Rhetoric and the Politics of Workplace Innovation
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Rhetoric and the Politics of Workplace Innovation

Struggling with Empowerment and Modernization

Martin Beirne

This book provides a critical insight into the ongoing debates and controversies that surround employee empowerment and workplace innovation. It highlights competing interests and conflicting values, and illuminates some basic tensions between confident rhetoric and everyday realities.
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Chapter 6: Culture, management and innovation

Struggling with Empowerment and Modernization

Martin Beirne


While much of the interest in advancing employee empowerment has been channelled into technical arrangements – redefining job structures and changing skill content, layout and work space design – mixed reactions and tensions between rival interpretations have drawn attention to subjectivity and culture as crucial aspects of innovation. As previous chapters have established, front-line accounts of empowerment are pluralistic, covering a range of meanings and reflecting different readings, interests and orientations. Regardless of sector and setting, large numbers of people, managers and employees remain to be convinced about the merits and practicalities of empowerment. A sense of caution underpins even favourable evaluations, while negative judgements point to fragmented, temporary or contradictory outcomes. Reactions to the same scheme often range from measured approval to complaints from some ‘empowered’ staff that the experience reproduced rather than transformed their sense of inequality, injustice or disadvantage. The stance that different people adopt has much to do with their underlying values and established ways of thinking, feeling and sense- making. Particular views and ways of reading and engaging with organizational events ‘live on’ through innovative episodes, filtering and influencing them as they unfold from a sense of the past. This means that structural interventions are mediated through habitual and traditional ways of living and coping with a dynamic world. For all the attention given to structures and the technical apparatus of empowerment, the fortunes of practical programmes are crucially dependent upon cultural and subcultural influences.

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