Employment Relations Research Series No.7
PARTNERSHIP AT WORK
Dr John Knell
Industrial Society48 Bryanston SquareLondon, W1H 7LN
Executive Summary 2
1 Scope and Objectives of the Research
Introduction 1Methodology 1Case Study Selection Criteria 1Generating the Sample 2Summary Characteristics 2The Structure of the Report 2
2 A Review of the Literature
Introduction 5i) Current Definitions of Partnership 5Developing a nuanced understanding of partnership 7Whats so new about partnership? 8ii) Partnership at Work: A Necessary Historical Context 9The New Economy and the New Workplace: from Conflictual 9to Cooperative Orientations?The New Competition 10US Evidence 11The Rise of HRM 21The Institutional Context 13The New Economy and the New Workplace: Assessment 14iii) Tackling barriers to Partnership 14Conclusions 15
3 The Case Studies: Summary Analysis
Introduction 17i) Routes to Partnership 17ii) What is meant by partnership? Towards an understanding 18of the partnership conceptiii) Partnership Philosophy: Towards a Core Set of Values 19iv) Partnership in Practice: Workplace Organisation and Management 22v) What was done to develop a partnership approach and what were 26the problems encountered?vi) Partnership Outcomes 28Conclusions 30
4 The Individual Case Studies in Detail
1. Appor Ltd. 332. Borg Warner 363. Braintree District Council 414. Domnick Hunter Group Plc 455. Elementis Chromium 486. Herga Electric Ltd. 547. H.P. Bulmer Holdings Ltd. 598. Litton Interconnection Products 649. Leyland Trucks Ltd. 6810. Michaelides and Bednash Limited 7311.Natwest Retail Banking Services Ltd. 7512. Scott Bader 7813. Shelter 8314. St. Lukes Communications 8615.Trifast Plc 89
Chapter One Scope and Objectives of theResearch
This study examines what partnership at workactually means in practice. It is based on areview of the partnership literature, and a detailedexamination of the partnership policies andpractices of fifteen organisational case studies.
Chapter Two A Review of the Literature
The review highlights the fact that the currentemphasis on partnership displays considerablecontinuity with long-standing and emergentdevelopments in work organisation and labourmanagement. New partnership approaches arenot, therefore, offering starkly original visionsof the employment relationship, nor indeedspecifying new methods to foster partnership inthe workplace.
However, the analysis identifies a rangeof economic, social, technological andinstitutional factors encouraging the adoption ofnew work organisation and labour managementpractices consistent with partnershipapproaches. For example, the accelerating paceof change in the structure of competition andmarkets is having a profound impact on thecharacter of employee relations. Increasinglycompetitive markets, rapid technologicaladvances, and shifts in consumer preferencesare seen as having transformed the competitiveenvironment and necessitated neworganisational responses, based on rapidproduct and process innovation. Various labelshave been used to describe the resultantworkplace innovations and productive systems,including high-commitment enterprises. Thesuccess of these systems is seen as beingdependent on the development of high-trustrelations with the whole workforce. As aconsequence, these organisational responsesrequired by the new competitive environmentcan be seen as sympathetic to the developmentof partnership in the workplace.
These new forms of work organisation, andlabour management innovations, may offerenhanced opportunities for work to become morefulfilling, and therefore provide a firmer basisfor partnership and co-operation in the future.
Our review of the recent literature suggests thatthe real test of the partnership agenda will behow far the principles and practices advocatedby such approaches extend to all employees,irrespective of their seniority, skill level, orstatus within an organisation.
Chapter Three The Case Studies:Summary Analysis
Similarity triumphing over differenceThere is a remarkable commonality of vision,value and purpose across the companies, and intheir substantive employee relations practices,though very few of the case study firms use theword partnership to describe their employeerelations approach.
Nonetheless, when the case study organisationswere presented with a check-list and descriptionof what partnership is taken to imply andcontain, all of them thought that it was anappropriate descriptive term to apply to theirpolices and practices.
Creating a shared understandingIn nearly all of the case studies, the basis ofpartnership has been for the organisation to open upa dialogue with their workforce about creating acommon vision and objectives, and about howeveryone can best work together to achieve it.
Sometimes the desire to have these types ofconversations, which in some cases proveddifficult at the beginning, was born from a deepdissatisfaction with existing relationshipswithin the workplace. In others it was promptedby the recognition that most aspects of theorganisations operations could be improvedupon, and that the changes required could onlycome from engaging the whole organisation,honestly and authentically.
The speed and force with which suchunderstandings were generated, and themethods used, also differed according to theorganisations circumstances. Where partnershipwas pursued with some urgency (e.g. LeylandTrucks, Borg Warner), partly as a result ofcrisis, the process was led by senior managers,and was initiated through direct communicationmethods (team briefings, mass meetings) withemployees. Leyland Trucks for example, heldsessions with groups of 40 employees lasting upto a day, in which they explored what thepartnership idea might mean.
Alternatively, where partnership was drivenmore by the measured adoption of thephilosophy, the process of developing sharedunderstanding was naturally less dramatic andmore gradual (e.g. Scott Bader, LittonInterconnection and St. Lukes), with a reducedemphasis on direct communication methods.
Creating such shared understandings does notof course mean the removal of disagreements.However, our case study organisations suggestthat the very process of forging agreements(and disagreements) in a climate of enhancedtrust, helps to enable everybody within theorganisation to adopt a problem-solvingorientation when tackling what appear at first tobe apparently intractable differences.
These orientations and practices stemmed fromthe recognition by our case study firms that fora partnership approach to be successful it isdependent on securing genuine employee buy-in to its policies and practices. Equally, ifpartnership is imposed on companies it isunlikely to work. Our evidence suggests thatwhilst a partnership approach is usuallyprompted by managers in the first instance, itfalters unless the organisation quickly achievessupport from all parties. The practicalimplication of this is that for partnership to feelauthentic to employees they have to be givenincreased voice, influence, discretion andresponsibility. It is clear from our study thatnearly all of the case studies are managing theirorganisations in this spirit.
Union / non-union establishment comparisonsAt the level of visible practices, differencesbetween the union and non-union case studyfirms were negligible in terms of the incidenceof workplace innovations and new managementpractices. However, given that all of our firms,including the SMEs, are good practiceorganisations, little significance can be readinto this finding.
More broadly, with regard to attitudes andbehaviours, if we examine union involvementwithin the case study firms, taken as a whole theunions have adopted a co-operative stancetowards new initiatives, and they have provedto be active participants in developing apartnership approach. An example of thisorientation is that the trade unions within theseorganisations have accepted that partnershipinvolves building a better relationship betweenall employees and the company, including on anindividual basis with each employee. As aconsequence a common characteristic of all the
unions in the case studies was their willinginvolvement in consultative mechanisms inwhich they did not have a monopoly ofrepresentation rights. This was true not only ofworks council type arrangements, but also moredirect consultation through working teams.Similarly, all of the unions had proved to beactive and enthusiastic participants in thedevelopment and negotiation of partnershipagreements.
Developing Partnership PracticesMany of our case studies organisations havefaced difficulties in implementing the newforms of work organisation associated withpartnership. For example, the difficultiesinvolved in moving an organisation fromtraditional command and control structures withlow levels of job discretion, to onecharacterised by a flatter hierarchy, self-autonomous teams, with employees beingoffered the chance of more meaningful controlof their jobs and working time. Many of theorganisations featured in the study confirm thatsuch a shift:
can unsettle those employees who do notwant to take on new responsibilities, or feelthat their previous status and position havebeen undermined. The solution has been formany of the organisations to embark oncomplementary culture change and teamand relationship-building training activities;
may quickly reveal shortcomings in theskills base of a workforce. The solution hasbeen to respond with significant investmentin training needs analysis and learningprogrammes;
usually necessitates transformations in thecommunication processes within theorganisation, both vertically and laterally.Solutions adopted include more regularbriefings, off-site meetings, greatermanagement visibility, and the adoption ofnew communication channels (such as hotlinesand regular meet the boss opportunities).
Performance OutcomesAll of the case study firms featured in this studyassert that their adoption of a partnership-basedapproach has helped them achieve enhancedcompetitive performance. This endorsement ofthe business benefits of partnership is a strikingfinding. Some of the firms reported exceptionalperformance improvements. For example:
Borg Warner has doubled the size of itsworkforce and increased its turnover by60% in the last 4 years;
Michaelides and Bednash have built an 85million pound business in four years, withturnover increasing 20% year on year;
Trifast has doubled its turnover andworkforce, and trebled its profits over thelast five years;
Litton Interconnection have generated a200% increase in profits over the last fiveyears;
Domnick Hunter have increased profits by afactor of three on a doubled turnover.
