In recent years there has been an enormous growth in the popularity of various employee involvement (EI) schemes under the umbrella of empowerment. In the light of these developments this chapter could equally have been called ‘Empowerment’ but, like TQM and quality circles before it, there is no way of telling whether this is a stepping stone on the way to another EI fad or a permanent fixture as a generic term that will supersede EI, just as EI superseded the term ‘participation’, and ‘participation’ superseded the term ‘industrial democracy’. A starting point in answering this will be to differentiate the terms.
Employee involvement is a term that has a history, and as Foy (1994: xvii) points out, ‘empowering people is as important today as involving them in the 1980s and getting them to participate in the 1970s’. But as Lashley (1997) comments: It is important to consider not only the economic and industrial context, but also the social and political context and, as Foy suggests, the historical context.
In differentiating EI from empowerment it is clear that EI initiatives are support mechanisms for other managerial strategies such as TQM, business process re-engineering, high-performance work systems and the learning organisation. Empowerment is an initiative in its own right, which can be all-pervasive in organisational terms. In addition, both EI and empowerment can be seen to be managerially inspired, with circumscribed powers given to employees.
They have also been strongly associated with the introduction of HRM strategies. Participation and, to a greater degree, industrial democracy allow greater autonomy to employees and their representatives, such as trade unions, who decide their own policies in reaction to organisational changes and managerial policy. A generic term is required for all forms of participation and most contemporary writers use the term employee involvement (EI). To differentiate the generic term EI from employee involvement associated with HRM schemes, the latter will be labelled HRM EI in this chapter.
As we have already noted, employee involvement is not a new concept. It has a rich and varied history, but in recent years many managerial initiatives have sprung up in its name. The best known of these have been quality circles, team-briefing, teamworking and empowerment, which are often connected with organisational culture change schemes such as total quality management, customer service initiatives, business process re-engineering, and the learning organisation.
This is the type of employee involvement that we have called HRM EI. It is likely to be part of an overall culture change, which may involve delayering, the creation of flatter organisational structures, and improvements in communication. Nevertheless, the language surrounding these initiatives has generated debates that are central to HRM. To involve employees is to gain their commitment to the organisational goals, and this has often been couched in terms of empowering employees to take responsibility for their roles and function within the organisation.
This resonant rhetoric has been used freely within the more popular managerial literature, often without thought or knowledge of how it translates into day-to-day situations, but in recent years studies have begun to examine these issues more closely. This chapter will attempt to answer some of these questions. The first part deals with the concept of employee involvement, and the second part examines more closely the concept of empowerment.
Such statements reveal little of the environmental, economic and industrial circumstances which have led to differences in focus and terminology. Nor do they consider the continuity of concerns which they reveal about employing organisations.
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