Do we need to move forward from the focus on high performance practices to a concept of high-involvement design?

Increasing attention is being given to better management as part of the solution to Britain’s productivity problem. But there still remains a danger of insufficient attention being paid to the human factor. While successive governments have targeted skills acquisition and employment relations legislation has weakened trade union power beyond all recognition, there remains a problem which must lie elsewhere: presumably in work organisation and management. The question though is which management practices or approach are required. Is it a strengthening of the recent emphasis on performance management, with its focus on targets, monitoring, and individualised performance-related pay? Or an approach centred more on employee involvement and enhancing coordination and intra-organisational relationships? Drawing on a rich body of knowledge – much of which is British and based on a national survey which is the envy of the world, the Government-led Workplace Employment Relations Study (WERS) – that shows employee involvement is good for productivity and other related measures such as product and service quality this report argues for the adoption of the high involvement route.

High-involvement management is often equated with high performance work systems. This neglects its central point that primacy in Human Resource Management (HRM) should be given to employee involvement, job and organisational, not performance management systems. Job or role involvement management, often known as empowerment or enriched job design, is an approach to the design of high quality jobs that allows employees an element of discretion and flexibility over the execution and management of their primary tasks. While organisational-involvement management entails workers participating in decision-making, beyond the narrow confines of the job, in the wider organisation or the business as a whole. Both have been increasingly neglected as the concept of high-performance work systems and performance management techniques have taken centre stage.

Recognising this, this report argues that we need to move forward from the focus on high performance practices to a concept of high-involvement design. This is a principle that should extend to the whole organisation and the design of all elements of HRM. The value of high involvement design is partly that it
increases employee well-being, but more significantly it changes, for the better, the way people connect what they do with what others do, develop shared understandings, and learn from each other. It enhances the relational coordination of the organisation.

The author makes suggestions for how the involvement principle could be applied to the design of all HRM activities. For example, recruitment processes should involve employers soliciting job previews from applicants and not just their giving their own realistic job previews. Training and development needs to be focused on supporting the requirements of involvement, team working, creativity, and diagnostic skills, and built into day-to-day activities. Appraisal processes should include frequent feedback and be focused on development and not ensuring obligations are fulfilled or pay increases. Individual performance pay systems could be forsaken in favour of collective ones. Idea-capturing through improvement or project teams must be clearly targeted at well-defined problems and these teams should include people from across hierarchical levels. Conventional engagement or employee attitude surveys need replacing with instruments that are themselves designed through employee involvement.

High involvement design also has implications for management education, as it implies it should be oriented towards deep learning and developing principles, dispositions and attributes and not simply a process of alerting management to best practices, as a literal interpretation of evidence-based management might suggest. The report concludes by highlighting that high-involvement management chimes with current concerns about work–life balance and workplace abuse: it is a “We too” concept concerned for all to “lean in.”

Click here to download a copy of the report.