None of the firms are working in sectors (i.e.Information and Communication Technologies)where the magnitude of such changes could beexplained by market growth rather thanorganisational improvements.
Employee Relationsand Work Organisation OutcomesThe partnership firms in our study display ahigh rate of innovation and have beensuccessful in introducing new forms of workorganisation and in managing the resultantchanges. The erosion of hierarchy, theredefinition of roles, increased task discretion,flexible working practices, and thedevelopment of semi-autonomous teams wereall widespread features of the case study firms.
The organisations display high levels ofcommitment to continuing the development ofpartnership. Certainly, the experience ofdeveloping partnership has not led any of theorganisations to question the value of such anapproach. Rather, the majority of the firmsindicated that they regard their partnershipactivities as very much work in progress, whichwill continue to evolve over time, and whichwill necessitate ongoing work and commitmentto ensure future success.
The employees in our study display highsupport for the principles and practices beingadopted by our case study firms. This wasconfirmed by our interviews with employeesand their representatives, and by thoseorganisations amongst our sample who havecarried out employee attitude surveys, whichreported high satisfaction scores. More broadly,all of the organisations reported low levels oflabour turnover and absenteeism amongst theirworkforces. Indeed, a number of the firms,notably Michaelides and Bednash and St Lukes,reported exceptionally low labour turnoverfigures when compared with the standard ratesof labour turnover in their industry.
New management practicesThe studys findings suggest that theadoption of a partnership approach makes anorganisation more likely to pursue a broadrange of new labour management practicesand work organisation transformations, asexemplified by the impressive scope ofinnovation amongst our case study firms. It is ofcourse a matter for further empiricalinvestigation to confirm how strong thisassociation proves to be within otherpartnership organisations.
Perhaps even more significantly, our findingsshow that partnership companies are morelikely to make a concerted effort to operate suchmethods effectively, to engage in subtleprocesses of continuous improvement, and todeliver meaningful improvements in bottomline performance. In other words whilstpartnership may not be a prerequisite of newforms of work organisation, it does act as avital enabler, more readily ensuring that:
adoption of new management techniquesis more far-reaching, and they are firmlyembedded in the labour process;
innovations of this kind lead to a genuinelyhigh commitment, high performanceworkplace.
Focused on future successA striking similarity across our case studysample was the extent to which all of theorganisations were focused on future success.In this respect, all of the companies couldarticulate a strong vision of their desired future,and how they were attempting to get there. Inother words, they want to operate at all timesbeyond the immediate business plan. Moreover,they took for granted that the rapid changewithin the business environment was now aconstant dynamic, and that they could not planfuture strategies on the basis of static structures.
This study augments the growing empiricalevidence that firms with partnership basedapproaches to employment relations achieveenhanced competitive performance. It thereforechallenges those who find it difficult toreconcile improved employee rights, voice,involvement and discretion with sustainedimprovements in economic performance. Thesefindings suggest some illuminating pathwaysfor UK industry as a whole.
The basis of competitive advantage isincreasingly derived from the value containedwithin intellectual capital and its application.As a consequence, the dynamics of trust,innovation, commitment and connectivitywhich our study reveals are being activelypursued through partnership approaches, arelikely to become progressively more importantconsiderations for the way in which businessesare managed and organised, and the waybusiness itself is conducted.
Thus, the experience of our case studycompanies would suggest that partnershipapproaches are important, both for theenrichment of the work experience and forsimultaneously accelerating the pace ofworkplace innovation and improved enterpriseperformance. The new forms of workorganisation and labour management practicesprevalent within our case study firms suggestthat partnership approaches may prove to be avital component of UK enterprises adaptationto the demands of the new information age andincreasingly competitive world markets.
OneSCOPE AND OBJECTIVESOF THE RESEARCH
This study examines the conceptual andpractical foundations of partnership.Partnership organisations are increasinglyassociated with workplace innovationsdesigned to improve productivity and productquality, and meet the organisational demandsof the new information age. Nonetheless, thereis comparatively little evidence on the actualsubstance of partnership approaches at work.
In order to shed light on the components of apartnership approach, this study focused onthree key objectives:
1. to identify a number of businesses of allsizes, where a successful partnership approachto employment relations has been adopted;
2. to examine in detail the arrangements andprocesses involved; and,
3. to explore the outcomes achieved.
Reflecting these objectives, the study has beenexploratory in character, seeking to examinewhat partnership actually means in the contextof the workplace. Specific lines of enquiry havetherefore included:
what leads companies to adopt a partnershipapproach? What are the catalysts anddrivers? And,
having made a commitment to adoptinga partnership approach, how and in whatways do organisations make suchaspirations a reality?
The first stage of the research involved a reviewof the partnership literature, in order to identifymore precisely the components of a partnershipapproach. The aim of the second stage was toprovide evidence about the processes andoutcomes of the partnership approach toemployee relations, across a range oforganisations. Given this focus, the research hasadopted a case study approach. In this context,the advantage of case studies is that they:
allow us to explore the process dimensionsof building effective partnerships at work;
identify causal factors shaping thedevelopment of partnership, which can onlybe revealed through detailed case studyresearch;
trace the recent history of the organisationsselected and how attempts to generatepartnership have developed over time. Thiscontextual information is vital indetermining the rationale that may haveunderpinned any such initiatives; and
allow for a detailed analysis of the ways inwhich the organisations are planning todevelop their partnership arrangements nowand in the future.
Within each case study firm interviews wereheld with directors, managers, trade union andemployee representatives, and employees,spread over two separate day-long site visits.
Case Study Selection CriteriaThe selection of the case studies wasdetermined by a set of explicit criteria, namely,to identify:
organisations who were adoptinga partnership approach of some form;
organisations who had not previouslyreceived any public attention regarding theirpartnership practices. In other words, thisstudy was concerned to identifyestablishments who have not been held upas examples of good practice in this respect,and who have become established membersof the partnership landscape; and,
a range of organisations including thoseemploying less than 250 employees,unionised and non-union firms, and to bedrawn as far as possible from differentindustrial sectors.
Given that the organisations were selectedbecause they were adopting a partnershipapproach, the sample was not a random onedesigned to represent organisations ingeneral. Nonetheless, the intention was toinclude a range of firms diverse enough to offerilluminating points of comparison. Someorganisations not featured in the study werevisited, interviewed and subsequently rejectedon the basis that they were not displaying a clearcommitment to partnership. Others we wouldhave liked to cover were unwilling to take part.
The difficulty of gaining access was made moredifficult by the fact that all of the participatingcompanies had to agree to be identified in thepublic reporting of the results. Given theseconstraints, the study has proved successful ingenerating a sample displaying significantheterogeneity.
Generating the short-list of companiesA number of different sources were utilisedto generate an original short-list of 35organisations. These sources included:
the Industrial Societys membership the DTIs Best Practice Directorate the Involvement and Participation Associations
networks the TUC, and prominent trade unionists
Summary CharacteristicsThe sample is made up of fifteen organisations,with the following general characteristics:
7 non-union firms 8 unionised firms 5 SMEs Mixture of sectors
- 2 advertising firms- 2 chemicals- 1 public sector and 1 voluntary sector- 1 food and 1 financial services- Remaining 7 spread across manufacturing
and engineering sectors
The Structure of the Report
The rest of the report is organised as follows:Chapter Two reviews the recent partnershipliterature and examines the conceptual andpractical foundations of partnership. ChapterThree presents a summary analysis of the casestudy findings and assesses the implications ofthe study for the future development ofpartnership approaches. Chapter Four providesa full account of the partnership activities ofeach of the individual case study organisations.
The Case Study Organisations
Table One below summarises the key characteristics of the fifteen case study organisations.
