, together, are often separated (i.e., alienated). From Marx’s perspective, the key alienation is between social aspects of people and their innate human nature. Perhaps the ultimate issue to take from this is the recognition that man is inherently a social being and thus such alienation, when it occurs causes distress (Aktouf, 1992, p. 413). Marx’s primary focus was on the ‘unrelenting search for the conditions dehumanizing man and for possible ways of restoring more human conditions” (Aktouf, 1992, p. 414). In this regard, Marx noted that the most dehumanising aspect of man’s existence is the dehumanisation that occurs as a result of work. In other words, the separation of an individual from his (or her) self derives in large part from the actions that social and economic forces constrain them to do to fit into their place in society (Aktouf, 1992).
Weber’s perspective on business management is often described as an ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy. The concept is one in which individual human beings are subjected to the constraints of bureaucracy and systemic demands focused on increased efficiency, pure rationalisation, and external demands rather than human needs (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011, pp. 81-82). Weber’s perspective on management has been positioned as at the midpoint between Hegelian idealism and Marxist materialism (Weiss, 1983, pp. 242-243). Weber’s approach was one of acknowledging bureaucracy’s usefulness in achieving domination over workers, while at the same time asserting that domination required the element of legitimalisation , which he defined as a set of values held widely and consistently through the workforce (Weiss, 1983, p. 243). The alienation that Marx identified as intrinsic to capitalistic systems, Weber attributes to part of a demystification that Weber defined as ratiionalisation, which in turn was the crucial modern mode of legitimalisation in the industrial society (Weiss, 1983, p. 243). From this perspective, the iron cage of modern life is focused on what is often referred to as the ‘Protestant work ethic’ as a typical exemplar (Dyck, Neubert, & Wong, 2008, p. 41). Weber’s perspective is one in which management should be looking to enable an escape from that iron cage, rather than sealing it shut. A moral point of view thus defines good management within a society, and he estimates that the most likely basis for such a widespread moral tendency is religion (Dyck et al, 2008, p. 42).
Foucault’s perceptions are grounded in his assessment of the sources and uses of power. He distinguishes two key economies of power relations, biopolitical power, which takes place in the broad population, i.e., humanity in large groups, and which thus cannot be fully controlled, and disciplinary power, which takes place in the arena of the individual (Macmillan, 2010, p. 369). Thus Foucault’s disciplinary power is about total control of an individual, while biopolitical power is more about regulating circulation of truth—or at least the ‘truth’ that those wielding the power prefer to circulate (Macmillan, 2010, p. 370). Thus, Foucault perceived power as ‘embedded in knowledge and as regulating the relationship between people’ (Skalen, 2009, p. 797). One of the most common applications of Foucault within management studies is in the study of surveillance of individuals by those in power. Foucault used the differential of the individual worker being observable by managers (or other social or political superiors), while the management structure as being unobservable by workers as a metaphor for the dichotomy in power structure between these two groups (Caluya, 2010, p. 622). Furthermore, Crane, Knights, and Starkey (2008), noted that individuals ‘participate in the formation of our own subjectivity’ (p. 300).
The fourth key philosophical perspective of CSM is that of Habermas. Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality is focused on the broad questions of defining moral and practical methodologies to live. It is based on two different concepts of rationality: one being the cognitive-instrumental rationality in which efforts are directed toward individual goals privately defined; the second is communicative rationality which is directed at mutual understanding, and harmonising multiple individuals’ interpretations of the world (Deflem, 2008, p. 4). The communication in Habermas’s theory consists of speech, language, symbols, gestures, signs or other means of presenting language; it is intrinsically language-based. In fact, Habermas asserts that only via language and rational argumentation can any type of mutual understanding result in coordinated social action (Deflem, 2008, p. 271). On this basis, Habermas asserted that the shared social actions in work and ordinary life are the result of shared background experiences and are generally not criticised because they offer the background for coordinating actions with others (Deflem, 2008, p. 271). This shared world includes not only cultural values, but also normative action standards and overall social harmony (Deflem, 2008, p. 271). In fact, the world constitutes all of culture (i.e., interpretive communications shared among society members), society (i.e., interpersonal relations via coordinated actions), and individual personality (i.e., formation of contributing, rational members of society) (Deflem, 2008, p. 271)
Using CMS theories such as these outlined above allows analysts to take a perspective that is somewhat different from the more typical theory-based or practice-based discussions, and instead address issues such as consistency, legitimacy, and inclusion, as well as understanding the flow of power in a situation. These theories will be considered in the context of an Indian call centre facility in the following section.
