More attention needed on employee involvement to fix Britains productivity problem

A report entitled Involvement and Productivity – The missing piece of the puzzle?’ released this week by the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA) argues that effective employee involvement at work is essential to boosting productivity in the UK.

Professor Stephen Wood of our School of Management has contributed a chapter to the report which argues precisely what its title suggests, as he says in explaining and addressing the ‘unprecedented’ stall in productivity: “insufficient attention is paid to the human factor”.

His argument is based on evidence on employee involvement from the Workplace Employment Relations Study, examining both role involvement management– often called job or task enrichment – and organisational-involvement management which refers to participation in wider decision-making. He finds that there these two types of involvement management are not correlated, and employers often practice one but not the other.

However, both types of involvement management – in the job and the wider organisation – seem to have significant positive effects on productivity, quality and financial performance of organisations. Despite the evidence of the link between involvement management and productivity, Professor Wood finds that the prevalence of both role- and organisational involvement management remained static between 2004 and 2011, with the latter type of involvement practices being present in only one third of workplaces. He argues that employers need to find the time to involve their staff, allowing them to contribute to improving their own working practices and to wider organisational decision-making.

The implications for organizational practice, Wood draws out, are firstly that employee involvement offers a means of increasing productivity directly for example through increasing employee motivation and better organization and indirectly through its effects on other outcomes and particularly quality and safety; that it achieves the fundamental tenet of lean production, that quality and productivity are not in opposition to each other.

Secondly, in putting forward employee involvement as an important step forward we can be pretty confident we are practising evidenced-based management as the research base linking it to productivity is strong. Moreover, there are good examples of best practice, from the longstanding innovations in Japanese transplants in the UK to more recent ones in the NHS initiatives such as Listening into Action programmes.

A third implication is that the actual implementation of organizational-involvement management depends on targeted approaches such as these, however, the wider establishment and reframing of human resource policies, in conjunction with the trade unions where they are recognized, is needed for the infrastructure to help support staff and generate the involvement. The development of involvement may require a rebalancing of the approach of human resource managers, and CEOs can and are taking a lead on this.

The focus of textbook human resource management is still on processes – for example, whether appraisals are being done on time, whether the information was disclosed to all people at the same time, or whether the training course went smoothly – and insufficiently on the content in the delivery – what actually happened in the appraisal, dissemination or training activities.

Finally, much recent discussion particularly in the public sector, has been in reaction to a growing concern about management bullying and other forms of abuse, and hence has focused on speaking up or whistleblowing, we might call corrective involvement. Important as this is, the danger is that it is framed in negative terms – involvement for ‘freedom from’ – not in positive terms – involvement for ‘freedom to’.

Employee involvement is more than simply removing constraints on people but is about facilitating their development and improving the co-operation and coordination across the whole organization.  High-involvement management is also more than simply enhancing people's energy and motivational levels which is the focus of the current vogue for staff engagement, but requires developing their cognitive and relational capabilities.