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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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The emerging workplace
The emerging workplace
Recent research by the UK Work Organisation Network (UK WON) has begun to define leading-edge trends in work organisation.
Research conducted over the past two years and supported by the European Social Fund Objective 4 programme leads to a number of conclusions. First, successful enterprises need to be aware of a wide range of drivers for change ranging from customer demand for flexibility and innovation to the attraction and retention of employees. Benefits for companies which successfully develop new forms of work organisation include the ability to maintain competitive advantage through the continual reinvention of products and services in ways not easily imitated by competitors. Second, there is no one best way. Every successful example of workplace innovation involves long periods of learning and experimentation rather than adherence to a recipe. But partnership between management and employees is the crucial link – changes need to grow from open dialogue and from a shared appraisal of good practice in other organisations. Changes currently taking place in leading-edge companies include the following.
Partnership, collaboration and networking
Business units set up to focus on particular products or services are replacing structures designed around separate functions, such as finance or production. At the same time, layers are being stripped from rigid management hierarchies. Self-directed, multiskilled teams with high levels of discretion now perform tasks which were once the responsibility of middle management. Organisational change arguably has the greatest effect on middle and front-line managers, including supervisors and team leaders. Perhaps used to a policing role, middle managers are now expected to provide support for self-directed teams. Their new role focuses on team development, co-ordination, longer-term planning and strategy development.
Innovating to compete
Achieving product and process innovation is a core task in competitive enterprises. Specialist research and development teams have in the past been responsible for developing new products. Production teams are now involved in innovation in collaboration with R&D staff, customers and suppliers. Likewise, process innovation is generated through inclusive dialogue and participation.
Operating in the virtual economy
The trend towards the creation of geographically dispersed teams, connected by information and communication technology, is increasing. Teams can also be transitory, coming together on a project-by-project basis. Yet leading edge companies in the new economy must remain people focused. They use technology within and across their business in a way that is compatible with their particular organisational structures, cultures and work practices. Ensuring an effective "fit" means that technological systems have to take account of human interaction. A major area of concern remains the increasing gap between leading-edge practice and common practice. This "long tail" can be explained by a range of problems relating to awareness, access to knowledge and limited opportunities for pooling experience. Public policy makers, social partners and other organisations have a key role to play in:
animating new activities (including action research, knowledge resources, learning networks, etc.) designed to support the development and dissemination of new forms of work organisation;
building a public sphere of knowledge, ensuring wide access to evidence based solutions;
creating new roles for organisations such as universities and regional development agencies, to bridge the gap between research and practice; and
creating macro level conditions to support social partnership in the workplace.