Table One: The Case Study Organisations
Organisation Sector / main activity Number of Forms of EmployeeEmployees Representation
Michaelides Advertising 19 Non-unionand Bednash
Appor Ltd Other Manufacturing 39 Non-union (Plastics)
St Lukes Advertising / 97 Non-union Communications Communications
Litton Interconnection Electronic Engineering 125 Non-union
Herga Electric Manufacturing 160 Non-union (electronic components)
Borg Warner Automotive Components 310 Single UnionAutomotive Recognition(AEEU)
Elementis Chromium Chemicals 400 Multi-Union Recognition(chromium chemicals) (T & G and AEEU)
Shelter Voluntary Organisation 456 Single Union Recognition
(T&G)Scott Bader Chemicals 650 Non-union
(resins & polymers)
Leyland Trucks Ltd Motor Vehicle Manufacturing 804 Single Union Recognition(AEEU)
Trifast PLC Manufacturing 827 Non-union(industrial fastenings)
Domnick Hunter Engineering (filtration products) 1,000 Single Union RecognitionGroup (AEEU)
Braintree District Local Government 1,200 Multi-Union RecognitionCouncil (GMB, T & G, & AEEU)
HP Bulmer Holdings Cider manufacture 1,250 Single Union Recognition(T & G)
Natwest Retail Retail Banking Services 35,000 Multi-Union RecognitionBanking Services (BIFU, NWSA & UNIFI)
TwoA REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Modern and successful companies draw theirsuccess from the existence and development ofpartnership at work. Those who have learnt tocherish and foster the creativity of their wholeworkforce have found a resource of innovationand inventiveness that drives their companiesforward as well as enriching their lives. (Tony Blair, Fairness at Work. Page 3)
The challenge for unions and employers is tobuild on the best of best practice. Developingworkplace partnerships based on mutualityand independent worker voice should alsobe a central objective of public policy.(John Monks, IPA Magazine, April 1998)
Partnership is a matter of principle it isthe right thing to do but equally....itprovides pay-offs in terms of higher employeecommitment, better employment relationsand superior company performance.(Guest and Peccei, 1998.15)
[Partnership] is vital because companies aremore dependent than ever on a complex webof mutually beneficial partnership with advisers,uppliers, customers, shareholders, and, ofcourse, with employees. (Melville Ross,1998.4)
These statements show that the notion ofpartnership at work has achieved pre-eminencein current debates about how best to generateenterprise success and social renewal.Partnership organisations are associated withworkplace innovations designed to improveproductivity and product quality, and withmeeting the organisational demands of thegrowing information economy. However,partnership is being evoked so frequently that itis a concept in danger of losing its power toexplain and exhort.
This brief review aims to explore theconceptual and practical foundations ofpartnership. In so doing it will identify moreprecisely the components of a partnershipapproach; the material conditions that arefostering the development of such approaches;and the barriers that need to be overcome if theemerging aspirations for partnership are to
come to fruition within the UK.The review is organised as follows: i) examinescurrent definitions of partnership, and outlinesthe role of this study in deepening ourunderstanding of partnership approaches;ii) provides the historical context to thepartnership debate, in order to establish what isnew about current partnership approaches, andwhy partnership has come to occupy sucha prominent position in strategies for workplaceand enterprise renewal; iii) outlines the barriersconfronting the successful adoption ofa partnership approach.
i) Current Definitions of Partnership
Partnership is not a term that carries with it anyprecise theoretical or practical connotation. It isthis very fact that has perhaps made the word soattractive. Who could possibly be againstpartnership?
But this strength is also a weakness, in thatit can lead to confusion over what it is meant toimply, and therefore for many employers andemployees the idea of partnership may seemvague and difficult to put into practice. Theseproblems stem partly from the fact that mostrecent definitions of partnership have tended tofocus more on the cultural values andaspirations that are seen to underpinpartnership, rather than on precise empiricaldefinitions of partnership approaches andoutcomes. In this vein, numerous literatureshave talked of the need to foster long-termrelationships of trust and mutuality between allof the different stakeholders within theenterprise (Tomorrows Company, (1996);Pearson, 1995). The stakeholder approach inparticular emphasises the importance of theacknowledgement of, and accommodationbetween, the different legitimate interests heldby the stakeholders of an organisation. This hasled commentators to draw a clear link betweenthe emergence of partnership approaches, andthe more general debates around business ethicsand stakeholding. The consequence of all this,as Ackers and Payne note, is that while businessis united...over the contribution of partnershipwith employees to good human resourcemanagement, it is divided over what this meansfor industrial relations practice. (1998.541).
The most recent and comprehensive attempt toovercome these confusions has been Guest andPecceis recent report for the Involvement andParticipation Association (IPA), entitled ThePartnership Company (1998).
Guest and Pecceis study is the culmination of asubstantial programme of work that has beencarried out by the IPA. In their 1992 reportTowards Industrial Partnership, the IPAidentified the basis on which new workplacerelationships could be built, which included thefollowing:
joint commitment to success building trust recognising the legitimate role of all the
partners addressing the issues of security
and flexibility sharing success informing and consulting staff employee voice and representation
These foundations of partnership havebeen reaffirmed by a number of similarcommentaries, such as the Irish governmentsPartnership 2000 document (1996) andthe TUCs Partners for Progress (1996).
Guest and Peccei examine how far these broadvalue-based commitments are being translatedinto specific principles and practices withincompanies adopting a partnership approach.The definition of partnership developed byGuest and Peccei has three components: a set ofvalues or principles; a set of practices; and apromise of benefits (cf. 1988.16) Let usexamine each of these components in turn.
The principles of partnership are defined as thevalues underlying partnership which prescribeappropriate forms of behaviour and practice inorganisations (ibid.). Guest and Peccei specifyfour main general principles, namely:
good treatment of employees now and inthe future
empowerment: creating the opportunityfor employee contribution
employee rights and benefits employee responsibilities
These principles underline the importance ofmutuality, and the reciprocal rights andresponsibilities of employer and employees, indistinguishing a partnership approach. Theysuggest that management and employeecommitment to the development of partnershipsprings directly from these value-basedprinciples. Once an organisation has adoptedthem, they then have significant choice anddiscretion over how they configure theiroperational and employee relations policies toachieve greater partnership.
In this regard, the second componenthighlighted by Guest and Peccei are thepractices which organisations pursuingpartnership might be expected to have in place(ibid.). In other words, the work organisationand labour management policies and practicesmost closely associated with the effectivedevelopment of a partnership approach. On thebasis of the companies in their study, Guest andPeccei identified the following eight maingroups of practices (cf. 1998.24):
direct participation by employees indecisions about their own work
direct participation by employees indecisions about personal employment issues
participation by employee representativesin decisions about employment issues
participation by employee representatives indecisions about broader organisationalpolicy issues
flexible job design and focus on quality performance management employee share ownership communication, harmonisation and
Therefore, an organisation wishing to pursue apartnership approach has a comprehensivemenu of employee relations options to choosefrom. This list of practices confirms theimportance of involvement, participation,employee voice and discretion, shared reward,and new forms of human resource management(HRM) practice in the substantive character ofpartnership approaches. The list also underlinesthe force of our earlier arguments that thepartnership concept overlaps with a number ofother related ideas, such as stakeholding,mutuality, and particular aspects of HRM.Guest and Peccei suggest that one way todifferentiate between these overlappingconcepts is to focus on how far the differentinterests of the partners are recognised. As theynote Arguably these are recognised by thoseadvocating stakeholding, mutuality andparticipation; in contrast much of theenthusiasm for employee involvement andhuman resource management seems to be basedon a unity of interest. (1998.15) This has ledsome commentators to categorise HRM as aunitarist approach.
How far the unitarist underpinnings of HRMare compatible with the pluralistic orientationsof partnership is a matter of ongoing debate (cf.Taylor and Ramsay, 1998). The development ofnew employee voice mechanisms (e.g. workscouncils) and the development of integrative
rather than distributive collective bargainingstrategies by trade unions, are seen by some asviable, important, and complementarycomponents of these new approaches to workorganisation (cf. Birecee et al, 1997).
It is certainly the case that UK trade unions arenow broadly supportive of the HRM practiceslisted above, and John Monks has been explicitin stating that HRM is not an anti-union agenda(cf. Taylor and Ramsay, 1998). In this context,the strong support of UK unions to socialpartnership reflects their acceptance that unionsshould be adopting a more positive andproactive stance towards new managementpractices, rather than a reactive one. It alsounderlines that the value-based commitmentsand principles underlying partnership aregaining widespread support.
The final dimension of Guest and Pecceisdefinition of partnership concerns the outcomesof partnership. They identify three key areas(1998.32) in which the outcomes of apartnership approach are likely to provebeneficial, namely:
employee attitudes and behaviour (in termsof contribution and commitment)
employment relations (measured by labourturnover, retention, absence and conflict)
organisational performance (the businessbenefits of partnership being reflected inimprovements in productivity, quality,innovation, sales and profits)
It is difficult to attribute direct causality to theinfluence of partnership on these organisationaloutcomes. As Guest and Peccei note, it is moreprobable that [partnership practices] have anindirect impact through their influence onemployee attitudes and behaviour (and indeedthat of management) which in turn has animpact on internal performance, reflected inproductivity, quality and innovation and this inturn has an impact on the organisations salesand profitability. (1998.16)
Developing a Nuanced Understanding ofPartnershipWhat does Guest and Pecceis definition revealabout the form and substance of partnership?
