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 8: Public policy and regulatory initiatives

Struggling with Empowerment and Modernization

Martin Beirne


Although there are genuine opportunities to nurture progressive thinking, support creative engagement and promote meaningful empowerment, committed practitioners face an uphill struggle to secure lasting change, for many of the reasons already indicated. Preoccupations with hierarchy, authority and decision-making prerogatives continue to exert a potent influence in management circles. Many employers, especially in Britain, remain tied to low-cost, limited-innovation strategies that privilege out- sourcing, regimentation and high-intensity working, aided and abetted, of course, by influential consultants who present a view of ‘modernization’ that is at odds with progressive images of empowerment. The argument that employees are unhappy with responsibility, prefer routine jobs and take an instrumental approach to work is still rehearsed with remarkable regularity, asserted almost by reflex as a stock response to pressures for innovation. Moreover, in cases where the logic and momentum for change become irresistible, the suspicion and covert manoeuvring of managerial opponents frequently acts as a drag chain, hampering progress and promoting a snap-back to more conventional arrangements as conditions alter. As much of the evidence reported in this book confirms, workplace reform often amounts to a short-term, unsustained exercise that disappoints rather than inspires participants, reinforcing instead of transforming established attitudes, and adding bitter experiences that complicate the empowerment project. Clearly, against this background and in light of these priorities, leaving progressive innovation to the voluntary commitment of principled actors may be insufficient to deliver lasting or generalized gains. Not that this renders their engagement pointless or futile, of course.

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