human-centred technology

human-centred technology

an approach to technology design and work organization which aims to enhance the skills and abilities of users by according equal priority to human and organizational issues as well as technical design requirements. Also referred to in manufacturing as anthropocentric production systems, this approach is in direct contrast to the technical design philosophy which is based upon the engineering assumption that humans are a source of uncertainty and error in production, and are to be eventually replaced by computer-integrated systems in the ‘unmanned factory of the future’ (see also TECHNOLOGICAL DETERMINISM, NEW TECHNOLOGY). In its ideal-typical form, human-centred technology incorporates design criteria which allow a unity of conception and execution, skill enhancement (particularly the recognition of tacit skills), and a measure of worker control over work processes and technology through participative systems design.

Human-centred technology was at first associated with the work-humanization initiatives of the 1960s and 70s, such as the Volvo group technology experiments, job enrichment and job enlargement schemes, and the SOCIOTECHNICAL SYSTEMS APPROACH (see also QUALITY OF WORKING LIFE, HUMAN RELATIONS SCHOOL). More recently, human-centred technology is seen as a crucial feature of new production systems based upon flexible specialization. The theory of flexible specialization posits an emerging post-Fordist manufacturing strategy (see FORDISM AND POST-FORDISM) in which multiskilled and functionally flexible craft workers replace the Tayloristic work patterns of mass production. According to the theory of flexible specialization, human-centred technology is both more ‘efficient’ in management terms, and more humanitarian and democratic in terms of management – worker relations: a ‘non-zero sum’ worker-management relationship. Although an important corrective to the simplistic logic of DESKILLING implied by LABOUR PROCESS THEORY, critics of human-centred approaches to technology cast doubt upon the extent to which they are realized in practice and point to the negative consequences found in case studies, such as increased levels of stress and work intensification. Furthermore, critics of flexible specialization question the extent of genuine worker participation, and note the increase in peripheral workers on part-time or temporary contracts who support core workers enjoying greater job security and better conditions of work (see Wood, 1989).

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