The Finnish National Workplace Development Programme

Ever since the coalition Government headed by Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen came to power in 1995 in Finland, it has made the fight against unemployment its top priority. This article outlines one measure that the Finnish Government has taken to combat unemployment - the tripartite National Workplace Development Programme.

The aim of the National Workplace Development Programme is to boost productivity and the quality of working life by making full use of, and developing, staff know-how and innovative power in Finnish workplaces. This is to be achieved by developing human resources and helping organisations to reform their modes of operation. The programme:

  1. supports workplace-initiated projects;
  2. creates and maintains cooperation networks to disseminate and build up knowledge and competence;
  3. increases international information exchange;
  4. accelerates initiatives at workplace level; and
  5. boosts the use of research in improving the quality of working life.

Background of the programme

The National Workplace Development Programme draws on the experience of workplace development programmes in other European countries, particularly Germany, Sweden and Norway). Whilst these other programmes served to provide an impetus to the Finnish initiative, they had little impact on the programme's content.

The National Workplace Development Programme was launched by the new Government on its accession to power in 1995. The programme is run on a tripartite basis between the Government, employers and trade unions. The programme is particularly significant because no previous Government in Finland had assigned such great national importance to research-assisted development of working life. The parties to the initiative are taking a keen interest in this option because many of the conventional economic and labour policy measures are proving ineffective in efforts to boost competitiveness and combat high unemployment.

The programme was set up as a joint initiative between the Ministry of Labour and representatives of trade unions, employers' confederations and entrepreneurs' organisations. In December 1995, they submitted their unanimous proposal for the programme, and in March 1996, the Economic Council appointed a tripartite management group. A project team was appointed by the Ministry to coordinate the programme.

A novel feature of the programme is that workplace development is seen as an integral component of the Finnish national system of innovation. In the post-war years Finland has relied on product and technological process innovation as its engine of economic growth. This has also filtered through into policy decisions, with the result that research-assisted workplace development has been largely ignored, despite the fact that there have been a number of attempts to raise its status in recent years.

Projects

The programme supports projects which are set up on the initiative of companies and public-sector organisations. Although projects must be workplace-initiated, they do not have to be limited to specific workplaces, as several workplaces can participate in a project as clusters. Projects should promote both productivity and the quality of working life.

In normal circumstances, subsidies from the programme cover no more than 50% of the project's cost. In the case of small and medium-sized enterprises and small public-sector organisations, the subsidy may be as high as 70%. If the project is deemed to have particular innovative value, or if it holds particular significance at a sectoral or national level, the subsidy may be even higher. The maximum subsidy payable per project is FIM 400,000, which is principally intended for covering the cost of enlisting the services of researchers or expert consultants.

Networking

The Finnish programme promotes networking in various ways. The programme aims to build a network encompassing the Ministry of Labour, the social partners, scientific and educational institutes, individual projects in the programme and expert authorities in other countries. One way of furthering network creation at project level is to support projects involving groups of several workplaces. Another means is simultaneously to launch similar projects at a number of workplaces and then promote the exchange of information between them. A further aim in the long run is to support the creation of industry-wide and regional "development coalitions" involving the abovementioned actors.

Boosting the use of research in workplace development

The status of working-life research is still poorly institutionalised in Finland, despite the fact that it has strengthened its position over the past few years. It will take several years before a "critical mass" of researchers is formed.

Research-assisted development of working life also calls for researchers with practical experience in the implementation of workplace development projects in organisations. Very few research units in Finland alone have the necessary resources for the required multi- or interdisciplinary approach that such projects entail. The programme aims to encourage workplaces to apply their research findings to encourage developmental activity. A concurrent goal is to promote the exchange of knowledge and competence between research units and consultants.

The Government has allocated FIM 43 million from its 1996 and 1997 budgets for the implementation of the programme. The aim is that the total budget during the four years will rise to FIM 100 million. The programme is, after all, relatively modest in scale compared with many of the existing technology development programmes. The most important aim at this stage, however, is for research-assisted development of working life to gain recognition and become a more visible part of Finland's national innovation policy. This programme is not intended to be a one-off venture. Rather it should pave the way for follow-up initiatives and provide useful experience in planning the form and content of future national, regional or sector-wide approaches to workplace development.

Commentary

In Finland, the diffusion of good practice and the gap between training and the needs of business life have been seen as difficult problems. The National Employment Development Programme, consisting of several research projects, can provide schemes and the means to achieve a higher level of competitiveness by the means of reorganisation and company-related working arrangements, and by improving the company's own innovative processes. The feed-back from the projects so far has been encouraging and positive. Although the programme is due to terminate in 1999, there are already indications that it has begun to initiate changes in Finnish companies which may well have significant long-term effects on Finnish working life. Much of the development work is taking place in small and medium-sized businesses. Perhaps the most important feature of the programme is that it has the advantage of being run on a tripartite basis and is therefore underpinned by all the social partners and the Government. (Juha Hietanen, Ministry of Labour)

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