High involvement work processes

by Professor Jonathan Winterton

One of the enduring problems of management is how to develop and sustain high performance without putting excessive strain on employees. Attempts to build high performance work systems has shown that these are associated with increased risk of job strain, typically caused by a combination of excessive workload and inadequate peer or supervisory support.

Such conditions result in employees exhibiting stress-related illness or other symptoms of burnout, as well as behavioural characteristics such as various forms of withdrawal, from uncertified sickness absence to labour turnover. The $64,000 question, then, is can we find a way to boost performance and improve worker well-being at the same time? Unless we can, sustainable high performance will remain as elusive as ever.

So where is the problem? There is, after all, no shortage of populist management books offering guaranteed routes to building higher workforce performance by combining specific ‘bundles’ of human resource management practices. The problem is that these are all ‘universalistic’ models based on the premise that ‘one size fits all’ – introduce all the practices and high performance is guaranteed, whatever the country, whatever the sector, whatever the company.

Of course the complexities of modern business are such that such universalistic approaches are doomed to failure; simplistic formulaic approaches may be good for selling books but they are disastrous for managing people.

First, geography clearly matters, despite populist claims that globalisation means ‘the world is flat’ . What is viewed as universal ‘best practice’ in the USA rarely works in the very different cultural and institutional contexts of Asia (indeed what works in South Carolina may not work in Minneapolis since the USA also has geographic specificities). Even in the area of global financial trading, surely the most globalised of all economic activities, remarkably the behaviour of portfolio managers is more influenced by geography than by institutional affiliation.

Much effort is put into training managers for international assignments in the different cultural and institutional settings in which they are to operate, so it would be strange if the same techniques could be assumed to work all over the world. Cultural differences in attitudes towards hierarchy and individualism are especially relevant to what may, or may not, constitute appropriate human resource initiatives in a particular country.

Second, sector context is also important. The economics of highly capital-intensive operations such as chemical plants are quite different from those of labour-intensive manufacturing like the clothing industry, just as the economics of knowledge-intensive sectors such as the aerospace industry differs from low-skilled service operations like pizza delivery. What makes these sectors different in economic terms also defines what might be appropriate for managing people at work in those different industrial contexts.

The more capital-intensive and knowledge-intensive the industry, the more crucial it is not only to recruit and develop the right people, but also to manage them in ways that will increase their commitment and avoid costly labour turnover. Of course managing people well is also important in labour-intensive and low-skilled operations, but these different contexts set limits to how people can, and should, be managed.
Third, there are clearly different ‘company cultures’ that are overlaid on the country and sector effects. In the familiar world of high street retailing, names like Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, Carrefour and Walmart, all have very distinctive approaches to managing work and people even if they are, more or less, operating in similar markets.

In the airline industry, by definition, the low-cost carriers can be expected to manage employees differently from the airlines whose brands are built on high-end service quality, but there are some surprising differences in the human resource strategies of low-cost airlines that clearly reflect company culture over and above country context or sector.

What, then, are the alternatives to ‘best practice’ high performance work systems? Our research is concerned with promoting the concept of high involvement work practices, associated with high levels of employee influence over the work process and positive perceptions by workers of their jobs and working environment.

In an international review of attempts to build such forms of work, we have sought to explain the dispersion of high involvement work processes in terms of the way managers design work organization and to identify some of the possible reasons for adopting the ‘high road’ to improving both performance and the quality of working life.

The conceptual framework we have developed will be tested empirically using available large data sets and structural equation modelling as well as in case studies of organisations operating in conditions that are theoretically conducive to developing high involvement work processes.

The first case studies will be conducted in the LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) sector, followed by aerospace and other sectors identified as having the potential for developing high involvement work processes. Thorough empirically-grounded research is needed to assess the conditions under which high involvement work is possible as well as the extent to which managements have decided to make such investment in their employees.

Our analysis of studies to date would predict that the more sustainable forms of high involvement work processes, where workers have both a high degree of task discretion and high levels of influence over work organisation, are likely to be built on high levels of trust and investment in training. Trust should be manifest through robust forms of ‘employee voice’ such as works councils and trade union involvement in strategic decisions over work organisation.

High levels of investment in training and development are anticipated so the workforce has the skills necessary to enable responsible autonomy. Such contexts may involve flatter management structures with authority over work devolved to self-directed or autonomous work teams.

The routes to high involvement work processes are likely to depend heavily on context so the specific ‘mix’ and ‘forms’ of skill, autonomy, voice mechanisms and so on, will vary according to country, sector and organisation.

However, all organisations with high involvement work processes are expected to manifest not only above-average productivity and quality (product or service) but also greater levels of employee satisfaction and commitment in terms of higher labour retention and lower levels of uncertified sickness absence.

Anthropocentric work may not be everyone’s dream, but it should be an option for any employee who sees work as more than a means to an end.

Professor Jonathan Winterton is the Dean of the Faculty of Business and Humanities, Curtin Sarawak. He can be contacted at 085-443 841 or by email to jonathan.winterton@curtin.edu.my.

Thomas Friedman (2005) The World is Flat: A brief history of the Twenty-first Century,

Claude Dupuy, Stéphanie Lavigne and Dalila Nicet-Chenaf (2010) ‘Does Geography Still Matter? Evidence on the Portfolio Turnover of Large Equity Investors and Varieties of Capitalism’, Economic Geography, 86(1): 75-98.

Geert Hofstede (2001) Culture’s Consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations, (2nd edn.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Peter Boxall and John Purcell (2015) Strategy and Human Resource Management, (4th edn.) Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Greg Bamber et al (2009) Up in the Air: How Airlines Can Improve Performance by Engaging their Employees, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Peter Boxall and Jonathan Winterton (2015) ‘Which conditions foster high-involvement work processes? A synthesis of the literature and agenda for research’, Economic and Industrial Democracy, DOI: 10.1177/0143831X15599584