Report calls for far-reaching workplace development strategy

A high-level report by a Forum on the Workplace of the Future sponsored by Ireland’s National Centre for Partnership and Performance was launched by the Prime Minister in March 2005. It calls for a comprehensive and coordinated National Workplace Strategy to boost workplace innovation and collaboration in Ireland.

It is widely accepted by policy-makers and practitioners that the key to Ireland’s future economic and social prosperity lies in moving to a 'knowledge economy' based on high value-added and high-skilled activities, which, in turn, requires greater innovation at workplace level. However, much remains to be done to achieve this aim. In particular, the need for a 'coordinated and focused policy for organisational innovation'- in the guise of a national workplace development programme - is one of the key challenges set out in a recent Enterprise Strategy Group report, Ahead of the curve.

As the institution charged with facilitating workplace change on a collaborative partnership basis (IE0208203F), the National Centre for Partnership and Performance (NCPP), and its advisers have been examining how other countries have approached the issue of workplace development and innovation (IE0411203F). The Centre has shown particular interest in workplace innovation initiatives in Finland. Since 1996, Finland has had an integrated National Workplace Development Programme in place, attracting substantial funding from the state budget (FI9707122F). The NCPP wants to implement a similar initiative in Ireland.

This is the background to an NCPP-sponsored Forum on the Workplace of the Future, which has compiled a strategic report calling for a National Workplace Strategy, launched by the Prime Minister (Taoiseach), Bertie Ahern, at Dublin City University on 9 March 2005.

Vision for the future

According to the Forum report, while Ireland has been very successful in attracting foreign-owned knowledge-intensive industries, the domestic innovation base remains weak. Much of the technology that is fuelling the Irish economy is generated overseas, which means that Ireland can be described as a 'technology taker' rather than a technology maker. The report sets out a vision of the workplace of the future based on the following nine interlocking characteristics:

  • 'agile' (readiness for constant change and innovation);
  • customer-centred;
  • knowledge-intensive;
  • responsive to employee needs (eg quality of work and learning opportunities);
  • networked (external collaboration and formal and informal networking);
  • highly productive ('bundles' of high-performance practices);
  • involved and participatory (culture of involvement)
  • continually learning;
  • proactive and diverse (promoting diversity).

The vision agreed by the Forum and its expert panel is to 'provide a benchmark for what needs to be achieved in Ireland’s workplaces in the years ahead. A critical challenge is how to make this vision a reality.'

Critical actions

To accelerate the pace of workplace innovation and change, and to address the challenges identified by the Forum, a coordinated approach to workplace development is proposed. The Forum concludes that a number of 'critical actions' are necessary to boost workplace innovation and change

In view of this, the Forum recommends the establishment of a National Workplace Strategy, built around the following five strategic priorities: commitment to workplace innovation; capacity for change; developing future skills; access to opportunities; and quality of working life.

The Forum sets out detailed recommendations in each of these areas.

Commitment to workplace innovation

The actions identified by the Forum in this area aim to enhance the role and recognition of workplace innovation in the overall development of a national system of innovation and improve resources and support accordingly. These actions are to:

  • incorporate workplace innovation more explicitly into existing criteria for public policy and state funding aimed at supporting research and development (R&D) and organisations;
  • improve the 'workplace data infrastructure' to achieve greater coordination and quality of information; and
  • enhance the existing framework of networking with a focus on dissemination of good practice and know-how within and across sectors.

Capacity for change

The Forum believes that significant improvements in the capacity for change in the workplace can be secured through improving the ability of managers to lead and manage change through greater levels of engagement with employees and more effective dispute-resolution processes. The actions identified by the Forum are to:

  • improve leadership and management competencies - n particular, in relation to change management, networking and people management;
  • encourage public and private sector organisations to achieve greater human resource management capability, benchmarked against national and international best practice;
  • increase levels of employee involvement and autonomy through improved information flows and consultation arrangements in all workplaces, irrespective of size;
  • increase the use of employee financial participation by examining and addressing operational concerns and perceived barriers in different sectors, particularly smaller firms;
  • enhance opportunities for employees to be involved in problem-solving and decision-making by broadening the development and understanding of workplace partnership-style approaches through promotion and dissemination of good-practice models;
  • encourage trade unions to develop a more proactive role in meeting the changing needs of their members through the enhancement of employee involvement, partnership and dispute resolution; and
  • increase the emphasis on resolving employment and workplace problems near to their source. This requires that the relevant public agencies proactively assist employers, employees and unions in devising their own customised, in-house approaches to dispute resolution and avoidance.

