Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Direct Participation in Work Organization: A Survey of Recent International Developments

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Direct Participation in Work Organization: A Survey of Recent International Developments

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

For the past decade or so, significant changes have been taking place in ways of organizing work in an increasing number of enterprises in all industrialized countries. Although the extent and the nature of the changes are not known with precision, it is clear that certain new concepts of work organization are today attracting the keen interest of an increasing number of managers and workers both in manufacturing and service sectors. These new concepts, which are often diffused through case studies, management consultants, managers' accounts of their success stories, and informal networks of personal contacts among managers, are no doubt exerting significant influence on the directions of organizational changes being introduced.

A pervasive feature of the new forms of work organization lies in various arrangements for involving employees in work-related decisions at the shopfloor. Seen from the workers' viewpoint, such employee involvement is often called 'direct participation' in contrast with 'institutionalized' or 'representative' participation, i.e. participation through trade unions or other representative bodies of workers. This paper seeks to identify the various types of arrangements for direct participation, which are used today in industrialized countries, and determine the effects of direct participation on the degree of the influence which workers exert on the contents of their work and on otitier work-related issues. (1)

The term 'direct participation' has recently been defined by a team of researchers working in a project (EPOC) of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, as follows:

   Opportunities which management provide, or initiatives to which
   they lend support, at workplace level, for consultation with and/or
   delegation of responsibilities and authority for decision-making to
   their subordinate either as individuals or as groups of employees,
   relating to the immediate work task, work organization and/or
   working conditions. (2)

Although we have basically adopted this definition in our analyses, we have introduced slight modifications of nuances into it Firstly, direct participation we are discussing is not limited to the outcomes of explicit managerial action. It may result from workers' spontaneous action or from pressures exerted by organized labour. Secondly, although we do not totally exclude 'working conditions' from the scope of direct participation, they will nevertheless be discussed only to the extent which they affect work organization, as we have defined. Thirdly, our definition includes the breadth of job definitions as a criterion for measuring the degree of direct participation. This is because the broader a job is defined, the greater the judgement and discretion which workers can use in carrying out their work are.

From the managerial perspective, other terms, such as 'employee involvement', 'participative management' and 'employee empowerment', are often used to refer to about the same practice, although they have never been precisely defined.

Thus defined, direct participation takes a variety of forms. In order to facilitate the comparison of various systems, it is useful to make a basic distinction between participation through normal work (so-called 'on-line' participation) and participation outside normal work (so-called 'off-line' participation). The former includes (i) the use of judgement and discretion by workers in carrying out their work, including in the establishment of working methods and work speed, and (ii) more or less autonomous teamwork The latter (i.e. 'off-line' participation) includes (i) quality circles and similar group activities, (ii) ad hoc development or study groups formed by workers and supervisors, a characteristic feature of the institutional arrangements used in Scandinavian countries for the introduction of organizational and technological changes, and (Hi) institutionalized upward communication, e. …

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