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Closing the gap between evidence-based and common practice -Workplace innovation and public policy in Europe

Authors: Michael Gold Published:

The Lisbon strategy largely ignored the workplace. Europe 2020 risks doing the same. At the same time, the launching of a EU-wide Workplace Innovation Network is promising. This article approaches workplace innovation from a European policy viewpoint, documenting the current innovation policy environment member states have to build upon. The authors also draw lessons for

The Lisbon strategy largely ignored the workplace. Europe 2020 risks doing the same. At the same time, the launching of a EU-wide Workplace Innovation Network is promising. This article approaches workplace innovation from a European policy viewpoint, documenting the current innovation policy environment member states have to build upon. The authors also draw lessons for policy design from recent studies from several European countries.


The Europe 2020 Strategy attempts to reinvigorate the European Union’s commitment to a knowledge economy, to greater social and economic inclusion and to a greener future. It does so at a moment when prolonged crisis seems inevitable and when the EU’s very credibility is at stake in parts of Europe. Moreover it builds on the shaky foundation of the Lisbon Strategy, launched in 2001 as a triumphant statement of the belief that Europe could become the world’s leading knowledge economy as well as a highly inclusive society. However the optimist rhetoric that marked the beginning of the century was to wither steadily during its first decade.

The 2020 Strategy was launched without public apology for the near-failure of its predecessor and with little visible evidence that lessons had been learned. One lesson that might have been learned from research, from the experience of a few proactive Member States and from some of the European Commission’s own policy debates was that what happens in the workplace has a potentially significant impact on the EU’s targets for innovation, productivity, skills, employment, health, ageing and inclusion. Yet the workplace remained largely invisible in the Strategy Communication (European Commission, 2010).

This article explores the legacy from both Member State and EU levels on which European policymakers and their wider stakeholders need to build. It includes findings from a study undertaken for the government of South Korea on policies and programmes for workplace innovation in Europe based on documentary analysis and on semi-structured interviews with programme managers and other stakeholders in Finland, France, Germany, Ireland and Norway (Totterdill, Exton, Exton & Sherrin, 2010). Finally the article identifies some potentially promising prospects for new EU policy initiatives.

Defining workplace innovation

Frank Pot (2011) describes workplace innovation in terms of “new and combined interventions in work organisation, human resource management and supportive technologies”, a broad definition which has now become widely accepted. However this broad umbrella conceals important differences of emphasis. In another paper, Pot and his colleagues (2012) explain that:

 workplace innovations are strategically induced and participatory adopted changes in an organisation’s practice of managing, organising and deploying human and non-human resources that lead to simultaneously improved organisational performance and improved quality of working life.  (Pot, Dhondt, & Oeij, 2011).

It would be wrong to define workplace innovation purely in terms of static practices adopted in the past:

 Successful workplace innovation depends not on following a linear process of change towards a defined end but on the ability to create innovative and self-sustaining processes of development by learning from diverse sources, by creating hybrid models and by experimentation. (Totterdill, 2010).

Most importantly, workplace innovation is an inherently social process. It is not about the application of codified knowledge by experts to the organisation of work. Rather it is about building skills and competence through creative collaboration. Thus in defining workplace innovation it is important to recognise both process and outcomes. The term describes the participatory process of innovation which leads to outcomes in the form of participatory workplace practices. Such participatory practices grounded in continuing reflection, learning and improvement sustain the process of innovation in management, work organisation and the deployment of technologies.

Workplace innovation is fuelled by open dialogue, knowledge sharing, experimentation and learning in which diverse stakeholders including employees, trade unions, managers and customers are given a voice in the creation of new models of collaboration and new social relationships (Dhondt, van Gramberen, Keuken, Pot, Totterdill & Vaas, 2011). Workplace innovation seeks to build bridges between the strategic knowledge of the leadership and the tacit knowledge of frontline employees. It seeks to engage all stakeholders in dialogue in which the force of the better argument prevails (Gustavsen, 1992). Thus Totterdill, Cressey and Exton (2012) analyse several organisations in which representative and direct employee participation come together to create new ways of working. For example the management-union partnership forum in Tegral, an Irish building articles company, created the conditions in which self-organised production teams could develop with significant benefits for performance and quality of working life.

According to the Hi-Res study, a meta-analysis of 120 case studies across ten European countries, workplace innovation takes diverse forms but is always characterised by:

. . . a clear focus on those factors in the work environment which determine the extent to which employees can develop and use their competencies and creative potential to the fullest extent, thereby enhancing the company’s capacity for innovation and competitiveness while enhancing quality of working life.  (Totterdill, Dhondt & Milsome, 2002).

