Congratulations to Luis Camacho who successfully defended his PhD in Planning, Governance, and Globalization on Monday. Luis’s PhD dissertation was entitled “Technology, Participatory Management Practices (PMP), and Dignity at Work: Negotiating the Use of Technology in a Plastics Packaging Firm.” The abstract to his dissertation is provided below.
While every student’s PhD pathway is different, Luis’s accomplishment is particularly notable given the unexpected challenges he faced along the way. The most significant of these was the tragic loss of Prof. John Browder, the co-chair of his PhD committee. When I asked Luis to reflect on his journey, he provided the following remarks about Prof. Browder and gave me permission to share them:
“… my heart falls apart when remembering the inexhaustible kindness, love, joy, and passion Dr. John Browder had for his students. He supported me as I worked to overcome a rough first year of my graduate program and helped me progress to my second year and then on to the PhD. I still remember how excited he was to teach his planning theory class in Alexandria for the first time (a course he had taught for 15 years in Blacksburg). His energy and enthusiasm was contagious. When I transitioned to Blacksburg from Alexandria, he and his wife hosted me at their house and shared Blacksburg’s history with me. As a teacher and advisor, he always challenged us to discover our own pathways and calmed any anxieties we had about our research.”
Prof. Joyce Rothschild served as Luis’s second PhD committee chair until her retirement from Virginia Tech, at which point I became the chair. I am extremely grateful that Prof. Rothschild remained an active external committee member after her retirement. Dr. Daniel Breslau, Dr. John Provo, and Dr. David Bieri also served as key members of Luis’s PhD committee.
I would describe Luis as one of our most resilient students. Not only was he able to navigate multiple changes to his committee, he faced similar changes during his fieldwork as his position in the firm he was studying evolved, requiring time consuming changes to his research protocol. During his time at Virginia Tech, Luis served as a TA for multiple courses in SPIA and the Real Estate program, taught courses for the VT Honors Program, and worked as a graduate researcher for Dr. David Bieri and for the VT Office of Economic Development.
Luis now plans to return to Colombia, where he hopes to continue his research into the relationship between technology and dignity at work.
Since the introduction of Toyota’s Production System, the deployment of lean production systems (or lean manufacturing) and more advanced technological developments, Participatory Management Practices (PMP) have been viewed as lying at the heart of successful manufacturing workplaces. Studies on technology and PMP have concluded that the state of technology in a company unequivocally shapes PMP and can open spaces to enhance the wellbeing of workers regardless of the PMP dynamics. However, these claims are contested by studies that question the positive effects from PMP, arguing that workplaces are organized in such a way that workers are viewed as mere resources to be deployed in the production process, without paying attention to their human morale and agency.
This research presents a case study of a food plastics packaging firm that contextualizes, describes, and analyzes: 1) PMP from a Socio-technical Systems Theory (SST) perspective to further our understanding of the role of participative dynamics in the wellbeing of workers; and 2) the dynamics of control-resistance in the workplace as a measure of dignity at work in the context of power relations. This research provides a rich exploration of a workplace that is facing and managing the challenge of automation and technological development.
Using an extended case study research method, data are collected by observing workers’ daily interactions with a combination of technologies. These observations reveal the importance of team dynamics in the production process. The observed PMP dynamics show conflictive, competitive, and cooperative behaviors that are negotiated through continuous human-machine, machine-machine, and human-human interactions in the production process. However, management is found to be indifferent to the impact that a combination of technologies and lean production approaches have on participation dynamics. This indifference inhibits managers from embracing and appreciating the value of PMP. All the identified expressions of what technology and PMP mean to workers, and their dynamics, show an ongoing negotiating process. This process comes from all types of participation in which a worker struggles for dignity. The organizational structure of the firm expects workers to display specific types of participation in team efforts, but workers are also provided with opportunities to negotiate their interests or struggle for dignity by changing their type of participation in team activities.
The work processes and findings described in this dissertation generally support the theory of Hodson (2001). Further, this research develops the concept of “combination of technologies,” which can be used to help observe workers’ understanding of technology and participative dynamics. The research also identifies various types of participation based on the interactions of workers in the technology process and how workers manage or safeguard their dignity based on their engagement with different types of participation in team-based situations or events. Finally, this research identified how participative engagement by workers can be used as a power mechanism to retain their dignity.