Current Promise, Future
Katherine J. Klein
Virginia L. Smith-Major
R. Scott Ralls
In the past decade, the widely publicized efforts of businesses to compete in global markets by adopting Total Quality Management practices, organizing into self-directed work teams, and otherwise “empowering” workers have made participation a buzz word in the media. Yet worker participation is neither a new practice in the American workplace nor a new subject in the academic and popular business press. Early in the twentieth century, the Hawthorne studies piqued the interest of business scholars and practitioners' interest in worker participation. Later, in 1948, Coch and French published their classic study documenting the role of worker participation in reducing resistance to change. And in the decades to follow, Kurt Lewin, Chris Argyris, Edward Lawler, and others proclaimed the merits of participative management.
Then as now the primary goals of most worker participation programs were to increase productivity while improving employee satisfaction. But does worker participation actually help companies achieve these goals? Is worker participation the right solution for the businesses of today and tomorrow? Unfortunately, despite the long history of worker participation in America, the literature on worker participation contains few absolutes and many ambiguities.