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Travail et identités : la portée de l’impératif technologique : une étude de cas

Travail et identités : la portée de l’impératif technologique : une étude de cas

Sid Ahmed Soussi

Volume : 61-1 (2006)


Work and Identities: The Impact of the Technological Imperative.

A Case Study

The goal of this research is to study the impacts of technological changes on the professional identity of a specific category of workers: technicians. This research is based on a case study of a major high-tech organization working in the telecommunications sector. This group of “technical workers” establishes itself both as a key social actor and also as a professional category weakened by a deep identity malaise.

This malaise itself can be attributed to its own specific social history and to the recent technological changes that have had a major impact on the production structures of its “natural” activity space. The study, carried out in a factory in a suburb west of Montreal, started just after the beginning of a complex process of technological and organizational change. The study has a dual goal. The first goal is to understand the dynamics of change brought about by these transformations, which have led to a new distribution of qualification spaces and a redefinition of negotiation powers for the members of the community. A second goal is to analyse the mechanisms which were in place for the remaking of the technician position and which make up the basis for the reconstruction of her social and professional identity. It is the deconstruction of this process which lies at the basis of this research which also set out to question the explanatory impact of the controversial notion of technological determinism as related to the recent transformations which have affected industrial work. The analysis model calls on three notions. The first notion is that the dynamics of the social work space within the enterprise set up a transformation process that leads to a structuring of new disqualification and requalification spaces. The second is that these dynamics are not the result of technological change alone; other factors much be taken into consideration in the redefinition of the technician’s identify and function. The third notion establishes a structural relation, of cause and effect, between the transformation process of the qualification spaces, their respective zones of uncertainty, and the technician identity through its technical, professional, and social components.

The case study of this work sets up a constructivist and inductive approach, which takes the form of a long-term study, based on direct observation, personal conversations, and use of the organization’s documentary sources.

The research results bring out two major phenomena. The first is the homogenization of the production space. The research is presented in two parts: first the bringing together of manufacturing operations into a single ad hoc space linked to the function rather than the product but in line with the same methods of task distribution; and thereafter, the definition of identical tasks, with the constraint of operation automation and equipment computerization. The second phenomenon is that of the fragmentation of the technician community. This is based on a transversal fracture of the technical population as a socioprofessional community and on the division of the technician’s function. The result of this phenomenon has been the disappearance of the largest of the sub-groups which previously made up the technician collective and which defined professional and collective identities; and the reconstitution of the community around two differentiated components: production technicians, and “specialized” technicians. The first group is by far the largest and includes, from this point in time on, operator technicians who have been greatly disqualified. Our results associate the second group with a redefined identify as a technician, a new collective group characterized by the appropriation of power spaces and technical means of authority, all of this to the detriment of both technical support (engineering) and hierarchical support (management).

Each group draws its resources from the same formerly homogenous population for which the enterprise’s social space allowed a “long maturation period”—from the 1960’s—and an identity affirmation based on professional function and on a technical mastery which were institutionally recognized in the industrial space. This global transformation dynamic also led to the restructuration of the organization’s professional and social system.

The results show that technological changes did not play an exclusive or overly developed role. The determinism attributed to the changes is, all things considered, relative when these are part of a complex dynamic with which other factors are associated, among which the enterprise’s strategy as an actor plays a decisive role. This is not because this role is more or less decisive than the dynamic stemming from technological changes, but rather because the former acts as a catalyst creating the conditions favourable to such an action. The technological changes appear, in the final analysis, as a strategic issue around which the power relations between different actors crystallized, particularly between technicians and leadership. Parallel to the irrefutable impacts of the “technical logic”, other strategic issues contributed to creating the social conditions for the institutional and collective action. The conduct and strategy of the leaders within the business are evident in a decisive manner at the very source of the main social transformations brought into focus by this study.

This transformation dynamic cannot be seen as the sole result of some technological determinism, or of an unavoidable logic over which actors have no control. Research shows that technological changes are the focus of an instrumentalization as a contextual platform which leaders use as a basis to legitimize their strategic choices in the field of work organization.