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Long term trends in the Nordic discourse on work organization

| Text: Bjørn Gustavsen

The long term trend in work organization has clearly been in the direction of more autonomy and responsibility associated in the work role. This has been combined with a greater emphasis on the ability of each and every member of the organization to communicate directly with other members of the organisation as well as with people outside the organisation (suppliers, customers).

The fact that we can talk about long term trends also implies that changes in work organisation are evolutionary rather than abrupt. A tendency to look for “outstanding cases”, in particular in efforts to promote new forms, tend to overshadow this point and make work organization look like some kind of technology rather than relationships between people. From an evolutionary perspective, what we are today is a product of historical processes:

While the Nordic countries show a number of internal differences the industrial relations systems have some common pillars:

They all saw the early emergence of broad union movements, generally based on industries rather than crafts. This promoted a similar organization on the employer side, leading to a strong element of organization on industry level. The unions and employer associations joined forces in national confederations.

This apparatus very much emerged out of a period of conflict. When it was there, it turned out, however, to give new possibilities for co-operation. It was, for instance, possible to develop a strong central leadership, to make deals with the governments, and to avoid most of the internal strife and struggles often associated with craft based unionism.

Norway, for instance, passed, over a few years in the 1930s, from one of the highest conflict levels in Europe to one of the lowest (1). This was the context in which work organization became a recognised theme. The pioneer was Sweden, the first of the Nordic countries to embark on a process of strong industrialisation.

Elements of scientific management and other schools of thought on efficient organization, already under strong development in the United States, started to arrive at the shores of Sweden in the 1920s and 30s. Contrary to the United States, where the institutional actors became only briefly or sporadically involved in the discourse on work organization, in Sweden work and rationalization became themes in the discourse between employers and unions, successively to become a part of the agreement system (2).

Denmark showed much the same pattern of economic development as Sweden but did not create a comparative population of large firms, nor did Norway and Finland. In addition, the two last countries were later in economic take-off and growth. Corrected for differences in types of enterprises and workplaces the institutional patterns developed in much the same direction as in Sweden.

The fact that work organization as on the agenda did, however, not imply that it was, in this early phase, turned in a “modern” direction. Rather, the issue was implementation of Taylorism and related ideas. The notion of alternative forms of work organization emerged in the 1950s, initially in research and academic debate.

The first effort to bring ideas like autonomy and learning to bear on the roles of industrial workers occurred with a series of field experiments in Norway in the 1960s. Main responsibility for the experiments was taken by researchers, but in co-operation with the labour market parties and financed by public sources.

The Norwegian initiative was, within a few years, followed by one in Denmark and one in Sweden. These experiments triggered off similar efforts in a number of other countries, such as Germany, Holland and the United States.

In many ways these were the foundations of the modern discourse on work organization. They did not only introduce the notion of autonomy-based forms, but also the notion of tripartism as a key element in driving a new development forwards. They left, however, a major problem open: how to achieve scope, or mass, in the development. How to go from one or a few workplaces to larger sectors, not to say working life as a whole?

As this problem of dissemination was attacked, the whole work organization agenda took a new turn. Successively, it became clear that specific patterns of work organization – be it new or old ones – could hardly be disseminated at all (3). What could be disseminated was information about the importance of the issue and some perspectives and tools that could be used by local actors if they decided to do something about it. On this background the 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of a number of different initiatives that intended to stimulate the interest in the work organization theme and provide support to enterprises that wanted to develop new patterns. One example was an agreement on workplace development between the Norwegian Confederation of Business and Industry and the Confederation of Trade Unions (4).

Another was the establishment of the Work Environment Fund in Sweden, initially an initiative to develop the financial platform, but successively undertaking a major role as organizer of tripartite development programs.

In Denmark and Finland the development was largely characterised by initiatives on enterprise level but often linked to the union-management co-operation locally.

This period reached its peak in the early 1990s with the Work Life Fund in Sweden. Based on returning the income from an anti-inflationary tax levied on the enterprises during the heated latter 1980s, provided that the enterprises created workplace development programs, the Fund created 25 000 projects over a period of 5 years, at a total cost of SEK 10 billion (5). While the program was quite successful in terms not least of its ability to promote new forms of work organization it also brought two shortcomings to the surface: First, a lack of relationships – or networks – between enterprises that could enhance mutual learning through exchange of experience across enterprises boundaries; second, a lack of recognition on political level of the potential of development programs as a tool in the transformation of working life.

Since the Work Life Fund was such a major initiative these two problems appeared particularly clearly. In a somewhat less sharply featured form they were, however, present in Norway as well, where the labour market parties decided to launch industry-wide programs as well as to seek a closer co-operation with public authorities and bodies.

In the meantime Finland started its rapid climb towards Nordic leadership in development processes. While the technology-based Nokia success stands forth as the most well known example of Finnish advances, there is an underlying reality in terms of a broad range of measures, spanning from promotion of new forms of work organization to the strengthening of regional development coalitions.

Tripartite co-operation is a cornerstone, mediated through a number of channels where specific programs is one. The Finnish picture is complex and much is based on the use of informal channels but at the moment the idea of tripartism has its strongest foundation in Finland. In all the countries much of the focus at the moment is just on how to reconstruct the notion of tripartism against a background of new and more network oriented innovation systems, stronger emphasis on regions as economic entities and major shifts in what kinds of businesses and enterprises are pushing the economic development.

The idea of a “Nordic model” of industrial relations emerged in the post World War II period and has given rise to some discussion: is there such a model and what is its characteristics? Insofar as we can find some general characteristics they are on the process side rather than on the structural.

As the issue of work organization is concerned the model has achieved one thing: to keep the theme on the agenda and under discuss-ion. Although there have been ups and downs and shifting priorities it has never fully disappeared and often played a prominent role. It is this dynamism that constitutes the prime outcome rather than specific patterns of organization. The external evaluation of the achievements of these societies varies and much critique has over the years been directed at “the Nordic model”, in particular from the conservative press in the Anglo-American countries.

Against this it can be argued that these small countries at the periphery of the Western world are still doing it quite well; in fact, they are at or close to the top on quite a number of statistics pertaining to income and welfare. Work organisation is neither more nor less than the way in which collective efforts in all spheres of society are organised and the patterns applied in the Nordic countries so far seem to have stood the test.


Bjørn Gustavsen Bjørn Gustavsen

Dr. Philos., is Professor at The Work Research Institute, Norway, and the The National Institute for Working Life, Sweden.

Foot Notes

1. Gustavsen B, Hunnius G (1981):

New patterns of work reform : the case of Norway. Oslo : Universitetsforlaget.

2. Johansson AL

(1989):Tillväxt och klassamarbete : en studie av den svenska modellens uppkomst. Stockholm: Tiden. (Linköping studies in arts and science 32).

3. Gustavsen B (1996):

“Development and the social sciences : an uneasy relationship”.  In:Toulmin S, Gustavsen B: Beyond theory : changing organizations through participation, pp. 5-30.

Amsterdam: Benjamins.

4. Gustavsen B (1985):

“Technology and collective agreements : some recent Scandinavian developments”.

In: Industrial relations journal, vol. 16, no. 3: pp. 34-42.

5. Gustavsen B et al.


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