Conference Version 29.05.2003 - Paper for 19th EGOS Colloquium: Organization Analysis Informing Social and Global Development presented July 2003, Copenhagen Business School - Stream 9: Space and Organization

Click HERE for the revised, formal version of this paper.

Electronic Stepping Stones:

a mosaic metaphor for the production and re-distribution of skill in electronic mode


The journey towards the global production and redistribution of skills in the electronic mode has been made along a number of key stepping stones. This paper examines the current form of global production and the role of information and communication technologies in enabling the close management of distributed resources: real time global monitoring of distributed activity transforms traditional principal/agent relationships. The real time remote control of distributed resources is a new institutional competence, however, the development of distributed resources as an institutional strategy is an older competence.

The paper traces the distributed resource mode of production to strategic innovations made in preparation for the Second World War: the U.K. wartime Shadow Factory programme and its U.S. equivalent. The U.K. programme deliberately distributed resources to protect against the wipe out of centralised resources by the enemy. Post war this approach of distributed resources, ie shadow facilities, was used by major industrial concerns such as Ford to protect against disruption by trades unions and, indeed, sovereign states.

Since the development of shadow facility strategies by multi-nationals, without doubt new developments in information and communication technology for the detailed remote control of distributed facilities have emerged. The development of much of the technology used routinely within the global industrial system is the outcome of military priorities and consequent technological research, most particularly satellite technology and global positioning technology: the latter was used intensively for the first time in the first Gulf War.

However, the technologies which have enabled military and managerial surveillance of distributed resources also, paradoxically, enable the communities so scrutinised to develop their own distributed strategies and patterns of relationships with external parties. The shadowed are able to shadow their shadowers. Furthermore, ICTs allow anybody from any point to collect together global information resources which permit not only the shadowing of the present, but also enable the shadowing of the past: strategies which were historically concealed and are now rendered transparent and available for all to see. All parties, powerful and traditionally powerless, are within the position of social enclosure through the technologically enabled transparency of both past and present action.

Knowledge structures are now no longer fixed by historic patterns of past publication and concealment of histories but are a constantly re-assembling mosaic of newly available tiles of history and identity. Our discourse now is shaped by the tiles of distributed archiving and distributed discourse rather than set in the stone of priest, academy and authority.

1. Set in Stones: colonisation, war and distributed organisation

The first industrial revolution led to a spatial hierarchy involving resources, manufacturers and consumers. This has been characterised as an orderly pattern of flows of resources from a colonised periphery to a developed core and the distribution of goods and services, followed by diffusion of "advanced” practices from centre to periphery (Dicken 2003, Root 1990).

However, this is being supplanted by a complex layering of labour and resource markets in which research and development, routine manufacturing, final assembly and after-market support may all be present in the same location, yet each may be contributing to different product chains and sectors (Castells 1996)

The strategies of transnational corporations resemble the placing of stepping stones as much as the construction of production chains. Inward investors can pick their distributed points of presence from a beauty parade of aspiring recipients, seeking the most favourable infrastructures and government support, regardless of jurisdiction ( Lipietz, 1987).

The move to distributed, often complementary production resources echoes strategic decision making in the advanced industrial countries during the two world wars of the twentieth century. The foundations for the Cold War “military-industrial complex” identified by US President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address were laid in the period leading up to World War II.

2. Patterns of Convergence: technologies and technological turns

Modern information and communication technologies are at the centre of developments in the global economy because they are essential to the level of control required over back offices and subsidiary plants located across national boundaries.

These also had their genesis in the Second World War, through the development of advanced code-breaking techniques in Britain and the United States. The major operation conducted at Bletchley Park north of London remained a secret until the 1970s, when a key worker produced an unauthorised memoir (Winterbotham, 1974). The code breaking centre played a leading role in the post-war development of electronic computing, both at Manchester University in Britain leading to the first integrated commercial application, the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO). At MIT in the U.S.A. individuals who had passed through Bletchley Park contributed to the Whirlwind project which introduced the real-time computing which now underpins both military and commercial applications.

