Random Analytics: Modern Soldiering

by Shane Granger

When Fredrick Winslow-Taylor wrote his great treatise, published in 1911, on “The Principles of Scientific Management”, he spent a significant amount of time explaining how “soldiering” impacted on the management and efficiency of the trades. Although his explanation covers many pages I felt the more impactful quote(s) included the following:

The English and American peoples are the greatest sportsmen in the world. Whenever an American workman plays baseball, or an English workman plays cricket, it is safe to say that he strains every nerve to secure victory for his side. He does his very best to make the largest possible number of runs.

The universal sentiment is so strong that any man who fails to give out all there is in him in sport is branded as a “quitter” and treated with contempt by those who are around him.

When the same workman returns to work on the following day, instead of using every effort to turn out the largest possible amount of work, in a majority of cases this man deliberately plans to do as little as he safely to turn out far less work than he is well able to do in many instances to do not more than one-third to one-half of a proper day’s work…

Under working, that is, deliberately working slowly so as to avoid doing a full day’s work, “soldiering,” as it is called in this country, “hanging it out,” as it is called in England, “ca canae,” as it is called in Scotland, is almost universal in industrial establishments, and prevails also to a large extent in the building trades; and the writer asserts without fear of contradiction that this constitutes the greatest evil with which the working-people of both England and America are now afflicted.

Over a hundred years have passed since Fredrick wrote those passages and nine months after finalising a six month deployment to Canberra where I worked with a Commonwealth department it struck me recently how much the world has changed, and yet, remains the same.

A recent article by Fiona Smith articulated the issue utilising research from the RMIT’s Iain Campbell in which they found that many Australian’s were working up to an additional 10-weeks per annum.

Looking at the very high level data provided in the most recent Australian census shows that 45.3% of Australians worked more than 40-hours a week, even with the Fair Work Australia limitation of a 38-hour cap on working hours.

Table 1: Australian Employment Hours Worked. Data sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2011 Census).

Modern “soldiering” is not about trying to find the slowest route to take a wheel-barrow up a hill, nor the pacing of a caddy so as to extract as much profit from his (or her) client. The ‘trades’ are no longer the greatest body afflicted by the disease of “soldiering”; it’s the modern office environment.

Modern “soldiering” is all about being seen to be busy. In my most recent Workforce Planning assignment (with a Commonwealth Agency) a not un-common opening discussion might go something like this…

“So how was work today?”

“Gosh, I got in this morning and I had 100-emails to answer, then two meetings, one of which was unscheduled then after lunch I was on the phones…”

Often, actual output is never mentioned. If we have a hard look at the modern office worker, output is actually hard to define and in some cases so amorphous as to be impossible to measure. So, the answer for many is to always seem busy, always a moving target to avoid closer inspection. It doesn’t matter that working long and inefficiently is detrimental to the business (and to the individual) because the point here is to create the illusion of work rather than completing defined outcomes. Often efficiency in highly bureaucratic organisations can be treated like a virus by other workers until the more efficient worker is driven out.

Modern “soldiering” is also defined by the ownership of 24/7 technology. Rather than create efficiencies these gadgets, from the humble mobile through to the most connected tablet are tools of control creating unnecessary levels of oversight and input rather than allowing delegated staff at level to make decisions without a double or even triple check. Who would have thought those odd guys in the 1980’s with those brick like phones would take over the world, zombie style!

It also isn’t enough to be busy at the office. Access to modern technology allows the modern office worker to be “soldiering” throughout the evening and into the weekend. Once again, efficiency is not crucial here, just the perception of being on the ball all of the time.

Modern “soldiering” is most often found in highly bureaucratised organisations, where inefficiencies can be resource levelled across many employee’s and is usually overlooked in the search for productivity gains. Concentrations of the affliction can occur in any part of the business but are more likely to happen in the middle management, administration or enabling functions.

One final note, for which Fredrick Winslow-Taylor (and the worker of 1911) might have found ironic and amusing.

The modern office worker today will be more likely to be completing a DIY (Do-It-Yourself) project or playing golf on the weekend when not answering that all important phone call or answering that ‘can’t wait’ email. They wouldn’t be looking for the slowest route for the wheel-barrow or playing their round of golf on a go-slow.

No, they’d be completing these tasks as efficiently as possible so they could go back to work and continue to ‘soldier’.

For the record: This is a revised and updated article which I authored and posted for HR.com on the 10th March 2012.