Miriam Posner: The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives

Commentary in The New Yorker examines the deficiencies and effects of supply chain-management software.

Miriam Posner, assistant professor in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, has published an article in The New Yorker this week on “The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives,” based on her research on global supply chains and her curiosity about transparency in the manufacture and distribution of goods.

“A few years ago, while teaching a class about global labor at the University of California, Los Angeles, I tried assigning my students the task of analyzing the “supply chain”—the vast network of factories, warehouses, and shipping conduits through which products flow—by tracing the components used in their electronic devices,” writes Posner. “Almost immediately, I hit a snag: it turns out that even companies that boast about “end-to-end visibility” and “supply-chain transparency” may not know exactly where their components come from. This ignorance is built into the way supply chains work. The housing of a television, say, might be built in a small factory employing only a few people; that factory interacts only with the suppliers and buyers immediately adjacent to it in the chain—a plastic supplier on one side, an assembly company on the other. This arrangement encourages modularity, since, if a company goes out of business, its immediate partners can replace it without consulting anyone. But it also makes it hard to identify individual links in the chain. The resilient, self-healing quality of supply chains derives, in part, from the fact that they are unsupervised.”

In her article, Posner describes her experience of learning to use supply chain-management software (S.C.M.) through an online course. She found that the intricacies of SCM became exponentially more difficult. She also learned that S.C.M. only provided a very narrow perspective of a manufacturing operation depending on who was utilizing the software.

“As the class proceeded, I felt as though I, too, were falling behind on an assembly line,” writes Posner. Every task was more complicated than I’d imagined, with a seemingly endless variety of settings to configure; I struggled to keep the various interlocking systems arranged in my head. Over time, though, I started to understand the dynamics of the system as a whole.

“Log in to PeopleSoft, or a similar human-resource management system, and you only have access to certain modules—the ones relevant to your particular job. The same is true in [S.C.M.]. Most of the time, the work of supply-chain management is divided up, with handoffs where one specialist passes a package of data to another. No individual is liable to possess a detailed picture of the whole supply chain. Instead, each S.C.M. specialist knows only what her neighbors need.”

Posner considers the possibility of S.C.M. software including a “workers’-rights component,” that could incorporate the gathering of data on working conditions. She writes that, “… a component like that would be at cross-purposes with almost every other function of the system. On some level, it might even undermine the purpose of having a system in the first place.

“Supply chains create efficiency in part through the distribution of responsibility. If a supervisor at a toy factory objects to the production plan she’s received, her boss can wield, in his defense, a PP/DS plan sent to him by someone else, who worked with data produced by yet another person. It will turn out that no one in particular is responsible for the pressures placed on the factory. They flow from the system—a system designed to be flexible in some ways and rigid in others.”

“…Supply chains aren’t purely physical,” notes Posner. “They’re also made of information. The people who design and coördinate supply chains don’t see warehouses or workers. They stare at screens filled with icons and tables. Their view of the supply chain is abstract. It may be the one that matters most.”

To read, “The Software That Shapes Workers’ Lives,” visit the New Yorker website.