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Workplace cooperation key to Nordic model's success

| By Professor emeritus Bjørn Gustavsen

Many wonder how the Nordic countries manage so well through the economic crisis. It is often said it is because of their economic policies, yet the reality is more complex. This year marks 50 years since Norway’s employees (organised in LO) and employers (organised in NHO) began their cooperation project. Bjørn Gustavsen takes a look at how autonomy and workplace learning became central to the project:

 The Nordic countries seem to be doing better than other European countries during the current crisis. There might be many reasons for this, but focus often falls on the ‘Nordic model‘. What is it with this model that is so important?

Today the Nordic model is used to describe many different things, not least when it comes to economic policies. Yet historically its roots are not in economic policies but in the practical cooperation between the social partners, and between these partners and political institutions. The original aim was to reduce the conflicts which were common during the early years of industrialisation. 

This was in time supplemented with other aims, for instance to increase productivity. But can this cooperation have an impact on today’s crisis? The cooperation brings the parties in the labour market closer together and helps create a desire to solve social challenges together. The countries hardest hit by the crisis do not enjoy this kind of cooperation, which means different social actors push the blame over on each other.

From production line to autonomous groups

The cooperation has taken many shapes and forms since it started around the turn of the last century. The cooperation project LO-NHO (the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise) is central, however, and not only in Norway. The project’s core was autonomous groups of workers within industrial production, and the aim was to test the practicality of this kind of workplace organisation. The project was initiated by researchers, but LO and NHO agreed to play leading roles and established a joint steering committee. The background to all this was two important debates at the time:

Firstly the debate on the consequences of comprehensive work simplification. Since the end of the last century this had been a main strategy for increasing productivity. The production line was a prime example. Yet both practical experience and research highlighted the negative consequences of simple, single-task work. One-sided use of the body led to strain injuries, one-sided use of mental capacity created mental issues, stress and alienation; simple work made people ill prepared for change and led to passivity at work and in life in general. Swedish research was, along with American research, an international leader when it came to the mapping of these issues.      

Secondly the debate on the relationship between work and democracy. In the beginning this debate focused on issues of ownership and company management, but it later included looking at how individuals participated in the workplace. Would it be possible to push for democratic values in workplaces where work simplification was king? Was is possible to improve a company’s productivity without going down the route of increased specialisation? 

A team of English researchers who had studied the coal mining industry discovered it was fully possible to create a work organisation based on the opposing principles without loosing productivity. In fact it seemed organising work based on the integration of tasks and workers’ autonomy would have a better effect on productivity than continuous specialisation.

Company trial

The cooperation project started in 1962 and the companies trials took place in the following years, to begin with at four companies: Christiania Spigerverk, NOBØ, Hunsfoss Fabrikker and at one of Norsk Hydro’s fertiliser factories at Herøya. The trials showed it was perfectly possible to organise industrial work around the idea of task integration and autonomy on an operational level while also improving productivity and participation. 

But the trials also uncovered problems, particularly in terms of challenging many established structures like salary systems, work division between management and operational staff and measures to support learning. There was also the claim that while process industries might benefit from new types of work organisation, the problems with the old ones weren’t as severe as those found in mechanical mass production, of which there was little in Norway. 

This meant the new ideas were not very widely spread in the wake of the initial trials. Instead both Denmark and Sweden took up the challenge. 

Progress in Denmark and Sweden

Denmark saw a range of trials in the manufacturing industry with some positive results. Yet Sweden soon took the lead. From there several initiatives emerged: the URAF projects were developed under the auspices of a cross-party body called The Development Council for Issues of Cooperation. Several projects were launched, also outside of the industry like at insurance company Skandia. 

A delegation tasked with assessing the democratisation of state owned industries initiated the development of another group of projects. Yet most attention befell a series of projects mainly initiated by companies themselves, with help from the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. 

Volvo’s Kalmar factory, opened in 1974, played a central role. Its production line had been ditched and cars were instead put on trollies which could be moved around the factory. Workers could go from simple assembly jobs to group work with much longer work cycles.

Many other countries also started a range of projects based more or less on the Norwegian cooperation project; in Holland, Germany, Italy, the USA and Canada. The projects had different results in different countries. There were limits, even in Sweden, to what new companies were willing to copy from the trial companies, yet nevertheless new processes were created over time which would put the Nordic region in a unique category when it comes to workplace learning and autonomy.

New patterns for cooperation

One general experience born out of the trials in companies is that even when there is agreement on the goal - for instance establishing autonomous groups - the company’s own actors often have views on how to turn an idea into reality which differ from those of researchers (or other external forces).

During the 1970s changes were made to the pattern of cooperation between external experts and and work place actors, giving the latter more influence. The terms ‘participative design’ and ‘user driven change’ emerged during this period, and were used in many situations in different countries. 

External actors would to an increasing degree focus on processes aimed at securing a democratic distribution of influence between the parties in the workplace during the development process.  

‘Participative design’ and other models are challenged by the fact that local parties might choose to head in different directions to the ones originally intended - for instance by strengthening, rather than weakening, work simplification and control. How could this be prevented? 

One answer was to point to people’s psychological desire to focus on freedom and autonomy as soon as they were free of the reigns of work simplification. Trade unions in particular felt this was not enough, however. The criteria for autonomy and learning should be institutionalised through framework agreements, like legislation and accords. Only then could you be sure that the local parties really were heading in that direction. This argument was most clearly manifested in Norway’s Work Environment 1977, § 4; § 12.