Totterdill, Dhondt and Milsome demonstrate that such factors in the work environment include empowering job design; self-organised teamworking; structured opportunities for reflection, learning and improvement; high involvement innovation practices; the encouragement of entrepreneurial behaviour at all levels of the organisation; and employee representation in strategic decision-making. They argue from the case studies that these workplace practices enhance the ability of employers to secure a full return on their investments in training and technology as a result of improvements in performance, innovation and quality of working life.

It is this potential for convergence (rather than a trade-off) between improved performance and enhanced quality of working life that lies at the heart of workplace innovation (Ramstad, 2009a; Dhondt, van Gramberen, Keuken, Pot, Totterdill & Vaas, 2011; Oeij, Dhondt, Kraan, Vergeer & Pot, this volume).  It can be argued (Totterdill, Cressey & Exton, 2012) that the search for convergence can form part of “a new collective bargaining” in which employees gain trust, empowerment and intrinsic reward in return for making their tacit knowledge and creativity available as a resource for organisational improvement and innovation.

Why workplace innovation should be important to policymakers

It is the creative forging of “win-win” outcomes that defines the significance of workplace innovation for the Europe 2020 Strategy as well as for national policymakers. Despite considerable methodological difficulties, research findings have long demonstrated a clear association between participative working practices and the innovation and productivity that Europe needs to secure its future in a global economy. These participative working practices are also associated with enhanced quality of working life which in turn supports key EU policy objectives such as lifelong learning, improved workforce health, active ageing at work and labour market inclusion.

Europe 2020’s vision of a knowledge economy is one firmly rooted in innovation, popularly associated with R&D and ICT investment. However this association turns out to be misleading. A Dutch study suggests that  research and technology-led activity accounts for only 25% of innovation; the remaining 75% of successful innovation is generated by changing managerial, organisational and work practices at enterprise level (Volberda et al., 2011; Erasmus Competition and Innovation Monitor, 2009). Survey evidence suggests that such innovation is strongly associated with “active work situations”: workplaces and jobs in which workers have sufficient autonomy to control their work demands coupled to more discretionary capacity for learning and problem-solving (Eurofound, 2012).

The key to genuinely sustainable competitive advantage depends on the core capacity of the organisation to learn and to develop and utilise all its resources to the full (Barney, 1995; Priem & Butler, 2001). Participative ways of working increase company performance, quality of working life and employee commitment through improvements in staff competence, motivation and knowledge-sharing (Appelbaum, Bailey, Berg and Kalleberg, 2000; Wood, 1999). Such organisations are better able to attend to rapid technological and other environmental changes, and withstand competitive pressures (Osterman, 1994).

Extensive survey and case study evidence demonstrates that workplace innovation improves performance and innovation. A review of some sixty US articles shows that workplace innovation has a substantial effect on efficiency, with performance premiums ranging between 15 and 30 percent (Appelbaum, Bailey, Berg & Kalleberg, 2000). Reviews of European literature also demonstrate a positive relationship between participative forms of work organisation and performance (Brödner & Latniak, 2002). One of the most significant studies, the Employee Participation and Organisational Change (EPOC) survey of 6000 workplaces in Europe, confirms that direct employee participation can have strong positive impacts on productivity, innovation and quality. Of firms which implemented semi-autonomous groups, 68 per cent enjoyed reductions in costs, 87 per cent reported reduced throughput times, 98 per cent improved articles and services, and 85 per cent increased sales (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1997). Extensive Swedish surveys found that “decentralising work organisation and human resource development are positively associated with productivity and growth” (ITPS, 2001). There is a very clear link between flexible, participative forms of work organisation and performance: flexible organisations were more productive (+20-60%), showed a much lower rate of personnel turnover (-21%), and a lower rate of absence due to illness (-24%) compared with traditionally organised operational units (NUTEK, 1996). Comparable findings can be found in studies from Finland (Antila & Ylöstalo, 1999) and Germany (Lay et al, 1996).

The benefits of workplace innovation for employees are also demonstrated by a substantial body of research (Delery and Doty, 1997). Participative work practices such as self-organised teamwork enhance employee motivation and quality of working life, playing a particularly important role in reducing employee stress (Shortell, Zimmerman, Rousseau, Gillies, Wagner & Draper, 1994),enhancing job satisfaction and mental health, and improving retention (Borrill, Carlette, Carter, Dawson, Garrod, Rees, Richards, Shapiro & West, 2001). Critically Ramstad (2009a) shows that improvements in quality of working life have a strong association with improvements in economic performance, and indeed may actually enable them.

