Temporality and Knowledge Work

Temporality and Knowledge Work

Joanna Shih (Hofstra University, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-176-6.ch026
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The hi-tech firms that predominate in Silicon Valley contain a large proportion of knowledge workers—employees with high levels of education and expertise. The region is subsequently a useful prism by which to explore the shift in the pace of work and ideologies of labor control. Engineers in Silicon Valley are a prototypical example of “knowledge workers;” they are valued for their ability to contribute to firms’ competitive advantage via their expertise and innovation. This chapter reports on fifty four semi-structured interviews of high-skilled, white and Asian men and women engineers who worked in the hi-tech industry of Silicon Valley, focusing on the issue of work temporality. Temporality has long been understood as central to the labor process, and as inextricably linked to the mode of production. Here, I highlight the problematic aspects of the shift from the routinized schedule of “clock time”, characterized by rigid temporal boundaries between work and home, and “project time,” characterized by an erratic and increasing pace of work that appears to be largely unfettered by boundaries between private and work time.
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This chapter explores the temporal experiences of engineers in the hi-tech industry of Silicon Valley. Engineers in this region are a prototypical example of “knowledge workers”, because they are valued for their ability to contribute to firms’ competitive advantage via their expertise and innovation. While Silicon Valley has been the subject of intensive scrutiny, both popular press and academic research have primarily focused their analyses on how the particular economic structure of the region has contributed to the region’s rapid growth. In contrast, relatively less attention has been paid to the experiences of the workers who, after all, undergird the region’s economy. While important studies have documented the conditions faced by low skill, contingent and itinerant workers (Barley and Kunda, 2004; Carnoy, Castells and Benner 1997, Hossfeld 1988) the experiences of hi-skill workers have generally been assumed to be uniformly positive.

Here, I subject the work lives of hi-tech engineers to greater scrutiny, focusing in particular on their temporal experiences. Three related questions are explored. First, how is the pace of work organized, and what factors shape it? Second, why do hi-skilled workers comply with an increasingly hectic work schedule? Third, how do the demands of work impact upon other temporal worlds of engineers?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Silicon Valley: The popular term for the hi-tech region in Northern California that is primarily centered in Santa Clara County.

Temporal Worlds: this term is intended to highlight the different (and non-linear) conceptions of time in individuals’ lives. For example, temporality at work, that is, the experience of time at work, is organized differently from the experience of time at home, or in one’s life course. It also highlights the question of whether these various temporal worlds can be synchronized.

Project Time: refers to the organization of time at work via project cycles, which are cyclical in nature.

Flexible Specialization: (Also known as flexible production, or flexibly organized economies). It is a form of economic organization characterized by decentralized and fluid organizational structures, designed to adapt rapidly to variations in consumer demands. Flexible specialization is viewed as a shift away from the mass production and relatively rigid organizational hierarchies of the Fordist era.

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