Firstly, the aims of partnership are seen tooperate in the interests of all parties offeringminimum standards of employment, jobsatisfaction, and enhanced / shared reward forthe employee and a committed, productive andadaptable workforce for the employer. These
aspirations do not deny the existence ofdifferent and conflicting interests, but ratherseek their accommodation through a firmcommitment to mutuality and the generation ofshared goals and understandings.
Secondly, at the level of the individualworkplace, partnership refers to the co-operation between employer and workforce,which may take place through a formalstructure or informally. In other words, the keypartnership practices identified by Guest andPeccei highlight both individualistic andrepresentative dimensions, and are seen asbeing equally applicable in union and non-union environments. Partnership, therefore, canbe achieved through union recognition whereemployees so wish, but can also be achievedthrough non-union routes such as consultativebodies or even, especially in small firms, directcommunication between the employer andindividual workers.
Finally, partnership should be thought of as anintergrated package, implying the successfulimplemetation of certain underlying principlesand complementary practices, with successmeasured through improvements in employeerelations and enhanced enterprise performance.
Nonetheless, Guest and Pecceis definitionleaves a number of issues relevant topartnership research unresolved. The broadnessof the partnership concept, its overlap withrelated ideas such as stakeholding and HRM,and the difficulties of assigning causal influencedirectly to partnership in producing certainoutcomes, makes it difficult to specify thecharacter of a partnership approach withprecision.
These ambiguities, regarding the empiricalsubstance of a partnership approach, mirror thedebates that have plagued the development ofthe HRM concept concerning what shouldconstitute a robust empirical proof of theexistence of HRM approaches. Those debateswill not be rehearsed in any detail here, but abrief comparison with them is instructive in sofar as some of the key dimensions are the same.For example, the HRM literature has been quickto note that the existence of a particular menu ofHRM techniques within an organisation shouldnot be taken to mean that the organisation ispursuing an integrated and strategic HRMpolicy (cf. Legge, 1989).
Perhaps in this sense, as with the HRM concept,partnership is better thought of as offering amap to guide practice, rather than representinga prescriptive model or theory (cf. Noon,1992.30). In other words, there is unlikely to beone definitive expression of a partnershipapproach, or a clear-cut empirical benchmark,rather emerging similarities between commonpolicies and practices. The exploratory,inductive ambitions of this study are in tunewith such a position, in so far as our case studywork is seeking to examine in some detail theemerging character of partnership practices inorder to assess the extent to which they displaymeaningful convergence and coherence.
Notwithstanding these complexities, readers ofthis study will understandably be seekinganswers to the following vital question, namely,How far are any improvements in a firmsenterprise performance attributable to theadoption of a partnership approach, as opposedto their implementation of other leading edgetechniques and practices? The importance ofthis question lies in the fact that sceptics ofpartnership would no doubt argue that leadingedge companies can secure significantperformance improvements irrespective ofwhether they have adopted a partnershipapproach or not.
Two interpretational considerations need to beaddressed in answering these questions. Firstly,at a fundamental level, if we are witnessing aslow and gradual change towards a partnership-based approach, it may be too early to assess thedurability and exact character of this change. AsMarks et al have commented agreements onpartnership in principle need to be evaluated inthe light of practice. (1998.218)
Secondly, answering these questions dependson the production of empirical evidence for usein evaluation, including baseline andbenchmarking measures. The definitions ofpartnership, reviewed above, involve bothvalue-based commitments and complementarysets of HRM practices. There are many issues,which are of common concern across industrialsectors of groups of businesses. The adoption ofsimilar approaches or practices in response tothese common concerns, regardless of whetheror not the business is pursuing a partnershipapproach, makes any empirical study difficult.Facing similar competitive pressures, manyorganisations are for example adopting flatterorganisational hierarchies, policies to ensuremore rapid and flexible responses, and
recognising the need to tap into theaccumulated intelligence and innovation oftheir employees. It therefore follows that beinga partnership company is not a prerequisite foradopting these new forms of work organisation.
This implies that it is difficult for this study toresolve how far partnership leads directly to theadoption of certain practices over others, andcontributes directly to bottom line performance.However, our analysis can determine whetheror not the adoption of a partnership approachmakes an organisation more likely to pursuesuch new forms of work organisation.Additionally, once an organisation has made thedecision to introduce new methods, does theadoption of a partnership approach have anyimpact on the extent to which any new labourmanagement techniques are fully implementedand embedded into their labour processes andoperations? These are vital points of focus forthis study, which stem directly from thestrengths and weaknesses of partnershipdefinitions.
Whats So New About Partnership?Our review has revealed that the developmentof current partnership approaches has not beendependent on the creation of new concepts andinsights. The key principles and practicesidentified by Guest and Peccei have long beenfeatures of the employment relationship in theUK, if not the substance of widespread practice.Indeed, experienced observers of UK employeerelations could argue that the current emphasison partnership therefore represents nothingnew. Equally however, recent advocates of apartnership approach would suggest that we arewitnessing a profound, if slow and incremental,shift towards a partnership approach. Forexample, Ackers and Payne reviewing theunions changing attitude to social partnershiptalk of a move from reactive conflict-resolution to active and intimate partnershiprelationship re-focused on consensuscreation......The basis of this consensus is thestakeholder economy and firm. (1998.536)
In order to determine the value of thesecontrasting arguments we need to placerenewed emphasis on the importance andefficacy of partnership approaches in ahistorical context, in order to assess just how farcurrent approaches represent a continuation oflong established traditions and practices. Such afocus will also facilitate an analysis of how farthere are discernible developments within theeconomy, and in the character of work
organisation, which are driving the adoption ofpartnership approaches in a more decisive anddynamic way than previously.
ii) Partnership at Work: A NecessaryHistorical Context
Work is a co-operative activity even when itseems to resemble nothing more than a bloodybattlefield. (Anthony, 1977.64)
Until the late 1970s, [large companies]..mettheir workers Instrumental work orientationwith a motivational cash nexus. Anyone whotalked about employee loyalty and allpulling together for the good of the firm wasregarded as a nostalgic crank who did notunderstand modern industry. Today....such attitudesare pass. (Ackers and Black, 1991.30)
A potential obstacle to the adoption ofpartnership approaches is cynicism on both sides ofindustry. The basis of this cynicism is thatpartnership constitutes nothing new, and that thecurrent preoccupation with partnership approachesis misplaced, insofar as it merely re-labelslong-standing practices at the level of the enterprise.
Such a view has some substance. Thedevelopment of industrial relations theory andpractice has long been concerned with how therange of interest groups and stakeholders withinthe workplace can best be accommodated oneto another. As Anthony emphasised, work is acollaborative activity, and as such employersand employees find themselves in a position ofmutual dependency. It has therefore long beenrecognised that it is possible to generate greatergains through partnership than would otherwisebe the case. The current use of the wordpartnership merely describes this long heldaspiration. On this reading, the issue is lesswhether examples of partnership exist withinorganisations, but rather whether moresystematic, structured, and coherent strategiesfor fostering partnership are emerging.
However, the very fact that the use of the term,partnership, has become so prominent doessignify a genuine change. Little or no use of theword partnership in the context of workplacerelations can be found in the seminal industrialrelations texts, nor in the more recent HumanResource Management (HRM) literature. It isonly in very recent times that partnership hascome to be used to describe an integrated packageof values and practices at enterprise level.Prior to this development, the long established
analogues for partnership in the specialistliterature have been involvement andparticipation. Indeed, the lineage of currentpartnership approaches can be traced to long-standing debates within industrial relationsconcerning involvement and participation. AsSchuller notes, there are a whole cluster ofterms- employee participation, joint decision-making, employee involvement, industrialdemocracy which suggest a degree ofemployee influence at work. (1985.3) Someclearly imply a more radical redistribution ofpower than others, and their respective currencyvaries according to the political and culturalcontext. (cf. ibid.)
During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, debates aboutindustrial democracy, financial participation,and employee involvement systems focused onwhat the parameters of such developmentsshould be, in terms of the appropriateboundaries of prerogative, reward, influence,and discretion. At that time, such considerationsfrequently divided managers, trade unions andemployees, and they remain highly contentiousissues. Generating a shared understandingwithin an organisation about how suchboundaries are to be drawn and defined, lies atthe heart of all effective attempts at partnership.The question is whether developments in theorganisation of work are making the definitionof such boundaries less problematic.
The discussion which follows examines thesedevelopments in traditional industrial relationstheory and practice, which have more recentlyculminated in new competition theories and therise of HRM.
The New Economy and the New Workplace:from Conflictual to Cooperative Orientations?
