This article presents research findings from a case study of a company's pharmaceutical sales force working in the UK and Ireland. We explore how changes in the nature of the customer and the competitive environment are impacting on the way management are structuring the work process and the nature of skills required. A central focus is whether these changes: are pushing management to increase the skills and knowledge of sales reps or are encouraging the use of a more rigid and less autonomous form of work organization. Can we identify a shift of this occupational group either towards the 'knowledge' worker end or towards the routinized service worker end of the skill/control spectrum? By analysing the relationships between customer, employer and employee, we evaluate how changes in the pharmaceutical industry and the reorganization of the UK's national health service (NHS) have led management to re-evaluate the balance between control and autonomy in managing sales reps' work. We argue that management's desire to empower and upskill reps, through the 'capture and transfer' of knowledge and the recruitment of higher qualified individuals, was being undermined by the use of forms of control which reduced autonomy and routinized the work process. The routinization approach was more pervasive, despite the beliefs by many reps that it was inappropriate for successful selling within the particular customer environment and its negative impact on job satisfaction and labour turnover. Our evidence would refute any assertion of a general trend towards more skilled and autonomous work, showing that there remain considerable pressures on management to control and downskill their workforce, despite the benefits of autonomous working.
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