Improving job design by stealth: a practical or an ethical issue?

Tom Gough


The starting point for this paper was an earlier paper, given at the 1995 Annual Conference of the Ergonomics Society (Gough 1995), on the implications for job design of health and safety legislation. The argument advanced was that designers of information systems appear to be largely unaware of the issues that need to be addressed in the information systems development process if the requirements of health and safety legislation are to be properly satisfied. It was noted that there was a high degree of correlation between the content of the UK Health and Safety Regulations and widely recognised job design principles which suggested that meeting the legislative requirements would produce better systems. It was further pointed out that the legislation covered the personal obligations of employees in relation to the health and safety of themselves and others in the workplace. The paper concluded by suggesting that legislation provides “^E. information systems designers with an opportunity to justify the initial additional design costs of turning good intentions on improving information systems design into good quality operational information systems ^E” (Gough, 1995).

The discussion which followed the presentation of the paper concentrated on the conclusion put forward in the paper and on the above quotation in particular. Two interrelated assumptions were shared by the several members of the audience who participated in the discussion and by the paper^Rs author. The first was that stated in the paper i.e. the initial costs of good design are higher than the initial costs of poor design. The second assumption flowed from the first which was that since initial costs were higher it was essential to have management commitment to good design before any significant improvement was achievable. It was agreed by all parties that using legislation as the lever to gain support was unlikely to be effective, especially as provisos on practicality in the framing of the regulations would provide unwilling managers with a convincing negative response.

This paper explores the premise that better (or worse) job design is in the hands of those engaged in the detail of information systems development and argues that if no job design policy exists it is possible for information systems designers to implement one without overt management support by making good job design a key element in their personal approach to information systems development. Once it becomes part of ^Qthe way we do things around here^R it will cease to be an issue in the cost equation or on management^Rs agenda.

The practicality and legitimacy of this ^Qdoing of good by stealth^R will be examined which will draw on results from an experiment in health and safety practice which is, as yet, unpublished.

The conclusion is likely to be tentative and may well challenge some of the orthodox thinking on information systems development.