In the U.K. in the late thirties, preparations for hostilities took the form of the creation of shadow industries and the dilution and transfer of skills drew on the tenets of scientific management and Taylorist innovations of previous decades. These new plants made use of opportunities provided by shifts in technology and related skills in key industries.

These shifts offered a vision of mass production in formerly batch production of high technology items. In shipbuilding riveting was being replaced by welding, a process regarded as less skilled, triggering conflict over definitions of skills, trades and jobs (McGoldrick,1982). The innovation was crucial to the mass production of "Liberty" ships in the USA to expand and maintain merchant shipping capacity in the face of enemy action . In both the U.S. and the U.K. all-metal fabrication was emerging in both the automotive and aircraft industries, leading to a conscious attempt to merge aircraft production with motor industry mass production techniques.

3. Shadow Factories - distributed skills

The initial U.K. Shadow Programme was, in part, premised on taking plants to available skilled labour in the regions of inter-war growth in light engineering associated with automotive production (Little & Grieco, 1988). A simple sub-contracting approach to the expansion of production relied on occupational mobility within an external work-force, the Shadow Programme required both geographical and occupational mobility, unless there existed both high and suitably skilled unemployed labour at the location.

The objective of the programme was to increase total productive capacity and to distribute vulnerable plants to areas assumed less vulnerable to air attack. Initial plants were developed alongside motor manufacturer's plants, and produced a single design of air-cooled aero-engine. Later plants produced air-frames and finally green-field integrated plants were developed

The scale of the initiative was significant. For example the Rolls Royce Shadow plant at Hillington in Central Scotland, was an integrated factory mass-producing high technology aero-engines. It was planned for unskilled, largely female labour. The light metal foundry for the production of engine blocks was designed with state-of-the-art materials handling equipment to allow its operation by women. By mid 1943 Hillington employed 20,000 workers with a small nucleus of skilled men. The remaining workers were classified as unskilled, with the proportion of women continuing to grow.

4. Tiles and traces: consequences for post-war patterns of location and practice

The distributed production system of the U.K. shadow factory programmes was achieved without coordinated resistance to the spread of location. (For information, on global transport technologies and shadow strategies in the deindustrialisation of America see Bluestone and Harrison, 1982). The relatively high general levels of unemployment and the context of national survival contributed to this.

Nonetheless, existing social resources within the target communities of the UK Shadow plan led to significant levels of organisation, as evidenced by the Hillington strike. In 1943 the Rolls Royce Shadow plant at Hillington in central Scotland, was the scene of one of the key wartime disputes over the issue of women's pay. Despite a commission of enquiry (Cmd 6474, 1943), triggered by wartime industrial legislation, this struggle and its significant gains, disappeared from post war consciousness.

The tiled skills created by the shadow facilities left Britain with a post-war legacy of contestation by organised labour around the relative status of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers. During the 1950s disputes over boundaries between pay and conditions of skilled, semi- and unskilled categories led ultimately to the key sixties equal pay strike by Ford women workers.

The conversion of war-time facilities, such as aircraft assembly plants, to civilian production underpinned the post war location of high technology manufacturing developments. In both the UK and the USA government owned plants were turned over to the private sector. In Britain the war-time location policy for production facilities, driven by strategic concerns, was mapped on to post-war development policies and the New Town movement. The location of government owned-contractor operated (GOCO) plants determined the diffusion of new industries from the East and West Coasts to locations in the mid west and “New South”.

In Europe from 1966 the Ford Motor Company developed the distributed strategy into “complementarity”, described by Dicken (2003). Key plants were replicated across different European jurisdictions, allowing government and work-forces to be played against one another and minimising the impact of industrial action at any single location. By the 1980s U.S. automotive companies were able to control machinery in Canada form within the U.S.

These distributed resources became something of a liability with the emergence of the single European market, with inward investment from East Asian competitors being directed to single location integrated plants. However, by this time mosaic strategies had become established at the global scale.

5. Shadowing from the Shadows

The post-Cold war period has seen the accelerated formation of global mosaics. Complexity is added by the re-assertion of older identities and allegiances against the background of erosion of state sovereignty through international dispensations from the WTO and an expanding European Union (Delamaide, 1994). As a consequence, the interaction between intervention and location has also strengthened.

