Integrate to Survive

Some occupations thrived after the dawn of computers. Others went extinct. In a new research paper, Tuck professor Steven Kahl D’91 explores why.

Some occupations thrived after the dawn of computers. Others went extinct. In a new research paper, Tuck professor Steven Kahl D’91 explores why.

Every so often, new technologies emerge that change the nature of work and set off jurisdictional battles within corporations.This is happening today with the rise of big data and cloud computing, as different departments in organizations struggle to claim their authority over these areas.

To better understand these dynamics from an occupational perspective, Tuck professor Steven Kahl went back to the 1950s, when computers first started appearing in businesses. In a paper recently published in the journal Organization Science, Kahl and his co-authors studied systems men, who squeezed efficiencies out of firms through work-flow process improvements and controlling the dissemination of information, and production planners, whose domain was the material requirements for manufacturing.

Both professions had a similar reaction to computers: How can we use this new technology to expand and solidify our control over our work and improve our position in the firm?

Forty years later, systems men were pretty much gone and production planners grew to become a 60,000-worker-strong professional group. What happened? Kahl traces the failure and success of these two occupations to the different ways they framed their role in the unfolding age of computers.

“This is a story of how technological change creates an opportunity for people to redraw jurisdictional boundaries,” Kahl says, “and how you win or lose those battles.” It’s a delicate undertaking. On the one hand, new technology can make you more productive and more accurate. That’s a winning result. But on the other hand, it can be an excuse for a higher-status position, such as an engineer, to co-opt your work and make it part of his own. That spells obsolescence.

Technological change creates an opportunity for people to redraw jurisdictional boundaries.

Systems men, who reported to the accounting department, were always a little defensive about their status in the firm. They saw computers as a way for them to more easily disperse information across the organization (through a model they called management information systems or MIS) and, more to the point, as an empowering tool to give them more authority. Production planners, who reported to manufacturing, also looked at computers opportunistically, because it could help them automate an operations process that was cumbersome and time consuming. They hoped computerization would make them more essential to the firm’s success. “The production planners wondered how they could become more important,” Kahl says. “The systems men said, We should be in the upper echelons of management.”

Those differing desires greatly affected how the two occupations attempted to evolve with computers. Systems men, preoccupied with their own identity within the firm, tried to show how computers made them different from everyone else. The problem was, management wasn’t buying it.

Production planners, however, took a more integrative approach. They framed their tasks as interdependent with the other main departments of the firm. And they interfaced with other groups much more often. As Kahl shows in the paper, production planner conferences frequently featured guest speakers from other lines of work, such as engineering, sales and marketing, and purchasing. Conferences for systems men, meanwhile, rarely included people from different groups. In sum, systems men took a more authoritative approach, trying to convince others to defer to them. Production planners were more social and relational, and that proved more effective.

This was a somewhat surprising result for Kahl. Most of the literature on this topic says long-term occupational survival depends on maintaining control over tasks and being recognized as an expert in a domain. “What struck me, in this case, is that in order to maintain that authority, you should be more integrative and relational with potential rivals,” Kahl says.

Occupational Survival Through Field-Level Task Integration: Systems Men, Production Planners, and the Computer, 1940s-1990s. Steven J. Kahl, Brayden G. King, and Greg Liegel. Organization Science, October 2016.