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Purpose- The article aims to report on research into managerial practices at the workplace level in Britain and Italy in the automobile and aerospace industries. These are examined with regard to their impact on employees’ perceptions of skill, training and their relationship to participation. Are advocates of high-performance work (HPW) accurate in arguing that it can satisfy aspirations for greater employee influence in contrast to lean working? Design/methodology/approach- The methodology included questionnaires and interviews with employees and union officials in four companies – two in aerospace (one in Britain and one in Italy) and two in automotive final assembly (one in Britain and one in Italy). Findings- One of the recurrent themes to emerge from the worker interviews was that the experience of increased effort was not an inevitable outcome of the shifts in the composition of skills and tasks, but rather, a function of the workers’ loss of any semblance of control over their work routines and range of responsibilities. What is distinctive about this case study analysis is that despite obvious material differences between the labour processes and working conditions of highly qualified aerospace engineers employed in HPW environments and semi‐skilled car workers employed on lean assembly lines, in two different countries, similar patterns of degradation of work were obtained. That is, technological change, such as the computerisation of design and production processes, along with various manifestations of lean staffing policies were together generating task enlargement. In micro‐political environments marked by a skewed balance of power between labour and the employer in favour of the latter, workers’ autonomy had declined as had their ability to maintain some control over the pace and intensity of work. This does not sit favourably with the assumptions of those who advocate the use of “high performance work systems”. Originality/value- The paper offers an in‐depth cross-national sectoral analysis of claims that so‐called HPW significantly enhances workers’ experiences of the workplace in contrast to workers’ experiences of lean working environments.