The problem

However Europe is facing a difficult paradox. Despite the evidence of organisational benefits successive studies make clear that the spread of these evidence-based practices is limited. The number of organisations investing systematically in workplace innovation is at best some fifteen percent across the EU (see for example European Foundation, 1997).

The 2010 European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) reveals disturbing findings:

  • Job autonomy has not risen in the past decade. While there has been some improvement in the ability of workers to determine the sequence in which they undertake tasks this has been offset by decrease in autonomy over methods.
  • Over the last twenty years some 15% more workers experience working to tight deadlines.
  • Stimulating work has not increased during the last twenty years. The frequency of repetitive tasks has remained the same and the degree of monotonous work has slightly increased.
  • Only 47% of European workers are involved in improving work organisation or work processes in their department or organisation.
  • Only 47% are consulted on target setting relating to their own work for their work are set.
  • Only 40% can influence key decisions that affect their work.

The EWCS results show important variations in the spread of active and learning forms of work organisation across EU Member States, with a clear distinction between Western European and Southern/Eastern European countries (OECD 2010; European Foundation, 2012).

The limited density of workplace innovation can be explained by a number of mutually reinforcing factors (Totterdill, Dhondt & Milsome, 2002; Business Decisions Limited, 2002) including:

  • low levels of awareness of innovative practice and its benefits amongst managers, social partners and business support organisations;
  • poor access to evidence-based methods and resources capable of supporting organisational learning and innovation;
  • uneven provision across Europe of knowledge-based business services and other publicly provided forms of support;
  • the failure of vocational education and training to provide knowledge and skills relevant to new forms of work organisation.

Policy responses have, across Europe as a whole, been largely fragmented. Predominant policy interventions at EU level and in the majority of Member States were (at least until the recent fiscal crisis) directed at the macro-system level, for example by increasing public subsidies for skills enhancement, reforming benefit systems and pensions to encourage greater labour market participation, and tax subsidies for R&D. With a few notable exceptions the workplace has been largely invisible in this policy constellation even though it is the common denominator that unites key economic and social objectives.

Upscaling workplace innovation

The practical challenge is how to build the conditions at European, national and local levels which stimulate, resource and sustain workplace innovation on a large scale. There are several principles at stake here.

European management culture continues to be subjected to influences from around the world and is prone to fashionable obsessions, often the product of an apparent convergence between well-known Business Schools, global consultancy companies and a prolific management publication industry (see for example Pfeffer and Sutton, 2006). Garibaldo and Belussi (1996) argue that policy makers and management opinion formers should be discouraged from an obsession with emulating experiences from elsewhere such as we have seen in the influence of South East Asian or US models on management fashion:

The key point is rather to shift from a “catch-up” approach – which until now seems to have not been successful at all – to a strategy firmly orientated towards the creation of innovative and self-sustaining processes of development.

Indeed many organisational scientists argue that the value of general concepts and methods is limited. Action-researchers stress that the design approach, which emphasises the expert-led introduction of prescribed organisational forms, has emerged as a roadblock rather than a motor for real change in organisations. Generalisable knowledge needs to be reinvented in the form of “local theories” grounded in dialogue, cultural identity and organisational context (Fricke, 1997; Gustavsen, 1992). In other words it is necessary to understand workplace innovation as the experimental creation of hybrid practices (Latour, 1993) drawing on diverse sources of experience and knowledge. From the perspective of a Finnish policymaker, Tuomo Alasoini (2011) argues that public programmes and interventions to support workplace innovation need to recognise the distinctive but interlinked contributions of three types of knowledge:

  1. Knowledge of proven workplace designs and practices. As with concepts such as “lean”, this explicit knowledge may have claims to universal validity but equally such evidence may come from context-specific cases.
  2. Knowledge of collaborative ways to construct or re-invent workplace design.  This is knowledge of process, understanding the ways in which explicit knowledge can be combined with “employee voice” (Boxall & Purcell, 2003) and contextual factors specific to individual workplaces and organisations.

