Title Increasing Worker Involvement at the Workplace: A Comparative Case Study of Workplace Democratization Schemes

Samuel Nii-Okai Aryee


Workers' participation in management as a structural expression of an alternative form of industrial management has been mushrooming in both developed and developing countries. The increasing popularity of workers' participation has been accompanied by a proliferation of studies most of which have focused on either the extent to which it is associated with favourable outcomes or the extent to which prescribed participation is associated with actual participation. While this is relevant, it has meant that research whose objective is to investigate the conditions under which the form and content of participation vary in organizations in countries without a legal prescription for participatory forms has been neglected.

The study reported here is concerned with: (a) exploring, using a structural contingency framework, why organizations in the same country adopt different participatory structures and (b) the dynamics or employee experience of participation. Empirical research was undertaken in a medium-sized and a small-sized company in Hamilton, Ontario. Data were collected with the aid of questionnaire, open-ended interviews, documentary material and on-site observation, including attendance at meetings.

The analysis shows that choice of participatory structure is influenced by the interaction of a specified set of variables. Foremost amongst them is the nature of the product and technology. These variables, however, only provide structural opportunities and limitations and the eventual choice is shaped by the strategies choice of management. Analysis of respondents' desired involvement in the local-medium (work-related) decisions indicates that respondents do not have any revolutionary zeal to control work-related decisions. The predominant mode of desired involvement at both research sites is joint-consultation.

As expected, employees of the small-sized company, overall, perceived more involvement in the formulation of work-related and organizational level decisions while employees at the medium-sized company, perceived more involvement in such organizational level decisions as wages, dismissals and grievances and working conditions (e.g. fringe benefits). As the latter decisions are formulated through the collective bargaining process, collective bargaining appears to be more effective than other participatory forms in ensuring employee involvement in such decisions. Furthermore, inspite of the fact that at the small-sized company all the distant level decisions are open to participation, both respondent groups did not perceive a market involvement in long term economic decisions like 'Closures and Mergers' and 'Capital Investments.' In the small-sized company, employed are only present at these meetings to discuss these long term economic decisions and obtain information without having the power to block issues they oppose.

It is suggested that alternative decision-making structures at the organizational level only provide employees with greater visibility and formality in decision-making and policy formulation. However, the presence of employees at the meetings serves a commitment mechanism function as indicated by their high organizational commitment compared to the respondents at the medium-sized company. The lack of employee involvement at this level, especially in long term economic decisions, is attributed to employee lack of expertise but more importantly, to the power ownership or formal authority confers on management to decide which issues are open to participation and the extent of employee involvement.

As a direction for future research the study suggests a closer investigation into the nature of the relationship between participatory work experience and blue-collar status/orientation.