The fundamentals have shifted from amanipulation of things to the processing of dataand managing relationships. The new...approach is far more team-centred andemphasises information and feedback loops.Union-management co-operation can be abetter way to handle the scope, complexity, andeffect of technological changes. (Cohen-Rosenthal, 1987.12)
Whilst commentators disagree on the precisenature of current change, it is becoming morecommonplace to argue that in the face ofintensified competition, we are witnessing ashift away from adversarial approachestowards the generation of commitment at work(Edwards, 1992.361). In a similar vein,
Beaumont has noted that there is no shortageof views to the effect that both British andUS collective-bargaining practices havetraditionally been too adversarial in nature(1991.232).1
This has led to suggestions that benefits couldbe derived from fostering a moreproblem-solving and consensus drivenapproach to the conduct of employee relations.For example, the Commission on the Future ofWorker-Management Relations, set up bythe Clinton administration in 1993, wasexplicitly asked to consider means to encourageemployee participation and labour-managementco-operation (see Kochan and Weinstein,1994.497)
What factors have been at play in producingsuch shifts in emphasis and approach? Is itpossible to identify broader economic, social,technological and institutional forcescontributing to a slow shift from a conflictual toa more co-operative (participative) aspiration inthe field of industrial relations? Do thesedevelopments mean that the barriers toachieving genuine partnership are any lessformidable, or rather that a range of factors hasmade the commitment to such an aspirationacross all parties, more robust and durable?
The New CompetitionThe accelerating pace of change in the structureof competition and markets is having aprofound impact on the character of employeerelations. Increasingly competitive markets,rapid technological advances, and shifts inconsumer preferences are seen as havingtransformed the competitive environment andnecessitated new organisational responses,based on rapid product and process innovation.Various labels have been used to describe theresultant workplace innovations, includinghigh-commitment enterprises and flexiblespecialisation. As Birecree et al note, withinthese productive systems employmentrelations are non-hierarchical and overtly co-operative; [and] inter-firm links are relationalrather than hands-off (Birecree et al, 1997.8).The success of these systems is seen as beingdependent on the development of high-trustrelations with the whole workforce (cf. ibid.).As a consequence, these organisationalresponses required by the new competitiveenvironment can be seen as sympathetic to thedevelopment of partnership in the workplace.
Space precludes a detailed review of thisliterature2 but it is useful to highlight the moreimportant developments encouraging theadoption of new forms of work organisationwhich are consistent with new partnershipapproaches.
Current debates about the new competitionhave their origins in socio-technical approachesassociated with the work of the TavistockInstitute and the Quality of Working Life(QWL) movement. This research traditionstressed the importance of job enlargement,rotation, and autonomous work groups inimproving both productivity and the quality ofworking life. These innovations took as theirstarting point the insight that organisations arenot merely technical systems, but also socialones, which can be managed more effectively ifthe interdependence between tasks and socialrelations is recognised. Walton, for example,argued that such methods were designed tobuild an internally consistent work culture,to increase the workers skills, theidentification with the product;, and topromote their sense of dignity and self worth.(Walton (1977.1) quoted in Warner (1984.82)
Reviewing the spread of such experiments inthe 1960s and 1970s, in both the UK andEurope, Warner suggests that their introductionaccelerated as it came to be realised that rigid,hierarchical organisations did not lendthemselves to more flexible ways of workingand overlapping task and role responsibilities(1984.86). As he notes, the differences betweenthe old forms of work organisation and the newcentre around a shift from:
fragmented to whole tasks repetitive to varied jobs defined to overlapping authority given to adaptive technology tall to flat organisations centralised to decentralised reporting
The important corollary is that thesedevelopments are seen as having created newdemands for a more adaptable, multi-skilledworkforce. Advances in skill formation havethus come to be seen as a prerequisite forcompetitive improvements, facilitating thedevelopment and adoption of new technologiesand production methods central to theproduction of higher value added goods andservices. With the acquisition of broad andhigh skills (Streeck (1989) (1991)), so theargument runs, workers become more flexible
in production, and firms are able to respondmore effectively to changing market demandsand uncertainty.
The prescriptive HRM literature and theassociated accent on total quality management(TQM), have played an important role inpopularising such a perspective. As Hill notesin a review of TQM, organisations are seen ashaving reorganised in order to compete underthe new market conditions. As a consequence,they now require:
employees with multiple competencies, whowill work diligently and thoughtfully withoutclose supervision, use their knowledge andexperience to find more efficient and effectiveways of doing things, and are committed to theobjectives of the firm. ...Participative companycultures that incorporate high-trust and non-adversarial relationships are seen as the mostappropriate to motivate people to work in theseways. (Hill, (1991.397/98)
These comments effectively describe therationale underpinning current partnershipapproaches, and the benefits that are meant toaccrue from them.
In a similar vein, the debate that took placeconcerning the rise and fall of quality circles isalso quite instructive with regard to theemerging partnership agenda. Accounts ofquality circles in the early eighties sought tocontrast the basis of Japanese and Westernmanagement philosophies. Bradley and Hill forexample use Dores notion of welfarecorporatism to describe the Japanese philosophy,which promotes high-trust relations betweenmanagers and labour, and, in turn, fosters alabour relations system which operates on theassumption that interests are shared and co-operation is easily achieved. (1983.293)
In contrast, the dominant form of employmentrelationship in British and American companiesis depicted as a market-based one based on thecash nexus, which has also promoted anadversarial competition of interests betweenmanagers and other employees (ibid.).
Bradley and Hill argue that the adoption ofquality circles by some UK enterprises was adirect attempt to promote greater employeecommitment and counteract the negativeimplications of a low-trust style of management(ibid.). These arguments serve to emphasisethat the current stress on partnership, and onhighly participative and high commitment
styles of management can be regarded as aslow train coming, which has now finallyarrived within the UK.
It is illuminating to examine the reasons whysuch quality circle initiatives were seen to fail inthe eighties. Bradley and Hill suggest that mostmanagers in the UK never genuinely embracedthe operating principles underpinning qualitycircles. They note that middle managers sawworkers as the passive implements ofmanagerial directives and that in their hands,quality circles did not provide an area ofautonomous decision making which allowsmembers both to formulate and to implementneed-satisfying work-related decisions.(1987.77) Almost identical arguments are nowbeing deployed to distinguish what is new aboutmore recent fully fledged partnershipapproaches (cf. Partnership 2000 (1996)).
US EvidenceSimilar processes of innovation in employeeparticipation and work redesign can bediscerned within the US. Ostermans (1994)study, based on a nationally representativesurvey of establishments, examined the level ofinnovation in individual practices such as TQM,problem-solving groups, self-managed teams,and job rotation. He found that 64 per cent ofthe establishments reported that at least half oftheir core employees were covered by one ormore of these workplace innovations. On thebasis of these results, Osterman estimated thatapproximately one third of American workplacesare significant adopters of innovative practices.He also found that establishments that believethat they have a responsibility for employeewelfare are more likely to adopt innovativework practices. (1994.183) 3
According to Osterman, a new conventionalwisdom with respect to work organisation hasemerged on both sides of the Atlantic. Thisview holds that gains in productivity depend onadopting new models of work organisation,models that entail internal labour marketinnovations such as broad job definitions andthe use of teams, employee problem-solvinggroups, and quality circles. (1994.173) Suchdevelopments have been variously labelled,transformed systems, high commitmentorganisation, and high performance workorganisation. (ibid)
These developments can be seen ascomplementary to the development ofpartnership approaches. The pace oforganisational change and continuous
improvement implied by intensifiedcompetition has led many commentators toargue that the emergence of such highcommitment organisations will only beaccomplished if more dialogue takes placebetween the social partners, both within theworkplace, and outside. For example, Kochanand Weinstein suggest that there is a need todetermine how far the traditional dichotomybetween management and labour is compatiblewith the requirements of high-value-addedproduction systems. (cf. 1994.500)
As they note:
There is already considerable evidence that thediversity of the work-force, the changingorganisation of work and authority relations,and the blurring of organisational boundaries allincrease the complexity and fluidity of interestsand make it hard to organise them into twointernal cohesive and conflicting groups. This isnot to suggest that conflict is not an endemicaspect of the employment relationship, butrather that there may be a new role for firm-level institutions to channel this conflict.(1994.500)
On this reading, the role of trade unions in theworkplace is likely to undergo a subtle change,with more emphasis being placed on theirrepresentative role, and their ability to harnessworkforce co-operation in the pursuit of mutualgains. Such orientations are seen as a departurefrom more traditional and adversarialconceptions of their role within collectivebargaining processes.