Developing future skills

The development of an effective framework that supports individual and organisational participation in lifelong learning will improve Ireland’s competitiveness across all sectors, according to the report. The actions identified are to:

  • increase public and private investment in the training and development of those already in the workforce - in particular, those workers at the middle and lower end of the labour market;
  • make available additional resources for smaller businesses that experience significant problems in terms of affordability of training and its integration with work scheduling;
  • develop and promote materials and resources to support individuals in the workforce in managing their lifelong learning;
  • foster a more integrated approach among government departments, state agencies and educational establishments responsible for policy development, coordination and delivery. In particular, closer ties should be developed between the workplace and the education sector;
  • implement the recommendations of a recent report from the Taskforce on Lifelong Learning and broaden the scope of the National Training Fund to support a wider range of workplace training initiatives; and
  • expand efforts to develop enterprise-led approaches to training and to improve participation in these activities.

Access to workplace opportunities

The report states that there is a particular need to encourage greater participation among women and older workers, non-nationals and people with disabilities. The actions identified are to:

  • develop policies and structures at national and organisational level to support the achievement of 'inclusive' workplaces and a proactive approach to dealing with equality, diversity and flexibility as mainstream business issues;
  • enhance measures to support women returning to the workplace;
  • develop a multi-faceted, wide-ranging policy response and practical solutions for the provision of effective childcare support and arrangements;
  • bring forward the legislative proposals currently in preparation to support a more 'responsive and robust' economic immigration policy; and
  • enable older workers to combine work with other life roles through the availability of flexible work arrangements, and develop flexible arrangements relating to retirement, pension, taxation and social security.

Quality of working life

The actions identified to improve quality of working life are:

  • support a better quality of working life through promotion and dissemination of the benefits of employee involvement, autonomy, flexibility, team working and maintaining high standards of health and safety and better work/life balance arrangements;
  • establish employability as a key principle. Security of employment - not always through continuity of tenure with a single particular employer - is seen as a key determinant of the quality of working life. Employability depends on the ability of employees, with the active support of their employers and public agencies, to develop their skills and competencies continuously through lifelong learning and 'upskilling';
  • prioritise training and participation arrangements and support targeted initiatives at employees who experience the 'opportunities divide' in the workplace; and
  • encourage unions to continue to represent a broader range of employee concerns in areas such as work/life balance, training, continuous learning and career planning.

Delivering the National Workplace Strategy

The Forum states that Ireland has potential for achieving significant 'early mover' advantage in relation to workplace change and development. Realising this potential requires all the relevant stakeholders to make a strong commitment to continuous workplace innovation. The actions and activities recommended by the Forum comprise a National Workplace Strategy and must be progressed in a coordinated and workplace-centred manner.

Ireland currently lacks the structures to ensure that this will happen, it is stated. Public policy tends to address different aspects of the workplace in a discrete way and support for workplace development is not seen as a strategic policy objective. There is no dedicated national programme or strategy to support workplace development and modernisation, comparable with those established in countries such as Finland and Australia.

The Forum recommends the establishment of a High-Level Implementation Group to oversee the institutional arrangements needed for the successful implementation of the National Workplace Strategy.

Commentary

The need to enhance workplace innovation/adaptability and move further towards a knowledge economy is currently at the top of the policy agenda in Ireland. There are definite signs of experimentation in the area of workplace innovation, and Ireland has been successful in attracting foreign inward investment in clusters of high-skill, high-technology sectors, such as pharmaceuticals. It is also significant that - influenced by what is happening on this front in Finland - the National Centre for Partnership and Performance, together with the government and the social partners, are in the process of discussing the introduction of a coordinated and focused national Workplace Development Programme. The intention behind this is to consolidate the various strands of workplace innovation. However, it remains to be seen whether the NCPP Forum of the Workplace of the Future report will be acted upon. (Tony Dobbins, Industrial Relations News)

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