Worker Participation: A Key Element to Ensure Innovative Business


Professor Karina Nielsen, Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia.

Also visit Karina’s LinkedIn profile.

In Mid-June, I attended the first International Helix Conference in Linköping, Sweden. The Helix Conference adopts the perspective that an organisation is not only an effective production system, but should also be a system for promoting learning, creativity, health and gender equality. In acknowledgement of this perspective the conference organisers had established six tracks: 1. Innovative work systems for production, products and services, 2. Learning and innovation at work, 3. Health, work ability and competence, 4. New forms of organisation – new ways to organise and manage work, 5. Entrepreneurship and regional development. For each track, a keynote speaker had been invited and parallel sessions were organised around these six tracks. I had the honour of being invited as a keynote speaker for track 3 on Health, work ability and competence.

Linköping, Sweden

Interestingly, the first four keynote speakers, despite being from different backgrounds, all emphasised the importance of participation and involvement of workers in workplace innovation.

The first keynote, presented by Professor Bengt-Åke Lundvall from the University of Aalborg, Denmark argued that while innovation is often seen as the actions of managers, scientists, and policy makers, research has shown that workers play a central role in developing sustainable innovation. Professor Lundvall finished his presentation calling for research that develops analyses, indicators, and policies that link work organisation to innovation and economic performance.

The second keynote speaker, François Daniellou, IPB Bordeaux Institute of Technology, France, reflected on the debate on the first day of the conference, i.e. why lean production systems seem to be better integrated with health and well-being in the Nordic countries than in his native France. He introduced the concepts of universal knowledge (the idea that it is possible to anticipate situations in the production system thereby planning work according to such stability) and situational knowledge (the idea that not all processes can be anticipated but rather situations occur that need to be dealt with as they occur). He suggested that the Nordic countries manage to integrate these two types of knowledge better, allowing workers to not only voice but also manage variations in work flow. He finished his keynote by suggesting that performance and health and well-being have the same root causes and that allowing workers to debate and adjust their work to perform their job well will ensure both.

The third keynote, Professor Karen Evans from the University of London, focused her keynote on the negative consequences of the financial crisis on working conditions and how it is important to ensure worker participation in innovation processes.

I was the fourth keynote speaker and leading on from the previous keynotes I focused my presentation on how employees engaging in changing the way work is organised, designed and managed, may, in collaboration with management at all levels, create a positive working environment that ensures both health and well-being and performance. I concluded my presentation by calling for research that helps us understand how we can ensure true participation and understanding how we can integrate change processes with change outcomes.

Following on from my keynote, I had together with colleagues from Karolinska Institute, Sweden, Drs Ulrica Thiele von der Schwartz and Henna Hasson, organised a symposium in which we presented different approaches to integrate process and outcome evaluation to enhance our understanding of the processes that ensure successful intervention outcomes. Together, with these colleagues I have obtained funding from the Nordic Research Council for a three year research project on the mechanisms that may ensure successful outcomes on employee health and well-being when conducting organisational interventions. As part of this collaboration, I have become a research affiliate with the Karolinska Institute.

In summary, the conference fostered lively and challenging debates on how we in our research may integrate production systems and job design to ensure both innovative business and employee health and well-being and the methods by which we can obtain such knowledge.


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