The further development of electronic forms mean that the sites of equivalent size to the Shadow manufacturing plants within the UK are likely to be call centres and other back-office elements of the production and distribution network identified by Nelson (1988) at the scale of the conurbation but now constructed on a global scale. Physical manufacture is increasingly carried out at other points of presence in the global mosaic. Such relocations also transfer understanding of and capability in the relevant information and communication technologies (ICTs) with which to create traces of work patterns.

The implications of these developments for social and political movements from the margins of society are clear in an Australian example. In 1966, Vincent Lingiari led the Gurindji people in a walk-off and strike from the Wave Hill cattle station in the Northern Territory, owned by Britain's Lord Vestey. The Gurindji's initial protest was over wages and living conditions became a claim for the return of their traditional lands. The strikers eventually found widespread support, lead by the Waterside Workers Federation, but the struggle went unnoticed for many months. On 16 Aug 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam formally handed over title deeds to a part of the Gurindji's traditional lands.

The distribution of distributive technologies has transformed the visibility of such remote locations. Vincent Lingiari now has a constituency of the Australian Federal Parliament named after him. him. The Central Land Council, the representative body for the Aboriginal communities in that area now has its own web presence, as does ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The struggle is immortalised in song, and in continuing on-line activity. The Tanami network has harnessed state-of-the-art satellite technology in support of traditional social practice, while the Outback Digital Network aims for sustainable communication infrastructure within remote communities.

Now the visibility of location achieved by the Gurindji over months and years can be achieved by activists in a much shorter time-frame. For example, accounts of a police attack upon women workers occupying Brukman, an Argentinian clothing factory, has been rapidly disseminated as the Brukman Battle , the Columbia Report web site gives global visibility to events in both government and guerrilla controlled remote locations while the Mexican Zapatista Movement's astute use of web technology remains the defining example of grass-roots globalised discourse. In both developed and developing economies, unions have adopted the electronic form, individually and collectively (Hogan & Green, 2002), and broader electronic political movements have been described by Holmes and Grieco (1999).

Diasporic communities have been quick to seize the potential of these enabling technologies. Both the Baltic Republics and the West Indies furnish examples of the use of internet technologies by groups and individuals to develop and conserve identity at a distance and to modify the standard tourist view. Producer associations (eg. SEWA - the Self Employed Women's Association) have appropriated these techoligies, whether at the point of entry of the mobile phone, financed by organisations such as the Grameen bank, or at the direct level of web-site based electronic exchange.

The approach taken to the appropriation and development of distributed skills mirrors the shadow factory transfer techniques. Basic but key subsets of skills can be developed rapidly, templates for basic HTML web pages can be distributed electronically and simple on-line resources such as editors and basic site management can be accessed at minimal cost through commercial providers.

However, the development of shadow military facilities and factories occurred in period in which communication technology was not highly distributed: it was historically a property of large organisations, (governments, multinationals) as compared with the present where global communication reach is a property of the individual and the household as well as large organisations. The "tiles" of shadow locations which formed the mosaic of multinational power are under re-design and challenge from the "tiles" of social movement global coordination which constitute the contemporary mosaic.

This diffusion of skills and sensibilities along with the necessary access to infrastructure has allowed a reverse panopticon to be created, in which each “shadow” location can shadow the developments at the “centre” and can develop a tile of the mosaic with a character and capability set of its own that can be electronically inserted into the broader pattern.

6. Conclusion: Shadowing our past, shadowing our present

In conclusion we want to draw the attention of the conference to some examples of electronic shadows of both present and past strategies for distributed organisation.

Trade Wars: the struggle between Big Pharma and social movements of the infected and affected.

Big Pharma presents its own industry view on-line, but this is shadowed by campaign activists. Act Up represents the U.S. AIDS activists who demonstrated physically against pharmaceutical companies in the 1980s, and continues to monitor events there. Archiving the struggle becomes possible, as does voicing debates from within the affected regions of Africa.

