DOI: 10.1177/01708406241233175 ISSN: 0170-8406

What we do in the shadows – how expert workers reclaim control in digitalized and centralized organizations through ‘stealth work’

Peter Kalum Schou, Torstein Nesheim
  • Management of Technology and Innovation
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management
  • Strategy and Management

Organizations often depend on experts to carry out complex tasks that require specialized or tacit knowledge. Yet, organizations often want to increase their control over how tasks are performed and thus reduce the autonomy of experts. In the past, scholars have argued that experts had the ability to rebuff organizational attempts to control them. However, in an era with increased digitalization and centralization in organizations, experts risk losing control. How experts react when facing this increased centralization and digitalization is not well understood. Thus, this study seeks to improve knowledge on how experts react as organizations digitalize and centralize control over tasks. To do so, we studied a large energy company, which sought to increase its control over tasks and reduce the autonomy of its expert engineers by implementing an organizational change that included centralization and digital control. Using in-depth interviews, we portray how the expert workers reclaimed control using three micro-level tactics: strategic compliance and workaround, using legacy to reclaim control and concealing expert control. Based on these findings, our paper makes three contributes to the literature on experts and control. First, we provide the concept of ‘stealth work’, outlining how experts can reclaim control when centralization and digitalization has otherwise stripped them of status and power. Second, we highlight how expert control may be nested in organizations as a legacy, which experts can use when facing centralization and digitalization, and finally, we highlight how experts can engage in small hacks that curb the usefulness of digital control systems.

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