Application of CMS
The Indian call centre is an example of traditional Western management techniques exported to the Indian subcontinent. The call centre is organised using scientific management techniques. This technique focused on theories by Taylor and others in the early 20th century, promulgated the notion that management of people in a process could be done by managing the ‘numbers’ such as various productivity measures, work efficiency measures, and other measures of performance. In the call centre, the use of such management techniques is prevalent in the rigid requirements for numbers of calls, rigid work schedules, rigid measures of time and efficiency noted throughout the report (D’Cruz & Noronha, 2009, pp. 31-38). In this discussion, the call centre will be assessed from the perspective of each of Marx, Weber, Foucault, and Habermas to identify areas in which the exportation of the scientific management style suits or is discordant with the individuals being managed.
Workers interviewed in D’Cruz and Noronha (2009) repeatedly cited the ‘oppressive’ nature of their work environments. Just a few of the many examples cited in the report included constant documentation and monitoring of the individuals’ work, rigid and demanding targets, rigid and demanding schedules that had no variance for such basic human functions as bathroom breaks, reasonable meal breaks, vacations, holidays, consistent work schedules, and having a priority on their personal lives instead of work dominating everything (D’Cruz & Noronha, 2009, pp. 31-38). From the perspective of Marxist alienation theory, this type of management style clearly alienates the workers from their friends, family, society. Workers are isolated from family and society but also from their fundamental human nature, which requires bathroom breaks, time off for illness or family crises, and leisure time for a quality life. None of those are respected in the work environment described in the call centres.
This intense focus on totally materialist measures instead of any recognition of humanist needs is the ultimate form of alienation. Yet these call centre workers also are alienated from their products—they are providing customer support (typically) for products designed, manufactured, delivered, and used on other continents. They have no say in the terms of the contract with the client company that hires their services, and are required to comply with terms of service that force them to work uncomfortable shifts (nights, weekends, holidays) under conditions that are oppressive. While the wages for this oppression are better than with other jobs, D’Cruz & Noronha point out that the oppression is the direct result of management’s efforts to minimise labor costs and maximise value to the client company (and to the call centre management) while minimising the payment to the workers by, for example, refusing to pay for required extra hours of work—a clear act of exploitation (D’Cruz & Noronha, p. 31).
The workers are not totally helpless against such oppression, of course, and D’Cruz and Noronha (2009) noted that some of the workers defined specific tactics used to evade some of the most oppressive measures and allow workers space in which to breathe. Specifically, workers were able determine when calls were monitored, using the mute button to allow for a ‘safe’ response to customer abuse, and other tactics (pp. 41-42). These acts may be interpreted as acts of resistance which comply with the Marxist definition of resistance as active acts against oppressors (Brighenti, 2011, p. 58). However, it should be noted that D’Cruz and Noronha stated that the agents describing these acts did not perceive them as active resistance against their employers, but merely as ways of relieving stress and tension and thus improving worker’s lives (p. 42).
The D’Cruz and Noranha description of call centre operations clarifies the point that such management style truly is an ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy. In Weber’s perspective such an iron cage is characterised by a strong authoritarian hierarchy; impersonal treatment of workers (thus making them fungible); written, rigid rules of conduct by workers; achievement based reward system; focus on ‘professionalism’ labour; and a focus on efficiency and high productivity. While none of these are intrinsically bad, when raised to extremes due to the imbalance of power between management and workers, the result is that control of the bureaucracy results in control of workers’ lives. In the case of the Indian call centres, the iron cage of bureaucracy is in full force. Each one of Weber’s definition of an ideal bureaucracy is in full force and carried to an extreme in these centres. For example, the key theme noted by D’Cruz and Noronha was one of workers’ need to be ‘professional’ in their work (p. 29 and footnote 2). Other examples include the strongly authoritarian management style and rigid rules of behavior (p. 32 and others); constant focus on efficiency and meeting productivity targets (p. 32); and stripping the workers of their very identity during work hours (p. 34).
As noted earlier, the workers participated in their own subjection by the oppressive management. As noted by Crane, Knights, and Starkey (2008, p. 300), such self-participation in oppressive circumstances is not unusual. D’Cruz and Noronha pointed out the choices made by workers that contributed to their own oppression, including the focus on needed to be ‘professional’ (p. 29 and footnote 2); a belief that collective actions against such oppression would only jeopardise the entire call centre industry in India and thus jeopardise their positions (p. 40); being informed that associating with union organisers would result in immediate dismissal (p. 40); desire for the (relatively) high salaries available in the call centre industry; belief that internal opportunities for advancement and education were of great value (pp. 40-41); and appreciation for high-status job titles (i.e., ‘customer support executive’ or ‘customer care executive’) (p. 41). All these not only corresponded to Foucault’s notions of self-oppression, but also make the employee dependent on the employer to protect their job interests—a process that, taking the risk of dropping into a cliché, is akin to asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Of particular note in the correspondence between Foucault’s theories and call centre management practices is that of constantly monitoring the workers without their knowledge, both using human and technological means (Caluya, 2010, p. 622).