An African Aids portal has been established with the sponsorship of the South African Government. The South African Treatment Action Campaign in turn targets government policies. Both rape crisis intervention and the responsibilities of employers for the well-being of their employees are the target of other on-line campaigns.

The Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS), established in India in 1983 provides an analysis of the impact of forthcoming TRIPS agreements on the price and availability of drugs.

The issue of the availability and cost of generic drugs is also represented by the BUKO pharma campaign based in Germany. A major concession was won in April 2001, when pharmaceutical companies withdrew a court bid to stop South Africa from importing and producing cheap versions of patented AIDS drugs.

On 13 October 2002 a television broadcast on the anti-depressant Seroxat used the BBC web site to elicit responses to the programme from users of the drug. These are now incorporated into an article in the International Journal of Risk and Safety in Medicine available on-line in pdf format. A follow-up programme "Seroxat: e-mails from the edge", broadcast on 11 May 2003 was promoted by the Seroxat Users Group web site. By the second broadcast the British Medical Journal web site was carrying an article attempting to broaden the issue to selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in general as a class of drugs whose problems are outweighed by their benefits. The U.S. based Alliance for Human Research Protection takes a different view of patient experience.

War on Cancer: the global monitoring of the medical establishment by cancer campaigners.

Globally available information resources on cancer are now substantially developed. Different flavours of on-line cancer education and support are provided by government and through corporate sponsorship, in this case from a company developing gene based cancer testing systems. Widely distributed resources are collated at the Life with Cancer site.

The U.S. corporate style is evident in the support site for pancreatic cancer and an empowerment approach in that for breast and ovarian cancer.

War on Terrorism: a war of information tracking, control and metagovernance.

The most high profile information tracking, control and metagovernance arrangements are found in the War on Terrorism. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States maintains a web site and both the CIA view and the FBI view are readily available. However, these are countered by expressions of concern over the widening of definitions of "terrorism". The emergence of the al Jazeera news network has led to the provision of an English language version of their web site which provides a contrast to the perspective provided by Westen media.

Elsewhere a software solution to the problem of compliance with government surveillance requirements is on offer.

The Dangerous Citizen web site quotes Section 107 of the US Copyright Law in support of the use of copyright material in a not for profit context. The Global Policy Forum and the Institute for Public Accuracy attempt to redress the mainstream media's treatment of government assertions. George Washington University offers an on-line archive of government documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation.

SARS: global tracking of the infected; global scrutiny of governance response.

The coordination of global response to disease is nowhere more evident than the highly distributed discourse around SARS. CDC Atlanta and the World Health Organisation provide information on the progress of SARS, along with a German language site.

An overview of the threat and progress can be seen at the Globalchange site. Both the US Department of Defense Global emerging infections surveillance and response system and APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) web sites provide monitoring.

A world SARS map is available from and the measures in place in Singapore, India, Taiwan and Australia, for example, can be compared with those in your own country.

Grid computing is being utlised, as with the SETI at Home distributed screen saver, to harness the spare capacity of networked PCs in the analysis of SARS data. On the distaff side, SARS has already been used as cover for an internet worm.

A manufacturer deluged with enquiries about their infra-red scanning equipment has inserted an information box on their web site. No doubt the South African Revenue Service and the U.K. Safety and Reliability Society are seeing an increase of internet hits on their sites.

Tiles as Stepping Stones

To conclude, our view is that these separate tiles and paths of experience from localised to globalised defence and production can be overviewed through the very technology which enables extended scatter.

The history of the emergence of the new mosaic is traceable on the world wide web. We play and record on a mosaic, the openness of which was designed by Tim Berners-Lee.

Distributed Archives and Relevant URLs

A pdf format version of a detailed description of the U.K. Shadow Factory schemes (Little & Grieco, 1988) is available here.

Other materials are archived at numerous location in the world wide web:

The U.S. equivalent of the Shadow Scheme, built as Government Owned Contractor Operated plants are described at the following sites:

Shadow factory products are the subject of military archaeology and restoration


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Paper prepared by

Stephen Little, Senior Lecturer in Knowledge Management, Open University
Margaret Grieco, Professor of Transport and Society, Napier University, Edinburgh

Contact Stephen Little