Knowledge of how to produce and disseminate knowledge of workplace innovation as generative ideas for the use of actors elsewhere. Together with other Nordic writers such as Gustavsen (2004), Alasoini argues that it is not sufficient to produce “star” cases in the hope that wider diffusion will follow. Agencies with capacity for dissemination such as chambers of commerce, social partners and universities need to be active participants in programmes and initiatives, and transferable lessons can be fed  through inter-organisational learning networks. There is also an increasing tendency for interventions to be directed at clusters rather than individual enterprises to encourage knowledge sharing using methods such as action learning  (see for example the discussion of Anact’s “Collective  Action” approach below; see also Alasoini, Hanhike, Lahtonen, Ramstad & Rouhiainen, 2006; Harris, Tuckman, Watling and Downes, 2011; Middleton & Totterdill, 1992; Ramstad, 2009b).

Workplace knowledge is often reduced to a commodity traded by consultants or technical experts, but this can inhibit sustainable change because the topic-down application of generalisable concepts fails to engage managers of employees and ignores their tacit knowledge (Business Decisions, 2000; Pfeffer and Sutton, 2006). For public policy the test of successful intervention lies in creation of a ‘joint intelligence’ shared by all stakeholders at workplace level and at the wider economic and social level (Middleton & Totterdill, 1992).

In conclusion the focus of policy intervention must lie in building intangible assets: coalitions, networks and other “soft” structures which enrich day-to-day access to knowledge, experience and dialogue for a wide range of actors. Each of the programmes described below involves the establishment of long-term relationships and joint intelligence involving policymakers, researchers, social partners, consultants and enterprises. The problem for policymakers lies in the very intangibility of such outcomes. Politicians and auditors demand visible outcomes that offer demonstrable value for money. Measurables, such as the number of trainees achieving a formal qualification, can be monitored; intangibles, such as network building and dialogue animation, create real difficulties for transparent evaluation. The consequence is that too few public servants in Europe have such activities built into their objectives and work programmes.

Experiences from several European countries

Within Europe, a small number of countries have developed exemplary programmes to support workplace innovation. Over four decades these programmes have generated considerable evidence of how targeted intervention can produce tangible gains for business and employees alike (Ramstad, 2009b) and their outcomes have enhanced collective understanding of “what works” in terms of effective and sustainable approaches. Significantly most of these programmes have survived successive transitions between centre-left and centre-right governments.

France and Germany

France and Germany can claim the longest continuous record of intervention to support workplace innovation, though the emphasis in each case is quite different. Anact (L’Agence nationale pour l’amélioration des conditions de travail) was formed in France in 1973 against a backdrop of industrial relations conflict and grievance. A statutory agency funded by central government, Anact provided the focal point for engaging social partners in practical measures to improve health and safety and reducing workplace conflict through the large-scale dissemination of new working practices. Over four decades Anact has helped establish a consistent policy framework to address the persistence of Taylorism in French business and to spread new forms of work organisation.

In contrast the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has led a long tradition of workplace-based research initiatives supporting the development of new forms of work organisation. Since the launch of the Humanisation of Working Life programme in 1974 a succession of programmes has reflected changing economic and social circumstances and the evolution of policy priorities. However a consistent institutional framework allows cumulative learning and the creation of a considerable body of knowledge. Unlike in France, German Federal programmes do not directly address dissemination. As in France, the close involvement of social partners and other stakeholders is intended to provide multiple channels through which actionable knowledge of workplace innovation can be mainstreamed.


A significant feature of the Anact model lies in the convergence it has established with regional economic development strategy. This is based on close collaboration with some 25 territorially-based institutions established as independent entities by regional governments with the involvement of social partners (Anact, 2012). The importance of regional milieux as focal points for the stimulation and resourcing of workplace innovation also lies at the heart of the Norwegian VRI (Virkemidler for Regional FoU og Innovasjon) Programme for Regional R&D and Innovation. VRI builds on a long Scandinavian tradition of action research and inherits the dialogue-based approach to workplace innovation developed in predecessor programmes from the early 1990s. VRI’s modus operandi focuses on the creation and facilitation of regional stakeholder coalitions as a means of identifying opportunities for innovation.

