Worker Autonomy and the Technological Drama of Digital Netwoks in Organizations

Philip Brey


This essay aims to assess how digital networks impact the worker autonomy of employees in the tertiary sector, with special emphasis on office workers. Its guiding assumption is that worker autonomy is in large part defined by the position of a worker in the information network of his or her organization. This information network is the standard pattern of information flow in an organization, including both technologically mediated information and communication processes, oral communication, and visual and auditory information processes. It is standardized to the extent that it is determined by norms, regulations, and standard practices, as well as by physical infrastructure. This network largely determines who sees, hears, or knows about whom and what. Worker autonomy depends on what employees (can) know, what information they have exclusive control over, what information they are excluded from, and what (they know that) others (can) know about them.

It is also assumed that the introduction of any new information medium in an organization implies changes in its information network, and therefore a potential change in worker autonomy. However, changes in the information network and in worker autonomy are not predetermined by a medium. In the words of Richard Sclove, media have polypotentiality, in that they offer multiple application possibilities. The introduction of a digital network in an organization can be analyzed through Bryan Pfaffenberger’s model of a technological drama, in which design constituencies (including management) and impact constituencies (including employees) battle over the meaning, use and even the finalized design of an artifact, in a series of episodes that involve ‘statements’ and ‘counterstatements,’ intended to secure particular interests or goals.

The essay will start with an analysis of the nature and importance of worker autonomy, which will be analyzed as the freedom of workers to contribute to the overall goals of the organization as well as to their own legitimate personal goals through plans, decisions and actions that they can give shape to themselves. This is followed by a review of the impact of digital networks on worker autonomy, including literature on worker privacy and monitoring, and on the impact of digital networks on the distribution of decision-making power in organizations. Next, the above theoretical assumptions will be expounded.

This will be followed by an analysis of several cases that involve the introduction of digital networks in organizations. These will be analyzed as technological dramas in which the role of a network in organizational information flow is fixed. It will be analyzed what the outcomes imply for worker autonomy. Cases include the introduction of a new, digital telephone system in a bank, the introduction of an information systems in the nursery ward of a hospital, and the introduction of a computer network in an accountancy firm. The relative importance of network design (e.g., centralized/decentralized, ring/star, versatile/rigid) in these cases will be weighed against some of the structural and cultural features in these organizations, as well as individual actions.

Generalizing from these cases and from others in the literature, it will be assessed what threats and opportunities digital networks pose to worker autonomy (e.g., monitoring and the erosion of informational and relational privacy of employees, employee-to-management and employee-to-employee information flows) , and what strategies may be available for workers to enhance autonomy.