This view of the role of the unions within socialpartnership has found strong support in the UK,particularly from the TUC. As Taylor andRamsay note, it would now appear that thepriority for trade unions is to be part of thesolution by creating a new IndustrialRelations which abandons the easy habit oftaking an oppositional stance. (1998.116).Thus, a concern of this study is to generate newinformation on alternative forms of workplaceparticipation and representation ranging fromemployee involvement to works councils, orsimilar institutions that introduce employeevoice. What lessons for both employers andtrade unions are contained within suchinnovations?
The rise of HRMWe have already noted the overlappingterritories between new models of partnershipand theories of HRM. Both emphasise the
importance of the shared objectives ofemployers and employees, and the contributionthat greater employee involvement andparticipation can make to workforcecommitment and enterprise performance. (cf.Taylor and Ramsay, 1998.117)
The conceptual underpinnings of HRM weredeveloped in the early 1980s by academics inAmerica (Fombrun et al (1984), Beer at al(1984). The economic context against whichHRM emerged in the United States wascharacterised by increasing internationalcompetition, in particular Japanese competition.The perceived failure of American firms torespond effectively to Japanese competition,was seen as creating a crisis in Americanmanagement (cf. Hendry and Pettigrew(1990.18). HRM was seen as a response to thisimpasse, and explicitly a response to thefailings of traditional personnel managementtechniques. HRM claimed to offer a morerobust conceptualistion of how businessstrategy considerations should inform employeerelations policy.
The key features of the new HRM, such as teamworking, continuous improvement, problem-solving initiatives, task and job enrichment, anddirect communication innovations, are nowregarded as essential elements of partnershipapproaches. For some, training anddevelopment have been presented (Keep, 1989)as the litmus test of the applicability of HRMmodels to the circumstances of the UK.Latterly, employablity considerations havecome to be regarded as a vital component ofsuccessful partnership approaches (CBI, 1998).
These points serve to illustrate that partnershipis a term which has only comparatively recentlybeen used to describe an integrated model oflabour management policies and practices.However, they also help to explain why thepartnership model has attracted such high levelsof support in a comparatively short period oftime. The current prevalence of partnershipwithin debates about organisationaltransformation can be taken to mean that theneed for such policies to succeed is now takenmore seriously, and that a broader consensusexists on the necessity of certain workplaceinnovations and cultural shifts.
Nonetheless, the durability and sustainability ofpartnership approaches is currently being testedin these new innovations and initiatives. Howfar they prove durable, and do bring bottom linebenefits, will influence the credibility of the
partnership agenda. The brief history of HRM islittered with examples of high failure rates inthe application of employee involvementprogrammes (Ramsay, 1991), quality circles(Hill 1991) and TQM initiatives. Unlesspartnership approaches offer substantiveimprovements in work organisation and labourmanagement systems, the term will becomediscredited as another rhetorical deviceattractive in form but weak in substance.
In this regard however, there are grounds foroptimism. On the positive side for example,what has strengthened since Hill conducted hisearlier research on quality circles, is thetransformation of organisational hierarchy, withthe continued growth of flatter hierarchies, jobenlargement, and more devolved responsibility.These developments provide a more favourableenvironment for embedding partnershipapproaches, as they imply that firms can nolonger pay lip service to the need to makeparticipation work at all levels.
As Hill was writing as early as 1991, it is usefulto return to his forward-looking arguments.He notes that:
De-layering management promotes somedecentralisation of decision-making and anenlargement of jobs that affects roles at andnear the bottom of companies. Rapid responseputs a new premium on internal flexibility andbetter horizontal co-ordination, which gives anadditional impetus to wider roles at eachhierarchical level as people collaborate acrossthe organisation rather than push upwards,shifting from mechanistic towards more organicways of working. (1991.566)
The force of these arguments has grown strong.This is particularly the case given the growth inthe numbers of higher skilled workers withinthe labour force. As researchers have beenquick to note:
A higher skill-profile in enterprises, especiallythe high-tech ones, will increase the de factopower of employees vis-a-vis day to dayoperations. Being on the receiving end of workis not considered to be a desirable status for themore educated personnel. (IndustrialDemocracy in Europe (IDE), InternationalResearch Group, 1993.27)
More participative managerial approaches areseen as the solution to these sorts of workorganisation problems.
These considerations are seen as becoming evermore important, given the rapidity of changeimplied by the transition from an industrial toan information economy. As Scase has recentlyargued, traditional forms of work organisationare becoming redundant, as organisations embracethe notion that their key asset is intellectualcapital, and the basis of competitive success thenurturing of creativity and innovation(cf. 1998.68). For Scase, such shifts willnecessitate the development of a culture of hightrust between employers and employees, and aworkplace designed to foster closer workingrelationships between colleagues and teams (ibid.).
To a degree, these developments are alreadyvisible in the blurring of task and occupationalboundaries, which has also been an importantdriver working to encourage partnership at thelevel of the workplace. As Kochan andWeinstein note:
Advances in information technologies have ledto the elimination of many low skilled white-collar jobs. In their place have emerged new jobdesigns that involve more service and salesactivities and often incorporate some functionsthat have traditionally been the domain ofprofessional and managerial workers. ...Theexpanded responsibilities of these new jobdesigns lend themselves to the utilisation ofTQM techniques in which workers in co-ordination with their supervisors formulate theirown job descriptions. (1994.489)
These developments pose difficult challenges toenterprise managers, in that they aresimultaneously a challenge to hierarchy, and tothe skills of managers to devolve responsibilityand discretion, and manage the new distributionof power and control over decision-making.They have made dialogue, and partnership in avery pragmatic sense, vitally important inhelping to secure the performance improvementswhich can result from such innovations.
The Institutional ContextPartnership at work is also being underpinnedby a range of institutional arrangements whichhave recently emerged in the UK, such as workscouncils and other new forms of consultation.Space precludes an examination of how farsuch voluntary and regulatory mechanisms areproving an important catalyst in generatingrobust methods of employee representation andin turn new forms of workplace partnership.However, in spirit at least, they are clearlyconsistent with greater employee involvementand participation within the workplace4.
The New Economy and the New Workplace:AssessmentThis brief review of the historical developmentof new competition theories and HRM, hasunderlined that the current emphasis onpartnership displays considerable continuitywith long-standing and emergent developmentsin work organisation and labour management.New partnership models are not offering starklyoriginal conceptualisations of the employmentrelationship, or indeed specifying new methodsto foster partnership in the workplace.
However, our review has also highlighted that arange of economic, social, technological andinstitutional factors are encouraging theadoption of new work organisation and labourmanagement approaches which are consistentwith partnership models5. Moreover, it is thestrength of these imperatives, and thecrystalisation of a robust consensus about howorganisations can best respond to them, that haselevated partnership to the forefront of debatesabout enterprise and economic renewal.
These arguments notwithstanding, not all of theimperatives driving the evolution of contemporarydevelopments in employment and work organisationare conducive to the attainment of partnership.It is possible to identify significant impedimentsto partnership aspirations, to which we now turn.
iii) Tackling the Barriers to partnership
Organisations are made up of a diverse range ofstakeholders. It therefore follows that theestablishment of mutual gains and commonunderstandings is unlikely to be astraightforward process. For example, within asingle organisation, different groups of workersmay have distinct sets of interests, which may,or may not, be reconciled within an overallpartnership approach. Whilst such groups mayform ad hoc alliances in order to further theirinterests, social partnership implies a moreunifying, durable, and sustainable set ofunderstandings and arrangements.
This suggests that one important barrier topartnership, and a focus for our enquiries, is thecomplexity of stakeholding relationships thatunderpin partnership. It may be more difficultto generate commitment from certain stakeholdersthan others. For example, Sisson has suggestedin the context of direct participation policies,that the main obstacle to their more widespreadtake-up is the reluctance of management inmany organisations to shift from traditionalforms of work organisation (1996.30).
In addition to the complexity of stakeholderrelationships within organisations, our reviewunderlines that developing a genuine partnershipapproach, particularly if it accompanies broaderorganisational change, such as the flattening ofhierarchies, the growth of group work, anddevolved responsibility, can have far-reachingimplications for an organisation. As aconsequence, partnership can challengeexisting power structures within an enterprise,perceptions of job security within theworkforce, and stretch the competencies ofmanagers and workers. For example, ifpartnership implies a switch from commandand control structures, managers are likely toneed training in coaching, mentoring, andfacilitation skills, which are likely to increase inimportance as a result of these changes6. Thisraises the general issue of how far the skillsrequired to foster partnership at work arewidely distributed across UK workplaces. ThePartnership Fund announced in the EmploymentRelations Bill, and its funding provision of fivemillion pounds, is therefore a welcomeinitiative aimed at tackling this specific issue.
