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Organizations have embraced experimentation as a means of testing new ideas and processes, guiding decision making, and evaluating worker performance. Nowhere is this more evident than in labor platform organizations, in which experiments are deployed at an unprecedented scope and scale. While prior research has examined the efficacy of experiments from the platform organization’s perspective, much less attention has been devoted to understanding the social effects of experimentation on the subjects of experimentation (i.e., less powerful workers). To build theory in this domain, we collected and analyzed longitudinal qualitative data from one of the world’s largest digital labor platforms. We found that the platform organization developed what we identify as an experimentation repertoire of transparent, concealed, and unbounded experiments, which reconfigures less powerful workers’ sense of autonomy in unexpected ways. Specifically, we find that worker responses normalize experimentation over time as the new status quo. Together, we argue that organizations’ experimentation repertoire is constitutive of the “experimental hand” that engenders unanticipated social effects on less powerful actors’ autonomy. We discuss the implications of our findings for the literature on less powerful worker autonomy, the organizational management of experimentation, and the future of work.
Hatim A. Rahman is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. His research investigates how artificial intelligence, undergirded by algorithms, is impacting the nature of work and employment relationships in organizations and labor markets. This research has been published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, and Academy of Management Discoveries. Prior to joining Kellogg, Professor Rahman received his PhD and Masters in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford University and his B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.