flexibility in pursuit of competitiveness (Nick Boreham)
presentation is based on the Framework IV TSER project 'work process knowledge
in technological and organisational development' (WHOLE).
The final report has just been published (book on work process knowledge
- see reference), so you can refer to this if you want some further details.
I am just going to pick out main points of the project that are related
to the issue of developing flexibility in pursuit of competitiveness.
This project looked at changes in European work processes and in particular
the so-called modernisation programme supported by the European Commission.
That is to say, this looked at changes from bureaucratic type organisations
to much more organic work organisation, the change from hierarchical organisations
where managers do the thinking to organisations which are much more participatory,
where everybody is supposed to be involved in continuous improvement. It
is the European Commission's policy that European industry should modernise
itself in this way, and it is also the policy of most of the European member
states that industry should change in the direction I have just described.
However, there is empirical evidence that the modernisation programme is
actually moving very slowly, although there are some examples of learning
organisations with much more flexible ways of doing work. There is a lot
of evidence that this is a very gradual transformation. For example, the
European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Standards
carries out regular surveys of working conditions in Europe. These surveys
show that most workers in Europe do not work under modernised conditions.
There have also been a number of case studies which have looked in detail
at modernisation attempts (some of these are especially described in chapter
15 of the book) and go into detail why modernisation attempts have failed.
There may be many reasons why the modernisation programme is moving slowly:
flexible work may not in fact confer a competitive advantage, there may
be a shortage of the skills needed for flexible work. However, my thesis
in this presentation is to point to an argument which comes out of the
work process knowledge report, which is that there is another reason which
we can see as to why flexibility is not going to be taken up with great
enthusiasm. Basically, any functioning work system is a social system which
achieves a certain degree of equilibrium. This equilibrium is a particular
way of distributing certain things throughout the organisation, it's a
way of distributing responsibilities, it's a way of distributing rewards,
and it's a way of distributing knowledge. The central issue in the modernisation
programme is to reorganise European work places so that the distribution
of knowledge is very different than has been in many traditional work systems.
The point that I want to make is that the case studies of the failure of
modernisation projects show that modernisation tends to upset the delicate
social contracts in the organisation. If you try to introduce a new work
system which relies on different ways of distributing knowledge then this
is very threatening to everybody involved, because it upsets the equilibrium
which was established in the previous work system. Generally speaking,
the modernisation requires much more knowledge creation and sharing at
all levels of the organisation and it also requires much more lateral communication
and much more bottom-up communication of knowledge within the organisation.
The introduction of more flexible systems of continuous improvement imply
changes of this sort, and these tend to challenge the existing social relations,
and this is experienced as a threat by everybody involved.
So the point that we can draw from this is that the European modernisation
programme is not just a process of vocational education and training and
human resource development. There may be a cost to this, a cost in terms
of the damage it does to the social systems we call work. It may be that
many of these costs exceed the benefits to be gained in productivity. This
is a fact which may underline the slow movement towards modernised work
in Europe. But as far as this particular symposium is concerned it should
draw our attention to the fact that if we want to be involved in modernisation
then we need to address a much broader range of issues and skills, competences
and training methods.
included in Manning 2002a; final project
report: Boreham et al. 2000a; publication:
et al. 2002
of the symposium