Rigid Thinking for a Fluid Future? Why Matthew Taylor is Wrong


At the first in a series of #VibrantEconomy events at Manchester Metropolitan University tonight, Matthew Taylor of the RSA talked about the future of work. Rather than focus on the complexity of the challenges, and the radicalism required, what we got was a call for building frameworks, certificates and issuing badges. If the future world of work will be characterised by rapid change and flux, why are we trying to catch, control and reduce it into something less?

Let me get one thing out of the way, the Taylor report is a helpful contribution to understanding the employment challenges we face today. I am also certain that Matthew Taylor was a great choice to lead this work. But when we think about the choices we need to make about the future of work, we need more radical ideas about the relationship between employers and employees and to ask ourselves harder questions than simply what feels fair or what we think we would like the world of work to look like.

In a challenge to Manchester, we were asked to think about how Manchester could pioneer a new kind of ‘employment framework’. We were also asked to think about a system of badges or other certification for ‘less tangible’ skills that employees could take with them from one employment to another. Matthew also suggested that it would be a good idea to have a common performance management framework across the entire UK retail sector.

Not all of what was in the Taylor report or what we heard in Manchester tonight is wrong. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding. You cannot develop effective responses to wicked problems by building reductive frameworks of rules and processes in which to pen them in like so many difficult sheep. Any attempt to deal with these problems that comes from a position of wanting to standardise and add more levels of regulation to the employment relationship is doomed to failure.

Where Matthew Taylor is right is in his call for us to move beyond the ‘Master/Slave’ employment relationship – what I call the ‘Parent/Child’ model. Taylor’s attempt to do this though is simply to move the bondage from the employee to the employer by forcing commonality of management approaches and the transferability of ‘intangible’ skills.

Although recognising that tax and governance had a powerful influence on the labour market and the workplace, Taylor had clearly given less if any thought to the role of Employment Tribunals in not only enabling the ‘Master/Slave’ relationship but in restricting an employer’s ability to manage its workforce on the same basis that Taylor suggests they should recruit it: on the intangible personal and interpersonal skills. If we want to think like a system, we can’t stop at a level where that becomes difficult or inconvenient.

The Taylor report and surrounding commentary is a useful addition to our thinking around workplace and employment challenges, but its real value is in showing us why a reductive and simplifying approach is ill suited to address the really hard questions.


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