From workers’ protection to work environment reform

The work environment reform was influenced by the legacy of the cooperation project in a different way too. When nearly all countries were revising their work environment legislation in the 1970s it was as a result of them recognising a range of problems which had largely fallen outside of the traditional protection for workers: strain injuries; psycho-social problems; cumulative stress; low grade but long-term exposure and more.

Many labour protection laws were traditionally built on strict legal principles: companies could only be subject to demands and restrictions clearly defined through criteria and threshold limits. The new and broader problems would fall outside of this kind of legislation. How could they be approached? 

Cooperation became key: if the partners in a company could cooperate, any problem could be tackled. The only thing you’d need would be local agreement; rules, criteria and diagnosis would be unnecessary.

The cooperation project became a prime example of how ‘difficult’ challenges could be met by practical cooperation. Although many companies already had their established traditions for cooperation, many didn’t. 

When you are able to demonstrate work routines and results born from cooperation, it is considerably easier to get companies which are less keen on cooperation to agree to initiate problem mapping and joint action in order to improve work environments. 

Thus the work environment reform would cover far more ground that similar reforms in countries which did not have the same traditions for cooperation. The same thing would largely apply to work environment reforms in the other Nordic countries.

Focus on work organisation

The growth of more projects run by their participants, particularly during the 1970s, led to increased focus on processes which create work organisation: how development work as such is organised and run, who takes part and many other things. This was central to the agreement on business development between LO and NHO in 1982, which happened in parallel with a similar agreement in Sweden.  

The Norwegian agreement explicitly detailed tools for development work by offering support for certain kinds of conferences, projects and project workers. To use the conferences as an example: these were shaped in response to a demand for broad involvement, with a range of participation criteria (‘inverted pyramid’ including all levels and with broad participation from the floor up), ways of working (mainly group based), criteria for good dialogue (helping others have a say; accept the best argument) and more. 

These tools proved popular among companies and more than 300 conferences were held during the 1980s - in addition to several projects and project workers who brought the number of participating companies to around 500.

Relations between companies in networks and clusters

With ever more companies on board there was a need to approach issues in new ways. This was central to a review of the company development agreement which took place around 1990, when relations between companies became the main focus.

Was there something to gain from developing trade programmes, by encouraging the formation of clusters and networks between companies and similar measures? Later in the 1990s the interest in these kinds of cooperation models increased. 

Even though they were meant to serve different purposes, they turned out to be able to encourage forms of work organisation based on autonomy. With focus on the companies’ own contribution, cross-company cooperation could strengthen the individual company’s motivation and extend experiences which could be useful for the learning process.

In the mid-90s a new research and development programme was launched in cooperation with the social partners, Innovation Norway and the Research Council of Norway: Company Development 2000. Many companies needed process support, and at the same time this had become a wide-ranging issue which needed a central overview and analysis.  

The growth of networks and clusters further complicated processes. Many companies had been working with organisational development for a long time and felt the need to find partners who had broad and advanced knowledge in the area.  

Around year 2000 some new developments impacted the work on the company development agreement and the corresponding R&D programme which by now had been renamed Verdiskaping 2010 (Value Creation 2010): there was increased emphasis on innovation as a goal for workplace development, and regions were introduced as a level for organisation of economic and innovation policies. Verdiskaping 2010 has now been replaced by the Programme for Regional R&D and Innovation.  

If many companies can be engaged in the development processes, stand-alone star examples loose their significance. Each network usually works to create a balance between participants - everyone takes and everyone gives - the aim is to lift everyone. If many networks are created or if many companies come on board through other means, many companies will be part in the improvement process. 

In principle this means national averages increase, not just a few anecdotal examples which can shine on the top of pyramids from where there is a long way down to the ground. We still don’t know how many companies have been reached by the various measures which aim to spread autonomy and workplace learning, even in a small country like Norway.

Nordic countries on top

Follow-up research of a representative selection is challenging and no Norwegian institutions have so far been prepared to meet these demands. However: comparative studies exists on a European level, which amongst other things cover issues like the level of autonomy and learning opportunities in the workplace. 

The Nordic countries are usually found at the top of these studies, along with some other countries like Holland and Switzerland. This indicates that the idea of autonomy and workplace learning has reached relatively far, while the Nordic countries score highly also in other areas - which again indicates that treating all people in the workplace as active and creative actors will pay off, not least because it makes cooperation possible. 

The alternative to cooperation is no longer conflict but the lack of contact, communication and mutual understanding - elements which are crucial to society’s ability to meet future challenges.

The cooperation project between LO and NHO did not create the Norwegian, or Nordic, cooperation. But by introducing the theme work organisation, the project led to a strong expansion and deepening of this cooperation.


For a more information with references to other literature, see Gustavsen, B., Qvale, T. U., Sørensen, B. Aa., Midtbø, M. og Engelstad, P. H. (2010) Innovasjonssamarbeid mellom bedrifter og forskning: den norske modellen. Oslo: Gyldendal, and Gustavsen, B. (2011) The Nordic model of work organization. Journal of the Knowledge Economy, 2(4): 463-480.

Gustavsen Bjørn Gustavsen

has been Professor and headed research at several institutions, has helped organise a number of programmes for working life development in several countries and has long been cooperating with the social partners. His main area of interest is the use of research as a resource in practical development, the organisation of broad development programmes and the correlation between work and social development. 

Professor emeritus Bjørn Gustavsen is affiliated to The Norwegian Work Research Institute and is on the board of Einar Thorsruds Arbeidslivstiftelse.


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