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ON THE FRONT LINE: ORGANIZATION OF WORK IN THE INFORMATION ECONOMY Stephen J. Frenkel, Marek Korczynski, Karen A. Shire and May Tam Ithaca NY, Cornell University Press, 1999, xv, 318 pp., $US 19.95 (paperback).

This book provides a much needed and empirically detailed analysis of work organisation in the new `information economy'. It presents the findings of a major research project on `front-line' work, understood as service sector occupations that involve regular and direct contact with customers. The aim of the research is to codify aspects of front line work organisation in order to identify ideal types. This effort is motivated by a desire to move beyond both pessimistic accounts of `electronic sweatshops' focused on issues of surveillance and control, and celebratory accounts of `worker empowerment' that assume increased levels of autonomy and satisfaction.

Both the scope and scale of the project are breathtaking. In a tantalisingly brief discussion, the preface hints at the intellectual and logistical challenge associated with integrating public and private sector funding, four researchers, four years, three countries, fourteen case studies and more than one thousand respondents. The results suggest the effort was worthwhile.

The research focuses on three different groups of front line workers: service workers, sales workers, and knowledge workers. Case studies are taken from major service oriented industries (financial services, telecommunications and computer services) located in Australia, Japan and the United States. The unit of analysis is the work-flow--defined as a structured set of tasks leading to a specified output. The case studies are classified according to the level of customisation and work complexity in each work flow. Call centre workers predominate in one group, a second involves home loan and share sales people, and a third is mainly systems developers and money market dealers. In each case, data were generated on lateral and vertical dimensions of five aspects of work organisation; work relations, employment relations, control relations, co-worker relations and customer relations.

Through their analysis of the data the researchers identify three ideal types--bureaucratic, entrepreneurial and knowledge workers. However, these do not neatly map onto the three types of work flows, and the authors are careful to note the `hybridised' nature of all cases analysed. They show that while service workers are more regimented than sales and knowledge workers, thus more closely resembling the bureaucratic ideal type, even they find aspects of their work organisation--particularly their relationships with customers and co-workers--intrinsically satisfying. Sales workers most closely resemble the entrepreneurial ideal type in that they have a high level of autonomy and are required to demonstrate considerable initiative. However, this work can be stressful and relationships with colleagues competitive. Knowledge workers have considerable control over their work, and are able to exercise considerable discretion in problem-solving, but they do not fulfil the utopian image of an `empowered worker' because their work experience is often conflictual. Through cross-national comparison it is also shown that, in all cases, front line workers in Japan are more regimented than those in the so-called `western' (Australian and US) cases. At one level, these research findings are not surprising. The authors themselves anticipate that `our research findings will confirm reader's experience' (p. 59). However, the value of the project is in the rigour of the methodology and research findings. There is a great deal of hyperbole about the consequences of supposedly new forms of economic activity. This detailed analysis provides a valuable counter to the generalisations that characterise much existing work. The project also attempts to generate research findings that can be converted into `knowledge capital' for use by the private sector research partner. It would be interesting to know if this explains the emphasis on ideal types, given that the research illustrates how difficult it is to mobilise these conceptions. That said, as the authors suggest, identification of the three types may prompt future research exploring the implications of differing forms of work organisation.

Finally, a word of warning. The book is not an easy read. Despite efforts to use appendices carefully, the text is weighed down not only by the tremendous amount of detail, but also by the use of inconsistent and confusing acronyms. While the former is also the strength of the book, the combination means it is more likely to be used as a reference or technical source, rather than enjoyed in and of itself. That said, it makes a significant contribution to the literature, and should be well used by researchers in organisational and industrial sociology and the sociology of work.

Wendy Lamer Sociology University of Auckland
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Larner, Wendy
Publication:Journal of Sociology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2000

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