Computer technology and the redefinition of supervision : a study of the effects of computerisation on railway freight supervisors
The relationship between computer technology and supervision is examined with reference to new empirical evidence drawn from a study of the computerisation of freight operations in British Rail. Attention is focused on the extent to which computerisation allows for a more integrated system of management control, and the possibility of devolving additional elements of control from middle management to the local supervisory level. Contemporary research often claims that the first-line supervisor is becoming more peripheral to the direct control of operations, as computerised equipment takes over the execution of many supervisory tasks, and as operatives who are skilled in the use of new technology overtake the apparent skill superiority of first-line supervisors. This thesis contends that it is misleading to focus on the 'pure' role of the first-line supervisor when studying the effects of computer technology on supervision. The main body of empirical data is drawn from an in-depth study of the effects of change in five traditional marshalling yards in three British Rail regions. The case study examines how the application of a comprehensive computer system to process and transmit information over diverse and spatially distant freight yards can transform the distribution of responsibilities for operational control within management. It is argued that the redistribution of management control functions over a network of organisational levels has resulted in a far more complex redefinition of supervision than is implied by the apparent erosion of the role of the first-line supervisor. A broader conception of supervision is presented in order to explain changes in the distribution of supervisory tasks across various supervisory levels, within the context of changes in work organisation and the system of management control. Finally, it is argued that whilst computerisation may erode the traditional basis of supervision, it may also result in the emergence of a new type of computer-oriented supervisor, whose role is to use the 'realtime' information provided by the computer to co-ordinate and control previously diverse areas of production or service operations.