Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Workplace Innovation as Regional Economic Development: Towards a Movement?

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Workplace Innovation as Regional Economic Development: Towards a Movement?

Article excerpt


In the introduction to Action Research in Workplace Innovation and Regional Development, Werner Fricke and the current author argue for a shift in the focus of action research, from single cases to regional development processes or social movements, a trend widely associated with the work of Bjorn Gustavsen. Action research has the capacity to create "many low-intensity cases generated by a great variety of actors . . . (integrating) the ideas and interests of as many regional stakeholders as possible". This unleashes the potential to introduce industrial democracy and worker participation into regional development processes (Fricke and Totterdill, 2004, pp. 4-5). The selection of cases, and Fricke's editorial contributions, reflect his strong belief in collaboration between stakeholders as a means of driving an inclusive and democratic process of economic development. Trade unions, universities, policy makers and other actors can each play a key role, if they are willing to change their own internal and external practices. Action researchers have "a crucial, if under-utilised role to play, embedding shared learning within the process of intervention" (ibid, p. 2).

Following chapters describing exemplary and successful interventions from Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, the final contribution describes an emerging attempt to create a coalition of stakeholders in the UK. The UK Work Organisation Network: A national coalition for working life and organisational competence (Ennals, Totterdill and Ford, 2004) is a manifesto for the promotion of participative and empowering workplace practices. It explains the rationale for creating UK WON as a voluntary coalition of employers' organisations, trade unions, policy makers and researchers, arguing that the country lacked a space for dialogue between key actors in which their common interest in more productive and healthier workplaces could be explored. It suggests an ambitious list of actions embracing research, knowledge-sharing, network building and public policy advocacy. Here we reflect on developments in the UK since 2004, and consider the prospects for workplace innovation in post-Brexit Britain.

2. Context

For much of this period the importance of workplace innovation was unrecognised in national or regional policy spheres. Latterly, skills utilisation and its relationship to productivity came increasingly to the forefront of policy discussion, leading to new insights into the importance of high involvement working practices.

2.1 Skills utilisation and productivity in the UK

The problem of workforce skills in the UK is multi-faceted, well documented and has a long history. According to the UK Commission for Skills and Employment (UKCES, 2009):

"Our stock of skills and their optimal deployment fare relatively poorly when compared internationally, according to skills utilisation measures such as labour productivity and levels of qualifications among different workforce groups. Access to opportunities for skills acquisition is uneven, as are their impacts."

The 'British disease' of poor productivity and an economy based on a 'low skill equilibrium' has long achieved cyclical but transitory public policy prominence, though without reaching lasting solutions. Since 2000, the focus of skills policy in the UK began to reach beyond its primary concern with improving skills supply. UKCES argued in 2009 that "there has been a shift in focus, to considering how we can ensure that skills are effectively used, as well as developed, in the workplace".

Supply-side skills interventions can boost competitiveness and influence individual labour market outcomes; in isolation they have not been sufficient to close the productivity gap with competitor nations (Wright & Sissons, 2012). Research findings (UKCES, 2009; LLAKES, 2012) pointed to:

* a widening gap in the labour market between the number of workers with qualifications at various levels, and the number of jobs that require those qualifications;

* 35-45% of workers with qualifications that are not fully utilised in their current jobs (Wright & Sissons, 2012), but which would be of economic value if they could be put to better use in more demanding roles;

* the tendency for UK employers to require lower educational qualifications for otherwise similar jobs than their counterparts in many other developed countries;

* the slow pace at which UK employers have adopted high involvement working practices, despite long-established evidence that such practices are associated with enhanced levels of productivity and performance. …

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