!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: "The New American Workplace"

Saturday, August 12, 2006

"The New American Workplace"

Everybody talks about globalization, but what do they do about it?

As reported by Aaron Bernstein in the July 31 issue of Business Week, James O'Toole and Edward Lawler1 have written a book to try to help US companies cope. For businesses with scope for innovation, they argue that a good route to success in the era of globalization is embracing practices that lead to high involvement of employees in their work. The New American Workplace describes a high involvement work environment as one that affords employees
  • challenging and enriched jobs

  • participation in decision-making

  • an expectation of minimal layoffs

  • promotion from within

  • profit-sharing

  • ongoing training and development
O'Toole and Lawler present evidence that, over the long run, for companies aiming to use innovation to compete, this approach generally leads to greater productivity and better financial performance than the alternative of treating employees as a cost to be tightly controlled.

One of the case examples O'Toole and Lawler cite is W.L.Gore & Associates, producer of Gore-Tex. Gore has been high on Fortune's list of the 100 best companies to work for every year since 1998. As O'Toole explains in a 2004 interview:
[Wilbert Gore] was one of the few business leaders who I’ve ever read about who consciously — and what I mean by consciously is every single day in his life — thought about the issues of structure: How to structure his people in a way that would encourage them to be innovative, but innovative in an effective way that advanced the organization’s goals. ...

... He saw that if you have people in large groups, they tend to become bureaucratic. So even though he had 10,000 employees, he tried to keep them in groups of 100 or maybe 200 at most so that they could be self managing. They could all know each other. They could behave as teams and not feel that they were lost in a large bureaucracy. When you start breaking up 10,000 people into groups of 100 or 200, you can create quite a managerial headache for yourself in terms of control. Gore’s genius was that he was able to focus the efforts of those people while at the same time giving them an incredible amount of freedom.
The emphasis on community in O'Toole and Lawler's discussion of W.L. Gore reflects the importance they attach to establishing a sense of supportive community in the workplace.

The upshot of creating a supportive environment is employee commitment to task and mission. Assuming that overall management is effective, employees achieve a level of productivity sufficient to more than offset the costs of high-involvement business practices (listed above).

1 James O'Toole is a professor at the Center for Effective Organizations, a research center in the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California. Back in 1972, he was the chairman of the government task force that produced the original Work in America report, for which The New American Workplace is a follow-up. Edward Lawler, a professor at the Marshall school, founded the Center for Effective Organizations and served on the Work in America task force.


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