Virtual working practices fail to have a significant effect on the banking sector

Leadership & Organization Development Journal

ISSN: 0143-7739

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




(2000), "Virtual working practices fail to have a significant effect on the banking sector", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 21 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Virtual working practices fail to have a significant effect on the banking sector

Virtual working practices fail to have a significant effect on the banking sectorKeywords Technology, Flexibility, Employment, Banking

Day-to-day managerial work activity in two large centres of a major retail bank which was restructuring to achieve the "virtual organisation" actually changed far less radically than the technology theoretically allowed.

Researchers in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University spent five months observing organisational change at two NatWest Bank centres in the north west of England during a two-year project, which was financed by the Economic & Social Research Council as part of the Virtual Society Programme ( for research on the social science of electronic technologies. They concluded that the bank was modifying the impact of major organisational change inherent in the "virtual organisation" goal by choosing to adopt more process-driven arrangements where the co-ordination of workers was intended to be achieved through specification of task.

The two centres which were the subject of the study comprised:

  1. 1.

    four independent units which covered business, customer service, lending and a service centre;

  2. 2.

    a new centralised lending centre.

Managers and team leaders were shadowed and routine activities observed, including training, advising, monitoring, meetings, interviews, even making coffee.

The textbook practice is to use IT to enable highly flexible, electronically "connected" constellations of workers ("virtual teams") which negotiate their responsibilities, so solving the problem presented by workers in distant satellites having to be co-ordinated.

This strategy gave rise to:

  • an increasing emphasis on standardisation and best practice;

  • the routinisation of everyday working practices;

  • the quantification of working practices.

Factors which contributed to this state were:

  • the proliferation of process modelling, one of the key elements in pursuing standardisation; for example, the creation of process maps – diagrammatic representations of work flow which were intended to provide a definitive version of the division of labour – revealed that such maps are not systematic, rational, scientific deductions of the most efficient process, but are objects of negotiation and experiment among workers who mostly look to local concerns and understandings;

  • the development of management information and metrics to measure tasks and performance;

  • the development of new technological resources and aids to decision making to achieve standardisation; this was applied to customer behaviour as well as to staff, although formats had to be continually revised due to the unpredictability of such behaviour. There were even attempts to standardise interaction between staff and customers by providing telephone "scripts" to be read to customers but these were not slavishly followed;

  • the development of new technological resources and aids to decision making which could support the sort of distributed work and co-ordination across the organisational divide. However, the relevance of such information is a product of interactional work which often turns on gestural work, for instance, indicating what needs attention. Managers, meanwhile, say that they often use "gut feeling" when it comes to taking decisions.

The research concludes more broadly that:

  • quantification is useful but numerical representations of information never have an inherent meaning and significance – a description of the work requires common-sense understanding of the organisation, which is itself informed by such descriptions;

  • the very sense of standards, routines, best practices and their use is bound up with local understandings and local relevances rather than global – new technologies and new objectives are made "at home" with the strategic plan being arrived at rather than following it. The adoption of such a plan does not lead to the radical rewrite of everything.

"Where the 'virtual' meets the 'real': management, skill and innovation in the virtual organisation." For more information, contact Professor J. Hughes, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University. Tel: +44 (0)1524 594174; E-mail: or Hazel Duffy, Lesley Lilley, ESRC External Relations. Tel: +44 (0)1793 413032, 413119.

Related articles