Call centres are often likened to 19th century sweatshops, with a management style to match. Recent events within BT call centres seem to reinforce that image with thousands of staff striking over allegedly draconian management measures. Lisa Burroughes investigates what could be a landmark event in a nascent industryMore than 4,000 BT staff at 37 BT call centres for '150' and '151' customer services, were set to walk out this week in protest of what they describe as a "management style borrowed from the previous century". The Communications Workers Union (CWU), which is backing the strike, said it is unhappy with the unprecedented levels of monitoring, oppressive management and unrealistic performance targets set by the UK telco. But BT is considered by many as a role model for the call centre industry, so the way it responds to the strike will be closely watched. At the heart of the problem is the use of technology. Without it call centre managers wouldn't be able to monitor performance, agent activity and duration of call time. The technology itself, if used in the right way, can be highly effective. But there is a thin line between using it well and using it badly. Natalie Calvert, managing director of Calcomm group, argues in this week's Behind the Headlines: "One of the ways to motivate staff is to give feedback on their performance, and in order to do that you need to have good systems that actually enable you to monitor and measure performance. Bad management uses it in a very negative way - it's all carrot-and-stick stuff. Good management uses it to really motivate people." So at what point does monitoring performance levels to improve motivation become draconian management practices? Laurence Beguin, call centre communications manager at Alcatel, believes it is when the managers forget the human aspect. "I think BT is not considering the human factor. To get the best productivity from a call centre you have to treat the agent like a human being and this can be easily forgotten if you think only about performance targets," she said. This presents a paradoxical problem for the management of all call centres, according to Perri 6, senior research fellow at the University of Strathclyde. "There is a tension here between a call centre that is fundamentally there to process a lot of transactions in as short a time as possible and a call centre which is there to build the relations with your customers by solving their problems," he argued on Behind the Headlines (http://www.silicon.com/a34158 ). It isn't only about the management of the technology - it is often about the technology itself, the blame for which Calvert puts at the door of the IT department. "What is generally happening is the technology being put into call centres is put in by IT departments - they don't understand the people and they don't understand the customer - they are not marketing driven. And therefore automated systems can be very cumbersome and difficult to use." The implementation of many big customer relationship management or call centre projects run over budget and over time because the IT staff don't work with the agents to develop an application that they are comfortable using. But whether it is the way technology is implemented or the way it is managed, there is little doubt modern call centre managers will have to get to grips with the social issues involved. A BT spokesman admitted: "In the history of call centres we are in the evolutionary stage." Alcatel's Beguin argues that the BT strike could force a positive change in the industry. "Maybe this is a very important step to highlight the human side of the call centre. This could help prompt better working rules being laid out," she said.