VRI differs from policy frameworks in other countries because it treats workplace innovation as a potentially important component of regional development rather than as a policy objective in its own right. Workplace innovation is not privileged within VRI: it appears only to the extent that the regional development coalitions funded by VRI wish to include it within their much wider activity portfolios. Nonetheless VRI offers the potential to mainstream workplace innovation within the wider regional policy framework. Likewise the Work Oriented Modernisation programme in North-Rhine Westphalia demonstrates the synergy between regional development and the wide-scale dissemination of innovative workplace practices. The programme is led by GIB (Gesellschaft für Innovative Beschäftigungsförderung mhH), a particularly interesting hybrid organisation set up in 1986 as an agency of the North-Rhine Westphalian regional government. GIB emphasises capacity building, creating understanding of workplace innovation amongst diverse stakeholders, and harnessing their energies in promoting and recruiting enterprises to the programme. Interventions include research, knowledge transfer, collaborative innovation projects, support for consultancy in SMEs and training grants (GIB, 2012).


The Finnish National Workplace Development Programme originally known as TYKES has achieved a high profile in European policy circles, even though it is a relatively recent innovation first launched in 1996. A research-based programme, TYKES supports the creation of exemplary workplace initiatives to improve productivity and quality of working life through human resource development, innovation in working practices and the active engagement of employees. Dissemination is also central to TYKES, in part through the active engagement of social partners, universities and other stakeholders in its activities and in part through funded publications and events. Both the design of the Finnish approach and its subsequent evolution reflect considerable learning from longer-established programmes elsewhere in Europe, many elements from which have been adapted to the national context.

In 2008 after successive renewals, TYKES was transferred from the Ministry of Labour to TEKES (the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation), indicating that the policy rationale for promoting workplace innovation had moved from an industrial relations niche to the mainstream industrial and competitiveness policy framework (Alasoini, 2009; Piirainen  and Koski, 2004). In 2012 the programme was relaunched as Liideri.





Denmark and The Netherlands

Denmark and The Netherlands provide interesting examples of countries with a relatively high density of participative working practices but without national programmes explicitly directed at workplace innovation. One possible explanation, which needs further investigation, may be found in the cumulative effect of indirect policy measures, regulatory frameworks and institutional structures which recognise the role of participative working practices in achieving goals relating, for example, to workplace health, productivity or innovation. Sweden, which previously sat with France and Germany in its long-term commitment to workplace innovation programmes, is also now characterised in the same way.

Elsewhere in Europe the policy picture is patchy. Flanders Synergy offers an emerging example of a coalition between regional government, the University of Leuven and other actors in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium (Alasoini, Ramstad, Hanhike & Rouhiainen, 2008). Other promising policy beacons have been shortlived. For example the Workplace Innovation Fund (WIF) was established as a result of Ireland’s last national social partnership agreement. WIF sought to support partnership and participative working methods at enterprise level, strongly emphasising the role of social partners in facilitating workplace innovation and information and consultation arrangements. However the collapse of the national social partnership agreement in 2009 combined with drastic cuts in public expenditure led to the virtual disappearance of workplace innovation from the policy agenda in Ireland.  In the UK, evidence of the limited spread of participative working methods and the resulting drag on productivity and working life have been met with hand-wringing but limited understanding of how policymakers and social partners can stimulate the upscaling of evidence-based practice (see for example UKCES, 2010). Eastern, Central and Southern Europe remain, with a few exceptions, a void in terms of workplace innovation policies or initiatives.

Lessons for policy design and implementation

The five examples discussed above each grew from their specific national or regional contexts and, while none provide a blueprint that can be transplanted elsewhere, four decades of experience suggests certain core principles underpinning the successful design of policies for workplace innovation.

Align research and dissemination

At face value the five initiatives divide into two categories: Anact and GIB (North-Rhine Westphalia) which focus principally on the dissemination of new forms of work organisation to enterprises as widely as possible within their respective territories; the Finnish, German Federal and Norwegian programmes which have a stronger research focus.

With closer examination however the separation between research and dissemination becomes blurred. “Dissemination” is something of a misleading term because these programmes are not seeking to distribute a formulaic blueprint for work organisation; rather they are promoting workplace innovation, and as we argued at the outset of this article innovation necessarily implies experimentation and learning. Moreover, as the table shows, all of the programmes share a common commitment to publication of actionable knowledge relating to the learning generated by projects. Even the “dissemination” programmes regard the publication of learning resources as an important part of their task since they would otherwise reach only a small percentage of enterprises within their territories.

Several of the programmes include specific strands for the creation of actionable knowledge in the form of tools and resources targeted at enterprises. Their programme managers also insist that a vigorous dialogue exists with senior government representatives, social partners and other key actors based on knowledge and understanding generated by projects. This dialogue helps to ensure that the wider environment in which enterprises operate is conducive to animating, resourcing and sustaining workplace innovation.

