Technological change is nothing new. During the Industrial Revolution developments in technology were equally welcomed and reviled, depending on the perceived impact on businesses and individuals. Just as entrepreneurs saw the great opportunities afforded by new technology, workers often saw such changes as threatening to jobs and therefore livelihoods.

Whilst the pace of technological advances accelerated, there were always those who considered the downside. Nowhere was this more evident than in the UK textile industry. Between 1750 and 1850 the industry changed completely from cottage-based production to factory-based production, but while businesses prospered and living standards increased for the majority, those who considered their jobs at risk resisted change actively and often violently.

Management theorists were quick to pick up on the opportunities and threats brought about by techological innovation. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the so-called 'father of scientific management', spent much of his time looking at newer more efficient ways of combining land, labour and capital.

Much of his work ignored the effects of new methods on how people interacted at work. Technological change fundamentally affects the way in which people at work come into contact with one another and hence their patterns of communication.

During the inter-war years, enlightened writers such as Elton Mayo promoted a greater understanding of the relationship of the individual and working group with the working environment.

The Hawthorne experiments confirmed the potency of empowering workers by giving them discretion in the workplace. This is impossible without bringing people together in small teams.

After World War 2, more complex management theories evolved in relation to the human relations aspects of work organisations. In particular, Frederick Herzberg foresaw a time when repetitive, boring jobs could be largely 'automated out', enabling the quality of work life to improve.

Nearly 50 years later, developments in microchip technology have again revolutionised the way in which people work. This does not automatically remove some of the real difficulties with which managers are faced.

Charles Handy points to important shifts in the way work is carried out:

  • more people work from home
  • in an attempt to reduce operating costs, businesses are downsizing their permanent workforces and adopting more flexible structures, such as greater use of part-time workers and out-sourcing through external contractors.

It is quite conceivable that if such trends continue, face-to-face business relationships will be of less importance in future, bringing new challenges to the organisation.