Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Ten Successful Years: A Longitudinal Case Study of Autonomy, Control and Learning 1

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Ten Successful Years: A Longitudinal Case Study of Autonomy, Control and Learning 1

Article excerpt


Organizational change and workplace restructuring is often associated with failure (Jacobs et al., 2013), with adverse effects on the psychosocial work environment, employee health, and overall sickness absence rates (see, e.g., Bambra et al., 2007; Egan et al., 2007, 2014; Enehaug & Thune, 2007; Enehaug, 2014).(Kivimäki et al., 2000). This may be caused by increased job strain or stress (Kivimäki et al., 2003; Korunka et al., 2003) or job insecurity (DeWitte, 1999). An underestimation of the significance of the quality of the organizational change process (Balzer et al., 2011; DahlJørgensen & Saksvik, 2005; Nytrø et al., 2000; Saksvik et al., 2002) or the lack of active employee involvement in the process (Holter et al., 1998) may also cause problems. Organizational change is not delimited to singular processes with a fixed starting point and a defined end, but can be seen as 'situated and grounded in continuing updates of work processes and social processes' (Weick & Quinn, 1999, p. 375, referring to Brown & Duguid, 1991, and Tsoukas, 1996). Research on adverse effects of restructuring is not always suited to explain successful change. An alternative approach is to look at organizational learning capabilities as a prerequisite for the identification of and implementation of changes in ideas, practices, and routines (Argyris & Schön, 1996).

This perspective resonates with the sociotechnical perspective on organizations, which in Norway dates back to the late 1960s. The Industrial Democracy Projects (IDPs) sought to develop work place democracy and increase individual involvement in the work organization, emphasized the significance of both codetermination and participation, and considered it fundamental to create self-supporting organizational development based on learning and the expression of human resources (Gustavsen et al., 2010; Herbst, 1971; Thorsrud & Emery, 1970). The development of Industrial Democracy, first in Sweden and later in Norway, also gave direction to the development of the Nordic/Norwegian model-a model characterized by trustful relations between workers and employers, an active use of the society's horizontal relations to minimize conflicts, and the promotion of productivity and innovation (Falkum, 2015; Gardell & Svensson 1981; Gustavsen, 2007, 2011; Hasle & Sørensen 2013; Hvid, 2013; Kasvio et al., 2012; Sørensen 2012).

In the decades following the 1970s, Norway was affected by internalization, globalization, digitalization, and European integration (Dølvik, 2007), and by various organizational swings (Røvik, 1998). It is debatable whether these changes have affected the alignment of the Norwegian model. Dølvik (2007) contends that the Norwegian welfare state and work institutions are characterized by continuity and adaptation. Heiret (2012) emphasizes that flexibility demands are challenging existing regulations in today's version of the model, and Falkum et al. (2016) claim that the implementation of new forms of organization and management, based on standardization and control, loyalty, and commitment, constitutes a challenge. Nevertheless, the existence of a Norwegian cooperative model based on participation, codetermination, and trust seems unquestioned thus far.

In this article, we analyze the 10-year ongoing restructuring process in one organization by focusing on the processual development of responsible autonomy and employee control. We further view the organizational change process through the case organization's capacity for organizational learning and its ability to overcome inherent defensive routines that may jeopardize productive learning (Argyris, 1990). We argue that this restructuring process is characterized by values and practices in accordance with the IDP and the Norwegian work life model. We see this as a key factor to understanding this organization's successful transformation.

Learning,Work Environment, and Productivity

Together, four partially overlapping concepts guide the analysis of the change process: the core sociotechnical concept responsible autonomy, the control concept of Karasek and Theorell, and Argyris and Schön's concepts of productive learning and defensive routines. …

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