Nonetheless policymakers should explicitly consider the relationship between research and “dissemination” in programme design. Knowledge generated by publicly-funded workplace initiatives should be systematically captured and brought into the public sphere rather than remaining the private property of the enterprise and the consultant. Apart from the immediate value of actionable knowledge for practitioners, awareness and understanding of new forms of work organisation is also shaped indirectly by academic publication influencing management education, industrial relations and public policy. However the pathway between academic publication and practitioner awareness cannot be taken for granted. Proactive knowledge brokerage is required to help practitioners reflect the findings of research in their practice. This type of brokerage might, for example, be manifested through intermediate institutions such as G.I.B in North-Rhine Westphalia or through the “third task” of universities (Fricke and Totterdill, 2004).

Align key actors

…including public agencies, social partners, professional associations, and researchers, based on shared understanding, shared knowledge and shared values. Such alignment needs to be created through the entrepreneurial behaviour of well-positioned animateurs or ambassadors with a talent for building trust-based networks and collaboration. Likewise policy measures and programmes should seek to be inclusive, engaging as wide a range of partners as possible in their development, promotion and delivery. Nonetheless it is really important to recognise that each type of institutional actor has its own specific journey to make in building the capacity and competence required to act as a stakeholder in the upscaling of workplace innovation. For example a university or trade union cannot simply decide to engage with the issue of workplace innovation but must invest in a process of learning and experimentation to enable it to become an effective advocate or source of support.

Align key policies

It is not sufficient to introduce a discrete workplace innovation programme or initiative: rather it is important to work towards an alignment of the country’s innovation, skills, employment and economic development policies with the aims of workplace innovation. This is reflected in, for example, the integration of the Finnish workplace development and innovation programmes in Tekes (TYKES 2004-10 and Liideri 2012-18) within a broad-based innovation policy framework (Piirainen and Koski, 2004), or the integration of Norwegian programmes within national regional development strategy. Policy alignment will also be a challenge to ensure the successful realisation of a strategic approach to workplace innovation at EU level.

From casework to collaborative innovation

Effective policy approaches to the upscaling of workplace innovation must involve “a break from traditional practice, with its reduction of the process of change to ‘casework’: a series of discrete applications by individual companies for subsidised training or consultancy” (Middleton & Totterdill, 1992). Elise Ramstad (2009b; see also Alasoini, Hanhike, Lahtonen, Ramstad & Rouhiainen, 2006) argues that recent developments in innovation theory coupled with experience from the Finnish programmes suggest that collaborative approaches to workplace development lead to greater effectiveness because of the effects of peer interaction and shared learning. At the same time cluster-based interventions create greater impact in terms of upscaling, an outcome that has long been recognised in Anact’s “Collective Action” approach: circa fifty companies are recruited into a theme-based network, ten of which receive intensive consultancy support to address the topic in question and the resulting learning is shared with the other forty (Totterdill, Exton, Exton & Sherrin, 2010, 71).

Old wine in new bottles? From work organisation to workplace innovation

Policy measures to upscale and resource workplace innovation remain relatively unknown outside their own countries, and are rarely emulated elsewhere. Such a significant policy lacuna extends to the EU itself which, despite token recognition of the well-documented need to modernise work organisation across Europe, has demonstrated little policy leadership amongst Member States in recent years.

During the mid-1990s the employment Directorate General (DG V) of the European Commission established ACTEUR, a policy advisory group which brought together representatives from these national programmes as well as officials from other Member States where comparable initiatives were absent. At the same time individual lobbyists such as Maastricht University professor Friso den Hertog mobilised an influential coalition of researchers and policymakers, resulting in the publication in 1995 of Europe‘s next step: organisational innovation, competition and employment, a manifesto for the future of work organisation (Andreasen, Coriat, den Hertog, & Kaplinsky, 1995). Significantly one of Europe’s next step’s authors was Lars Erik Andreasen, an official in DGV who did a great deal to maintain dialogue on work organisation within the Commission. Also in 1995, unbeknown to the officials managing ACTEUR, a different part of DGV established the European Work & Technology Consortium. The Consortium brought together sixteen public policy and research organisations from ten Member States to create a Medium Term Plan for Collaborative Action for the Modernisation of Work Organisation (European Work & Technology Consortium, 1998).

