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Readers of previous installments of this column will recall that I have been discussing both the general relationship between information practices and moral virtues and some specific questions about the effects of information technology, such as the "expert system," upon our ability to lead virtuous lives and have morally satisfying work. In this column, I want to take a practical turn by articulating some of the ethical considerations which might motivate workplace information policy.
In arguing against the view that information technology will necessarily have detrimental effects on our lives, I suggested that the fear that the introduction of new information practices will represent a morally significant loss is partially justified. Information technology can either dehumanize or revitalize our work experience. Much depends upon whether the old challenges and moral satisfactions lost are replaced with new opportunities for workers to pursue those human excellences that have moral significance.
Of course, an opportunity for something good is not the same as the realization of it, and I must confess that I am far from optimistic about the likelihood that people, especially professionals in traditional "command and control" organizational hierarchies, will realize these opportunities. If they do, it will be a result of critical thinking about how information handling is tied to distributions of institutional power. In this column I want to suggest how a workplace information policy should be guided by ethical considerations which flow from thinking about the relationship, in the workplace, between information and power.
Before articulating some ethical considerations in setting workplace information policy, it might help to identify the kinds of information policies under consideration and illustrate some of the ways in which information structures are related to organizational power structures. Information policy is usually discussed in terms of discrete questions about confidentiality of records, restrictions on employee use of organizational information, and conflicts of interest which arise when our professional roles give us access to information which we should refrain from acting on in our personal lives (e.g. insider trading). My focus is instead upon the way the physical characteristics of information (i.e. whether it is written or electronic, conveyed through face to face contact or via phone messages, accessible by one party at a time or by many) lead us to structure job descriptions, organizational hierarchies, reporting systems, and ultimately power and prestige in the workplace. I am specifically interested in information handling tasks in which organizational processes (such as performance appraisal, work assignments, and the reorganization of work) and organizational planning are separated from other work and made into the special province of a manager.
Take the case of a work group supervisor or manager who is responsible for collecting and organizing a wide range of information, including some of the following: scheduling information for the work group; product information about equipment used by the group, maintainence record, and equipment to be purchased in the future; sensitive and strategic information about the business' marketing strategy as it pertains to the work group (usually from superiors); information about the work group's policies, practices, and productivity; complaints about members of the work group from customers and organizational constituents, copies of employee performance appraisals, etc. The physical environment and information habits of the traditional office or production shop are structured by this information matrix; we house file cabinets, recordkeeping systems and supervisors in secure, locking offices for the purpose of protecting that portion of the supervisor's information holdings that are genuinely sensitive. Access to this environment, and its information, is restricted by more than just locks. Dress codes and other status distinctions help identify where the most important organizational information is and who has access to it. The work habits which flow from this information matrix include a regular hierarchy of departmental, managerial, and executive meetings (often held to share verbally information recorded separately by each level of management). This information matrix also supports practices which might be called "rules of access" because they determine a worker's ability to solicit information about the work process, call meetings, and set initiatives and agenda items. Because the manager has the best resource base of anyone in the workgroup (staff, phone service, and other information handling technology) and the greatest involvement in informatioon sharing practicies, such as interdepartmental meetings, this matrix of information has a tendency to be self-sustaining; as new information handling tasks arise, efficiency seems to demand that they be assigned to the manager's office. The result of this traditional practice is what I call a "monopoly of information functions." In what follows, I want to point out the potential moral costs of this dynamic and suggest that an enlightened information policy, which pursues a "distributed processing" model of information handling, can realize great moral and practical benefits.
First, however, we should look at three traditional arguments for conserving the role of the traditional manager as an information monopolist. The first is a strict cost argument. The marginal cost of letting the manager take on additional information functions is lower than distributing those functions to other workers. For example, other qualified workers might have to maintain duplicate records of much information already possessed by the manager in order to handle an additional function. Second, it is often argued that organizational efficiency requires that information functions be centralized and that the manager, as contact person, be easily identifiable to other members of the organization. Quite reasonably, we want to be able to pick up a phone and call one number for a variety of information needs. Traditional reporting systems are "many-to-one" relationships, many workers reporting to one supervisor, many supervisors reporting to one manager, etc. Using this logic, concentration of organizational information is inevitable. Finally, and perhaps the strongest argument at first glance, the manager possesses skills and training that other members of the work group do not possess. One might be sympathetic to the idea of distributing information handling functions, and yet believe that it would be irresponsible to do so because the manager and the worker differ in expertise and judgement.
The important common feature of the first two arguments is that they both depend, for their credibility on a level of information technology which is rapidly disappearing in contemporary U.S. professional work environments. With newer networked information technology and sophisticated telephone systems, resource duplication is less of an obstacle to distributing information functions. Also, this technology makes it relatively easy to locate people responsible for various tasks and information and to create the "many-to-many" relationships needed for distributed processing. However, many work environments continue to operate with managerial information monopolies even though the costs of distributing information functions no longer weigh against doing so. Why?
