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Quentin Millington

Marble Brook

Consultant and Coach

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Division of labour: Is AI one cut too far?

Division of labour, in the workplace and beyond, has enhanced productivity and accelerated growth. But, nobody wants to feel like a cog in someone else’s machine. Will AI create more silos and further amplify the negative impacts of division of labour?
high-angle photography of bed of yellow flowers: Division of labour: Is AI one cut too far?

But for division of labour we should each spend life throwing rocks at fish and digging plants from the ground. Still, as artificial intelligence (AI) wrests work from us humans, fracturing personal and social systems further, we must ask: are we not breaking our world into too many pieces?

Division of labour – whereby complex activities are broken into parts with each assigned to an individual or group – has been an engine of production and growth since the Neolithic Revolution.

I plant, tend to and harvest your potatoes whilst you build my house, our friend preaches in church, and his neighbour keeps rowdy villagers in check.

Such partitions in the effort of living have allowed populations to increase, and science and the arts to flourish. We should not have penicillin, radio or the Sistine Chapel if each of us had to forage for daily food.

Division enables daily lives

Over the years, trades have broken into yet smaller parts. Let us sketch, for example, the history of Friday’s pasta sauce. On a landowner’s estate a farmer grows tomatoes that will be harvested by a picker. A driver takes the produce to market, where the buyer from a local restaurant haggles with a grocer.

An entremetier may prepare the fruit for a dish, which is cooked by a chef and served by a waiter. You, the diner, then eat the meal before the plate is handed to a dishwasher.

In corporations, we see division of labour in various departments: design versus manufacturing versus sales. Hierarchies leave executives with strategy, managers with control and team members with the doing.

Division of labour extends beyond the workplace to how societies are organised

Impact within society

Division of labour extends beyond the workplace to how societies are organised. It explains the institutions we take for granted such as law, power and class. These partitions settle our experiences of the world and how we relate to fellow citizens.

Clearly, division of labour has allowed civilisation to evolve far beyond our hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Let’s look to the leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith. For philosopher Smith, division of labour was an engine of productivity, growth and prosperity. Hume believed that individual value was amplified through the cooperation mandated by employment partitions.

A cog in someone else’s machine

However, whilst division of labour enhances production, it can harm people. Indeed, the smaller the divisions, the higher the risk. Of concern, new technologies typically hail an increase in partitions.

For example, when Mary produces, or goes to market for, the best ingredients, bakes a cake to her own recipe, and serves it to a customer who smiles and says thank you, she enjoys pride and ownership in her work. She sees the fruits of her labour.

But, what if Mary’s job is to load cakes, manufactured on a production line using nondescript, artificial ingredients, onto a truck, for delivery to a cash-and-carry, where a cafe owner buys them for a part-time waiter to throw on to a plate?

Immanuel Kant worried that specialisation rendered people little better than robots, mechanically performing an easy and repetitive task. When work is thus divided, it is hard to be creative or find meaning. How can Mary feel pride?

Karl Marx talked of wider estrangement, in that individuals are alienated from their work and its value and then, under capitalism, from relations with others. Marx saw social division of labour as an assault upon humanity: Mary is a cog in someone else’s machine.

Whilst division of labour enhances production, it can harm people

More divisions, more risk

Importantly, as we hand more work to machines, we must consider how partitions within employment affect human beings, at work and beyond.


Employee engagement is low. Ironically, much discourse on job enrichment centers on removing divisions of labour: granting people autonomy and sight of the value they create.

In his 1987 study, management professor Kenneth Kovach set out what people wanted: interesting work, full appreciation of work done, feeling of being in on things, job security and, only then, good wages.

Division of labour is at odds with all five ambitions: specialised tasks can be repetitive, with little visibility of value created; it is hard to feel recognised for work that other people, or machines, can be trained, at low cost, to do. In time, labour becomes more expendable, which lowers wages.


Have you ever called a large company with a non-obvious request? Password resets or account balances are easy, whilst more unusual customer needs are met with incompetence.

The failure is division of labour: processes have broken into many parts and may extend across geographies and cultures. The agent on the phone has no knowledge of, or responsibility for, the start or end of your problem. 

Customer service agents today also lack the relationship to care about you or understand your needs. With AI, it will be even easier to hand you off to other departments, or to other computers.


We think in silos that reflect divisions of labour. The finance director enthuses over earnings per share; the head of technology obsesses over the latest ideas from Silicon Valley; compliance teams worry about risk and sales managers just want to sign deals.

As a society and in business we face hugely complex questions. Whilst such problems by definition have no simple answers, ‘local’, specialist views make it even harder to create value.

Much of my work as a coach and consultant is to explore beyond the silos in which we all (inevitably) sit. As a society, we have a duty to discover ideas beyond any isolated interests: the more work AI takes on, the more clouded our holistic view will be.

With AI, it will be even easier to hand you off to other departments


What is the greatest challenge every chief executive or manager faces? What is every team member’s frustration? The short answer is cooperation: how to encourage people with diverse skills and views to work together. Here, division of labour is everyone’s biggest headache.

If organisations do one thing well, it must be to reconnect, or at least bridge, the processes that have separated in the name of productivity. Any sensible use of AI will enable rather than frustrate this effort.

Sadly, to wrest work from people and assign it to machines feels like the wrong direction.

Slice of humanity

It seems that in the name of productivity we have chopped work into tiny pieces. In doing so, we have also taken people as a means to this end. Man has become a cog in a machine of his own – or, depending on your politics, of someone else’s – making.

AI will amplify the harm of division of labour if we do not consider fully what it means for us to flourish as human beings. Might our world not be better if we all chose Mary’s home-baked cakes?

If you enjoyed this, you can read more by Quentin Millington here.

Author Profile Picture
Quentin Millington

Consultant and Coach

Read more from Quentin Millington

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