Habermas’s theories are also important in understanding the operations of the Indian call centres. The critical aspect of the communicative rationality is to understand that Habermas asserted that any valid communication relies on both parties in the communication (e.g., speaker and hearer) having a mutual acknowledgment of three key aspects of the communication: the truthfulness of the speaker, the correctness of the message, and the honesty of the message. Habermas provides an outline of a project that may be used to overcome oppression. This project attempted to show that there is an independent source of rationality outside the oppressors and that such independent rationality is built into the intrinsic structure of communication (Sharrock & Button, 1997, pp. 372-373). Thus, while it may be that earlier theorists associated rationality with domination (as per the name, ‘scientific’ management), a true understanding of reason and rationality broadens the scope. Such ‘scientific’ or ‘instrumental reasoning is associated with accomplishing goals, and that is the type of reasoning that supports the management structure of the Indian call centres, with their intense focus on achieving specific targets and goals (D’Cruz & Noronha, 2009, pp. 31-38).
In contrast with that form of reason, Habermas’s proposed communicative reasoning based on mutual understanding which he presents and being defined by the three identified characteristics of truthfulness, correctness, and honesty, does not promote goal-achievement as much as it promotes interpersonal understanding (Sharrock & Button, 1997, p. 372). Such understanding, according to Habermas, would then lead to collaborative action and mutual participation in important actions (p. 372). In essence, Habermas argues that such communicative action embodies the essential conditions for non-coercive, non-oppressive participation in collaborative action (p. 372). Habermas differentiates the social world, which he calls the ‘lifeworld,’ from the authoritarian world of work and polities, which he calls the ‘system,’ (Niemi, 2005, pp. 517-518). His theory holds the promise that if his communicative ideals are built into the system, it too can become non-coercive and influential rather than oppressive (Sharrock & Button, 1997, p. 373). Sharrock and Button, however, noted that such an argument may confuse taking individuals seriously and giving them respect, with taking everyone’s arguments seriously ( p. 377). It is possible to take a person seriously, while still discounting their argument on a particular issue, perhaps because the person has little background or training in that issue despite being well educated in other issues.
Habermas differentiates between truly mutual communications and those which are intended to achieve a specific action. For example, direct orders and threats are not intended to achieve agreement as much as they are intended to accomplish some specific action (Niemi, 2005, pp. 518-519). Another example is an utterance intended to disguise true motives such as extending a conversation to delay something from happening (Niemi, 2005, pp. 518-519). This type of communication is a strategic one and leads to strategic actions, rather than a communicative one which leads to communicative actions. While these may be effective at accomplishing some type of action, they are mutually exclusive in terms of achieving an agreement. True agreements, according to Habermas, are only accomplished via communicative actions and never by strategic actions, which rely on threats, manipulation, deception, gratifications, or other similar tactics (Niemi, 2005, p. 521).
In considering the Indian call centre operations from the perspective of CMS theories, it can be seen that the oppressive nature of these centres is congruent with the theories presented. For example, Marxism with the focus on worker oppression offers an explanation for the materialism displayed by management practices in the call centres. However, the resistance that might be expected from a Marxist approach does not seem to be present. The workers in the call centres consistently blamed the oppressive work conditions on the contracts required by the client companies overseas rather than the call centre management. The workers consistently expressed the belief that the oppression was what the client companies required, rather than what the call centre management chose to do (pp. 39-41). This did not, of course, reduce the amount of oppression they were subjected to, but perhaps gave them a self-justification for tolerating it. (It should also be noted that D’Cruz and Noronha noted that many, if not most workers in these call centres had few options for alternative ways to earn equivalent living, except by moving to other call centres (p. 41).) Weber’s iron cage also provided an effective description of how the oppression of the call centres impacts the workers’ lives and limited their options and choices. In addition, Foucault’s theories apply directly also to the Indian call centres, in particular with the perception of surveillance that the workers are subjected to. Foucault’s imagery of a tower from which managers can observe all workers while not themselves being observed is directly descriptive of the type of surveillance that the call centre workers are subjected to. Most positive, however, is Habermas’s theory of communicative action because it provides a potential path to change in which the call centres could change how they operate to provide truly collaborative action with their workers.
The result of this analysis has been to better understand how the critical approach to management analysis provides new and important insights to business management that are beyond traditional management theoretical approaches. Understanding how such theories inform business practices offers potential for changing and improving the lives of workers and the ultimate success of businesses by making them more humanistic in their policies and practices.
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 In this context ‘ideal’ is meant in the sense of Platonic ‘ideal’ Forms, i.e., the purest form of bureaucracy with characteristics that define the term, and is not to be interpreted as being ‘perfect’ or ultimately desirable.