A seminal moment for those advocating the recognition of workplace innovation as a key dimension in EU strategy came in 1997 with the publication of the Commission’s Green Paper Partnership for a New Organisation of Work. Interest in work organisation as a driver for European competitiveness and quality of working life had been growing, partly fuelled by national initiatives such as those in France, Germany and the massive Work Environment Fund which made a significant impact in Sweden during the 1980s and early 90s. The Green Paper is a curiously hybrid document doubtless reflecting internal differences within DGV. In essence the Green Paper combines a legalistic discussion of the regulatory conditions which might help or hinder workplace flexibility visibly stitched together with an open-ended call for measures by governments and social partners to stimulate participative working practices. Nonetheless it provided a rallying point for those who had been advocating recognition of workplace innovation, and there was high expectation that specific policy interventions would follow (Ennals, 1998; 2002).

By 1998 it had become clear that, despite enthusiasm from some trade unions, there was little appetite amongst European social partners for intervention; indeed several national employers’ organisations were actively hostile to any form of EU intervention in the workplace whether regulatory or otherwise. Likewise several Member States and some senior officials within DGV remained unenthusiastic, considering workplace innovation to be no more than a Nordic obsession (Ennals, 1998; 2002).

The Green Paper was never publicly disavowed by the Commission and the modernisation of work organisation does appear as a recurrent theme in successive EU policy documents and communications. ACTEUR was re-launched in 1998 as the European Work Organisation Network (EWON) and instigated a series of policy dialogues, conferences and research projects until 2002. Later still the “design and dissemination of innovative and sustainable forms of work organisation” (European Commission, 2003) continued to be cited as a means of enhancing productivity, responsiveness and quality, as well as improving working life and the retention of older employees. By the middle of the decade, EU policy outputs relevant to the workplace read like a checklist of fashionable ideas of good practice, for example Corporate Social Responsibility, Financial Participation, Anticipating and Managing Change and Work-Related Stress. Each of these policy interventions made a potentially significant contribution in its own right to European economic and social policy objectives, but collectively offered an insufficiently integrated vision of the sustainable workplace. The renewed Lisbon Strategy agreed in March 2005 put growth and jobs at the top of Europe’s political priorities and implied fresh commitment to a comprehensive approach. This commitment was given further weight by agreement on the Integrated Guidelines for Growth and Jobs (European Commission, 2005) which “provide a clear roadmap for the design of national reforms” and pursue economic and social modernisation “in a distinctively European way” (European Commission, 2006a). The Integrated Guidelines did offer some specific markers, and the European Council subsequently reinforced the significance of work organisation:

. . . more effort must now be put into implementing the European Employment Strategy and the three priorities for action: attract and retain more people in employment, increase labour supply and modernise social protection systems, improve adaptability of workers and enterprises, and increase investment in human capital through better education and skills. Better organisation of work, quality of working life and continuous updating of workers’ qualifications are factors which should be analysed in view of boosting labour productivity. (Council of the European Union, 2006).

In practice however, “better organisation of work” remained largely undefined in this policy narrative and its status as a factor “which should be analysed” is a characteristic Commission obfuscation. There is very little evidence to show that the Integrated Guidelines stimulated action at national level to support new forms of work organisation. Member States such as those in the Nordic Countries, France and Germany with a tradition of policies and programmes focused on workplace innovation continued to deliver them; countries with no such tradition continued, by and large, to ignore the issue. The outcome is a pattern that has remained fatally fragmented: a series of separate EU policy fields that add up to less than the sum of the parts.

Nowhere is the need for policy leadership illustrated more graphically than in the case of the European Social Fund. The ESF is a major EU funding instrument for the promotion of employment as well as social and economic cohesion. It accounts for some 10% of the EU’s total budget amounting to €75 billion in the period 2007-13. EU and programme priorities explicitly promote the use of the Fund for the modernisation of work organisation, and there are instances in Belgium, Germany and Sweden where it has been used effectively. However these examples are generally found in countries with embedded structures and institutions concerned with work organisation. In the absence of such a wider policy framework regional and sometimes even national ESF programme committees rarely understand the nature of workplace innovation or its significance in meeting employment and competitiveness targets. Potential applications therefore receive little encouragement to develop workplace innovation proposals, or receive adverse scorings if they do (EWON, 2002).

Towards 2020

Since the demise of the 1997 Green Paper, workplace innovation has fallen through the gaps between several policy platforms including competitiveness, innovation, employment and social inclusion – even though it has profound implications for each. The formulation of the EU’s Europe 2020 vision and strategy during 2009-10 (European Commission, 2010) therefore provided an important opportunity for European policymakers to assimilate evidence of how innovation in working practices can address economic and social priorities. That opportunity was missed.