More broadly, the high trust relationships at theheart of partnership approaches are dependenton a decision by all parties to co-operate fully.Such decisions necessitate giving a hostage tofortune because the benefits of co-operation areunlikely to accrue immediately (Birecree et al,1997.16) The realities of recent labour marketand workforce restructuring imply that for someworkers the decision to wholeheartedly co-operatewill represent a sizeable leap in faith. Particularlypertinent here is the decline of internal labourmarkets within organisations. Detailedassessments of labour market restructuring inthe UK (cf. Nolan and Walsh, (1995) highlighta number of inter-linked developments, namely:
the decline of internal labour markets the growth of outsourcing the fragmentation and casualisation of
employment the growth of a less secure peripheral
These developments have not been confined to theUK alone. For example, Kochan and Weinsteinargue on the basis of US experience that:
in transformed human resource managementsystems, the introduction of new jobs withexpanded responsibility has contributed to thebreakdown of non-professional white-collarinternal labour markets. (1994.495)
Taken as a whole, these developments haveresulted in reduced possibilities for progression,and increased insecurity for particular groups ofworkers. As a consequence, the forging ofpartnership arrangements with these progressivelymore disadvantaged and peripheral sectionsof the workforce may prove problematic. Thereality of their employment and job experiencesis likely to make them sceptical about the likelylongevity of any partnership arrangement theyenter into. Moreover,they recognise thepotential fragility of any such agreements in thecase of economic downturn.
This is a vitally important issue, in that manypartnership initiatives are built on the premiseof delivering long-term returns and improvementsfor the individuals and establishmentsconcerned. As Kochan and Weinstien note:
in firms where there is no formal job security,employees will have a disincentive to co-operate in efforts to restructure work in waysthat may increase productivity andsubsequently lead to firm-wide employmentreductions. (1994.496)
At a time when employers are reluctant to giveany ground over their prerogative to makedecisions based on business need, thecontradictions for a partnership agenda needlittle emphasis.
More broadly, the intensified competitiveconditions in which organisations now operatecan frequently compromise the employmentsecurity and relationship-building componentsof a partnership approach. Downturns inbusiness confidence and deterioration inenterprise performance can exert pressures onpartnership arrangements within organisations.Thus, in a very real sense, the most enduringtest of a set of partnership relationships is howeffectively those relationships can survive awave of redundancies, and how far the attitudesand practices forged through developingpartnership extend to the management andconduct of such decisions.
However, building such robust long-termrelationships in the face of the pressure tosecure short-term profitability can be difficult.This is particularly the case for publicly listedcompanies, who have to satisfy City andshareholder interests, a set of stakeholderswhose interests are regularly prioritised overthose of employee stakeholders7.
This brief review has underlined that the currentemphasis on partnership displays considerablecontinuity with long-standing and emergentdevelopments in work organisation and labourmanagement, and that new partnership modelsare not offering starkly original visions of theemployment relationship. However, our analysishas also revealed that the package of employeerelations practices being adopted by partnershiporganisations, and the specific ways in whichthey are being combined and implemented, issuggestive of a break with the past.
In this vein, our account has highlighted the factthat a range of economic, social, technologicaland institutional factors are encouraging theadoption of new work organisation and labourmanagement approaches which offer enhancedopportunities for work to become morefulfilling, and therefore provide a firmer basisfor partnership and co-operation. Morover, theresearch evidence suggests that theorganisations operating such partnershipapproaches are securing real benefits, both forthe business and their employees.
Reflecting this, the objectives of currentpartnership approaches, and the languageemployed, have a strong aspirationalcomponent, particularly when married withoptimistic accounts of the future of work andemployment in a knowledge-driven economy.Against that context, the real test of thepartnership agenda will be how far theprinciples and practices advocated by suchapproaches extend to all employees,irrespective of their seniority, skill level, orstatus within an organisation. For many workerswithin the UK economy, the reality of theirpresent working experiences bears little, if any,resemblance to visions of high commitment,high skill, and high discretion enterprises. Thechallenge is to spread such emerging forms ofwork organisation and partnership more widely.
With those thoughts in mind, let us nowexamine our case study findings.
1 (cf. Provis, (1996.475) for a review of these arguments).
2 For excellent treatments see Appelbaum and Batt (1994),Birecree, Konzelmann and Wilkinson (1997), and Kochanand Osterman (1994). The conceptual status of newcompetition approaches has been the subject of livelydebate, withsome authors questioning the empirical andtheoretical coherence of the new competition thesis(cf. Lovering (1990) anf Nolan ODonnell (1991).
3 This would seem to lend support to the view thatpartnership approaches are unlikely to be successful unlessa strong commitment to the values of partnership existswithin an organisation.
4 For a useful review of potential developments see Hyman(1997).
5 This is not to suggest that these new high performancesystems are already widespread in the UK, or for thatmatter in America. However, such systems are visiblein leading edge companies, and provide inights which aresuggestive with regard to the future development of theemployment relationship (cf. Birecee et al (1997.10)).
6 In this context, Sisson notes that mentoring, and coachingare vital to the success of direct participation policies, andsuggest that training in inter-personal skills is the key tothese new tasks and competencies (1996.10). An insightreflected in the Governments declared intention within therecent Employment Rights Bill to set up a partnership fundto encourage the acquisition of partnership building skillsby managers and employees.
7 I would like to thank Frank Wilkinson for focusing myattention on this issue.
ThreeTHE CASE STUDIES SUMMARYANALYSIS
This section provides a summary analysis of thecase study findings. A full account of eachindividual case study organisation is reported inSection Four of the report.
The overall objective of this study was togenerate some exploratory impressions on whatpartnership actually means in practice, and thecase studies provide a rich vein of material inthis respect. Accordingly, our discussion isorganised around a number of relatedpartnership themes as follows:
i) Routes to Partnership assesses the extentto which there were any generic driversencouraging the adoption of a partnershipapproach
ii) What is Meant by Partnership? Towards anunderstanding of the Partnership Concept
iii) Partnership Philosophy: Towards A CoreSet of Values
iv) Partnership in Practice: WorkplaceOrganisation and Management exploresthe essential dimensions of partnershippractices in the workplace
v) What was done to develop a partnershipapproach and what were the problemsencountered?
vi) Partnership Outcomes reviews thesubstantive performance outcomes securedby our case studies, both in terms of bottomline indicators and the character ofworkplace organisation and innovation
The concluding section discusses the extent towhich our evidence confirms the emergence ofa coherent partnership agenda within oursample of case study firms, and the implicationsof our analysis for the performance of UKenterprises and the economy more generally.
Interpreting the findingsAs with most case study based research, muchof the richness of our findings reveals itself inthe detail, and it is sometimes a hazardousprocess to endeavour to generalise andextrapolate from a small case study sample.Equally however, given the heterogeneity of oursample, any striking similarities between thecase studies in terms of their overall
philosophies, touchstone views, and approachesto organising work will be of particular interestand significance.
With that in mind, let us firstly considerwhether it was possible to discern similar routesto partnership amongst the case study firms.
i) Routes to Partnership
It is axiomatic that organisations may displaydifferent motivations and cite different reasonsfor adopting a partnership approach. The studyaimed to explore these dynamics in some detail.
In none of the case studies however, were thepartnership approaches started directly byemployee activity or union initiative. Rather,partnership was prompted and led by specificsenior staff or management teams.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the diversity ofthe case studies, there is no single genericcatalyst or driver encouraging the adoption of apartnership approach. Nonetheless, it ispossible to identify four clear clusters of factorsdriving the adoption of partnership amongst ourcase study firms:
As a route out of an adversarial industrialrelations climateA number of the case studies described theirroute to partnership as an attempt to break outof a cycle of poor industrial relations,characterised by low trust and adversarial,them and us attitudes. All of the organisationsfitting this categorisation can be characterisedas brownfield site establishments, with a longtradition of unionisation, and formalisedcollective bargaining and representativestructures. These include Leyland Trucks, BorgWarner, HP Bulmers, and ElementisChromium. Of these organisations, only one,Borg Warner, described their adoption of apartnership approach as a direct reaction to acrisis situation, both in terms of the competitiveposition of the company, and the character ofindustrial relations within the company.
Within these cases, there was then variation inthe extent to which the move towardspartnership had been driven forward by themanagement team within the company, or byjoint relationship-building initiatives.Nonetheless, all of these case study firms havesought to develop partnership by building amore positive relationship with their recognisedtrade unions using existing methods ofconsultation and negotiation. Amongst our case
study firms the partnership-building initiativeswere not driven by a desire to isolate or avoidthe unions concerned. Equally, the trade unionswithin these organisations recognised thatpartnership was about building a betterrelationship between all employees and thecompany, both on an individual basis with eachemployee, and more broadly between the unionand the company.