To explain this, we might ask the question the other way. Even if the costs of distributing functions is not greater, why bother changing? After all, by concentrating functions in managerial roles, and by compensating these mangers financially and with greater status, we create motivations for workers to aspire to the manager's role.(1) What moral stake do we have in breaking managerial information monopolies? Can we say, with confidence, that many organizations will function better with fewer monopolies?
To address the first question, consider some of the morally important reasons why people aspire to greater responsibility in their jobs. With new assignments and the power to accomplish them, we gain opportunities to develop our capacities. New responsibilities test our character and, ideally, force us to rethink and refine our responses to difficult problems. When we approach new challenges at work, many of us also see the opportunity for new learning experiences. Prestige, while not itself a moral good, challenges us to maintain virtues of character and avoid vices such as excessive pride, immodesty, and egocentrism. We have to consider the implications of the hypothesis that growth in one's job is often related to personal and moral growth.(2) If we have it in our power, through the use of cost effective information technology, to distribute the kinds of workplace responsibilities which are linked to moral growth, then, I argue, we have an obligation to do so.
When we consolidate information handling tasks which require reflection upon and judgement about the work process into the manager's job description, we limit the opportunities for a greater number of workers to develop and shape their immediate work environment. The manager's work is not just another "quantity" of work that needs to be done. The qualitative difference is that managerial work involves the organization of work, organizational mission, and personnel decisions. When these functions are monopolized, workers lose moral autonomy and a morally important avenue for development. Recent management theories also suggest that is it a mistake to abstract workers from responsibility for reflecting on these organizational tasks. The result is often what sociologists call "anomie."(3) Therefore, breaking information monopolies can bring about moral benefits and eliminate moral harms.
Ironically, the traditional collegial system of university faculty governance provides an instructive, if imperfect, example of what I call a "distributed processing" model of organizational information policy. Even today, after the development of large professional university administrations, many faculty members have a serious role to play in questions of department management (rotating the job of chairperson or "manager"), organizational mission (faculty often write and/or review mission statements and large portions of reaccreditation reports), and personnel decisions (faculty play a major role in promotion and tenure decisions and often write and revise their own personnel manual, the "faculty handbook"). Against this example, it may argued that, as professionals, faculty are only representative of a small portion of the work force. Therefore, a "distributed processing" approach to information policy will only work in highly professional work environments.
This objection is related to the third justification offered above for the managerial information monopoly. Isn't the manager an "expert" at organizational process, planning, administration, and strategy? Could a bank teller, travel agent, store clerk, or shop worker really take professional responsibility for a particular managerial function? Assuming the moral argument is accepted, is it really practical to think that very many of the organization's internal information needs could be distributed among members of a work group and periodically reassigned?
An adequate response to this objection is needed, but it takes us away from the ethics of workplace information policy and into the area of managerial philosophy. One point can be conceded immediately: faculty members sometimes make terrible administrators. By analogy, we must allow that some workers, who perform their current tasks well, will fail to handle their part of the newly distributed tasks. But then, the point of the "distributed processing" model is not to make sure that everyone has an equal share of the old managerial monopoly, but to use information technology to give people more responsibility for the governance of their work environments.
While some concessions must be made to the argument that manager's have special expertise, the general objection is weak because it ignores the typical socialization process by which managers develop their expertise. Workers who aspire to management are often "mentored" or "groomed" for their positions. I suggest that we are better off (morally and practically) by initiating training and mentoring in such a way that many employees are enabled to take responsibility for some traditional managerial tasks. Inevitably, such a process will discover some limitations in some employees' abilities, but untapped potential will also emerge, and one could argue that there are good moral consequences to the discovery of one's limitations.
I have tried to indicate the general relationship which holds between
a given level of information technology and a set of institutional practices
which divide organizational labor into separate areas of expertise for
workers and managers. In the traditional organization, this relationship
reinforces "managerial information monopolies." While there are
some justifications for this division, and for the work practices and organizational
hierarchies which flow from it, these justifications are only persuasive
as long as the state of information technology in the organization does
not improve. At higher levels of technology, including networked information
technology, new opportunities arise for rethinking the moral and practical
benefits of distributing managerial tasks. While caution is needed in not
underestimating the training, skills, and expertise which qualify managers
to do their jobs, I think we also frequently underestimate the potential
of nonmangerial workers to study, evaluate and improve on the quality of
work processes. If this is correct, then we may find that guiding workplace
information policy by the moral ideal I have described is both good for
the worker and good for the organization.
1. Of course, we know in advance that, unless the organization grows rapidly over a long period of time, very few workers will realize this aspiration.
2. It is important to note that there are many exceptions to this claim. It would be wrong to suggest, for example, that a person who did not look to their work for personal or moral growth was necessarily lacking in a desire for moral growth.
3. There is a significant literature in business ethics which makes use of sociological theories of anomie to discuss moral work climates. See for instance, Cohen, Deborah Vidaver. "Creating and Maintaining Ethical Work Climates: Anomie in the Workplace and Implications for Managing Change." Business Ethics Quarterly, 3.4 (October 1993):343-358.