Europe 2020’s original three “thematic” priorities (creating value by basing growth on knowledge; empowering people in inclusive societies; creating a competitive, connected and greener economy) are abstract, distant from the tangible issues facing enterprises and their employees. From this perspective there are many aspects of the Strategy that are disappointing. Europe seeks to be more innovative, more skilled, more competitive, more productive and greener, but the workplace – the focal point at which all these changes will be realised – remains largely invisible. More specifically Europe 2020 limits its vision in three key respects (Dortmund-Brussels Declaration, 2012):

  1. A narrow view of innovation

Throughout the Strategy, the discussion of innovation is once again limited to technology-driven articles and processes. Thus for example “Innovation and creativity” is focused only on intellectual property rights, capital funding, technological knowledge and R&D. Behind this narrow approach lies an outdated technology-push model of innovation. This is in sharp contrast with the realisation discussed above that innovation is grounded in much more than technology. Organisational innovation, workplace innovation and social innovation must constitute integral dimensions of innovation strategy and policy at enterprise, regional, national and EU levels; indeed as we have argued above they are essential elements of the environment in which technological innovation takes place.

  1. A mechanistic understanding of the “world of work”

Empowering people” adopts an excessively liberal interpretation of the flexicurity concept, emphasising the “flexibility of labour markets both on work organisation and on labour relations” and the promotion of labour mobility to ensure that people can take up new opportunities “by moving to where their skills are most needed”. The brief and slightly obscure reference to “work organisation” does nothing to disguise the dominant emphasis on numerical over functional flexibility at enterprise level. Yet the real challenge if Europe is to secure competitiveness, empowerment and inclusion lies in building functionally flexible workplaces, ensuring that workers have the ability to move easily between roles and to be active participants in innovation and change.

  1. Beyond the fragments?

Under the heading “Empowering people in inclusive societies”, the initial Europe 2020 document laid down the following challenge:

The aim for 2020 is more jobs, higher employment rates of the working age population, better jobs, with higher quality and increased productivity, and fairness, security and opportunities, through a real chance for everyone to enter in the labour market, create new companies, and manage labour market transitions through modern and financially sustainable social and welfare systems.

This runs a serious risk of wishful thinking unless it can be shown that these diverse objectives can actually be made to support each other in actual practice. The principal locus in which such convergence can happen is in the workplace – or more specifically in workplaces where there has been a significant investment in workplace innovation and forms of work organisation that empower and engage employees at all levels.

While the broad vision behind Europe 2020 may represent widely acceptable goals, it falls into the same traps as the previous Lisbon strategy. In particular there is no concrete model of how convergence between these quite different policy objectives will be achieved in practice.

A new start

In March 2011 the European Commission’s DG Enterprise & Industry included a workshop on workplace innovation within the launch of its Social Innovation Europe initiative[1]. This reflected a growing recognition that innovation, central to the EU’s 2020 economic strategy, has a clear social dimension. Key influences on the Commission included a 2011 Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Innovative workplaces as a source of productivity and quality jobs (EESC, 2011) and the Dortmund-Brussels Declaration (2012) signed by more than 30 experts and practitioners across the EU, both calling for more proactive interventions by the European Commission.

In order to define concrete ways to move the policy agenda forward at EU level, the Commission subsequently organised a workshop in Brussels in May 2012 which brought together 50 thought and practice leaders in workplace innovation from across Europe. Following discussion at the European Council, the Commission announced funding for a European Workplace Innovation Network (EWIN) embracing all 27 Member States and neighbouring countries. The Network will:

  • focus on upscaling through awareness raising and knowledge sharing
  • aim to create a critical mass, reducing the current fragmentation across Europe between practitioners, policymakers and researchers concerned with workplace innovation.
  • emphasise multi-channel communication, including social media, as a means of shaping management awareness.

It is anticipated that the Network will begin work in December 2012. This is a rare opportunity to build a large-scale workplace innovation movement capable of making a tangible contribution to Europe’s economic and social goals. There is every chance that EWIN can be made to work but those with memories of 1997 will be aware that, as in Finland, France and Germany and Norway, the EU’s policy commitment needs to be long-term and sustained.





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Michael Gold Michael Gold has worked in journalism, local government and universities. Having covered industrial relations for almost ten years as a journalist, he moved to the University of Westminster and then to Royal Holloway University of London, where he is now Professor of Comparative Employment Relations. He was also a councillor in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames for eight years. Show all articles by Michael Gold
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