The maturation of traditional paternalisticemployee relations practices (particularlyamongst the SMEs)This route to partnership was common to all ofthe long established SMEs featured in ourstudy, and also to larger unionised firms such asDomnick Hunter and Scott Bader. The firmsfalling within this category present theiradoption of a partnership-driven approach as adevelopment of existing practices andphilosophies, rather than a step change ordeparture from established employee relationstraditions. In other words, key partnershipvalues, such as trust, openness and mutuality,which have long been a feature of the operatingphilosophy of these companies, haveover time evolved into a comprehensive setof partnership commitments.
Realisation that to introduce new systems ofwork organisation successfully required apartnership approachThis is the factor that comes closest to being acommon driver across all of the case studyorganisations. In a number of cases theorganisations were explicit that they realisedfrom the outset that in order to embark upon thedegree of transformation in working practicesand work organisation that they envisaged, theywould have to recast the overall character oftheir employee relations practices. Partnershipwas seen as vital in securing theunderstanding and support of their employeesto new management practices andorganisational innovations.
In some cases this realisation was reachedsimultaneously, or prior, to the decision beingtaken to embark upon the change programmeconcerned (e.g. Elementis Chromium, H.P.Bulmers, Appor Ltd, Litton InterconnectionProducts and Leyland Trucks). In others, theexperience of actually trying to manage newinnovations within the workplace led to anactive reassessment of the character ofemployee relations within the organisation, andthe need to build a partnership-driven approach(e.g, Trifast plc, Shelter, Braintree District Council).
Recent start-up firms and partnershipTwo of the SMEs within our case study sample,both of whom were set up within the last fouryears, have adopted a partnership-basedapproach since their inception, driven by acoherent values-based operating philosophy. Inone of the firms, Michaelides and Bednash, thatphilosophy has been pioneered by a visionaryowner manager. In the other, St LukesCommunications, the company was founded asa result of an employee buy-out, which leddirectly to the adoption of a stakeholder-drivenapproach to managing and running the company.
ii) What is meant by partnership? Towardsan understanding of the partnership concept
As we discussed in Chapter Two, establisheddefinitions of partnership include both soft(values and aspirations) and hard (industrialrelations practices) dimensions, and a focus onthe outcomes of a partnership approach. In thisanalysis section we will consider each of thesethree dimensions of partnership in turn,beginning with the soft values-based nature ofpartnership. Two points of focus are particularlyrelevant here. Firstly, was the term partnershipwidely used by the case study organisations?Secondly, were the organisations in our studycommitted to an identifiably similar set ofvalues and principles underpinning theirapproach to the employment relationship.
The partnership conceptNot many of the organisations in the casestudies use the word partnership to directlydescribe their employment relations. Some usethe term to describe a mature relationship,such as a long-standing agreement with theirunion(s) (e.g. Elementis Chromium), whilstothers described the relationship they weretrying to achieve as rather more stakeholdingthan partnership (e.g. Braintree DistrictCouncil, St Lukes Communications).
Nonetheless, when the case study organisationswere presented with a check-list and descriptionof what partnership is taken to imply andcontain, all of them thought that it was anappropriate descriptive term to apply to theirpolicies and practices.
Thus despite the widespread usage of thepartnership concept, the case studyorganisations are in fact employing a variedvocabulary to describe their employee relationsphilosophy, and most make reference to anumber of different key words underpinningtheir approach, as opposed to identifying oneover arching descriptive concept. For example:
Litton Interconnection describes the totalrelationship which includes customers andsuppliers, etc. as one of synergy
Michaelides and Bednash describe theiremployee relations philosophy as beingbased on collaboration
even where unions are strong, bothmanagement and the unions agree thatthe concept involves a strong elementof involving the individual employeein partnership (Braintree DC andLeyland Trucks)
some use partnership to describe theirrelationship in the supply / demand chain i.e. with customers and suppliers (e.g. St LukesCommunications, Litton Interconnection).
iii) Partnership Philosophy: Towards A CoreSet of Values
Whilst there was less than unanimity withregard to the meaning and use of the termpartnership, the organisations in our studyproved to be committed to a remarkably similarset of values and principles underpinning theirapproach to the employment relationship. Ouranalysis suggests that the partnership valuescommon to our case study organisations wereas follows:
trust and honesty mutuality creating a common vision open management reaching agreement without coercion employee voice a stress on involvement, ownership
and responsibility employment security, sometimes qualified a new employability deal fair reward an emphasis on quality
Let us examine each of these values-basedcomponents of partnership in turn.
Trust and honestyA vitally important part of partnership is theconcept of trust, with the majority of the casestudy firms using the word trust to describewhat they are aiming for in the partnershiprelationship. The aspiration to achieve higherlevels of trust was not a vague commitment, butrather was seen by the case study organisationsconcerned as a key driver shaping the designand implementation of new processes, systemsand behaviours within the workplace.
MutualityOur evidence strongly supports researchfindings (IPA, 1998) which have identified theimportance to partnership of a set of reciprocalcommitments and obligations between thepartnership company concerned and theiremployees. A commitment to mutualitystrongly informed the framework of values andprinciples shaping the conduct of employeerelations within our case studies. As such,elements of mutuality are contained within allof the other values-based commitments outlinedbelow, in particular employee voice,employment security and fair/shared reward.
For many of the companies, at the heart ofmutuality was establishing as honestly aspossible what the company could realisticallyexpect from the individual employee, and whatthe individual employee had the right to expectin return from the company. In this respect, thecase study organisations sought to clearlyestablish the future direction of the business, thedegree of employment security that they wererealistically prepared to guarantee, and thetraining and development opportunities thatthey could provide. In return, the organisationssought to receive from their employeescommitments to: the objectives of thebusiness, flexible ways of working andlearning; and certain minimum standardsgoverning how employees should treat eachother in the workplace.
In other words, notions of mutually beneficialrights and responsibilities informed themutuality agenda within the case study companies.
Creating a common visionIn our earlier discussion of how organisationsgo about creating a partnership approach, wefocused on their attempts to create a sharedunderstanding. A key component of suchattempts is the formulation and communicationof a common vision for the enterprise. Withinour case studies, this vision incorporates bothbusiness objectives, and broader labourmanagement aspirations in terms ofthe rules and principles guiding how membersof a particular workforce should aspire totreat each other.
Thus, the trust, honesty and mutualitycomponents of partnership already mentionedare frequently formalised into a working set ofvalues which are seen to guide the workingpractices and activities of individual employeesand the workplace as a whole. These rule setsare accorded significant importance within the
organisations, impacting directly on the waywork is organised and carried out, rather thanrepresenting laudable commitments onlyadhered to when business conditions permit.Whilst all of the case studies displayed thesecharacteristics, these rule sets were givenformal expression in Appor Ltd, Scott Bader,Litton Interconnection, Trifast, Leyland Trucksand Elementis Chromium.
This is an interesting finding in relation toresearch which has argued that common visionsand goals make up the corporate glue (Ferner,1994) that holds together the diverse strands ofan organisation. However, such visions havetended to focus on broad macro aspirations, asopposed to the sometimes quite detailed values-driven commitments that feature amongst ourcase study firms. All of which suggests that agenuine commitment to values-drivenapproaches is a distinctive feature ofpartnership organisations.
Open managementAlthough lip service is frequently paid to theimportance of open management in fosteringhigh commitment enterprises, feworganisations would pass a robust test of theirpractices in this respect. However, our researchfindings would suggest partnershiporganisations attempt to minimise theexclusive nature of management.
At its most simple level within our case studiesthis can be taken to mean a commitment toopenness and transparency. A vital element ofthis openness concerns the financialperformance of the company. Many of theorganisations stressed the importance of sharingthis information with the whole workforce,including long term forecasts (cf. BorgWarner). More profoundly, it signals a clearbreak from the officers and other ranksapproach to managing organisations, with ourcase study organisations displaying a strongstress on the devolvement of responsibility anddiscretion across all sections of the workforce.There may still be clear accountabilities, andsome hierarchy, but partnership organisationstend to be those where, for example, teammembers will display a broad range ofseniority, but seniority criteria will notdetermine the choice of the team leader (e.g.Trifast).
Reaching agreement without coercionThis involves productive approaches tonegotiation and consultation, informed by theabsence of a take it or leave it approach, aprinciple applying equally to union and non-
union environments. For example, nearly all thepartnership organisations observed in the casestudies have a policy of agreeing goals andtargets and agreeing on employee developmentrather than merely setting or decreeing theseissues. With regard to partnership behaviours,the unions involved in these case studies arestrong supporters of the need to develop win /win negotia