On microfoundations and Barley

Seems the comment tool on Posterous is not working today, so here is my comment to Jan-H. about Barley, the neo-I crowd, and technology.

While I have always liked Barley’s work on technology, there is something I have got to get off my chest: in his super famous 1986 paper, the one about radiologists and new workplace technology (ASQ?), what was he really showing in that paper that made him so famous?

He showed that technology does not have a straightforward consequence when it enters a work place and instead can have different consequences in different workplaces. Well, I’d say “of course”. After all, the paper provides a counter point to a non-issue. Even in the literature at the time, it was almost unfair to ask: what is the single consequence of this technology for all work? Thus, his argument was pinned against is flimsy one, even for org studies.
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Here is why: they have been searching for that answer since the 1960s with Woodward who assumed one could “unlock” the consequences of industrial manufacturing technology, namely, the assembly line, for work in general, laborers, managers, etc.
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Guess what? She couldn’t. There was no single consequence.
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Tech did not uniformly speed things up.
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Tech did not shape each organization the same.
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Tech did not … and so on.
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Woodward assumed it would, or hypothesized as much, but Woodward was, in fact, learning what Barley would later test as a hypothesis the other direction. Barley assumed it the other way — that there would not be just one consequence of technology — and, unsurprisingly, found it. Well, in a way, of course he did; he found what scholars had been finding (but not looking for) for decades.

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