Whatever Happened to Industrial Democracy? Why it is Even More Important Now.

Collaboration and participation important in our new normal

A little over 30 years ago I started my first job in the public sector. My commencing position was as an Administrative Services Officer Grade 1 (ASO1) for the Department of Social Security. Not a glamorous position but a start. My daily duties included opening the mail, filing, morning tea, filing, washing up coffee cups and more filing. A different world from the industrial landscape we now know.

However, at the time industrial democracy was an important part of working in the public sector. This was about employees having a say in how the workplace operated. It was possible to approach the most senior manager with ideas and there was space to make suggestions for improvement. Although rank and seniority were respected progression through the ranks was based on merit and performance. The workplace was unionised and the union flexed its muscle to ensure that workers had an important role in determining the future of their work. This meant that even the newest and lowly ranked employee felt they were valued.

In Australia Collective Bargaining grew out of the experience of Industrial Democracy. In some European models democracy extended much further than it has in other places. In some of these countries workers vote for Directors of companies and even sit on the boards of these companies.

Disappointingly Collective Bargaining and the reliance by government on neo liberal policies has meant that industrial democracy has declined in importance in the modern workplace. The contemporary office environment is much more competitive than it was in the past, government departments and agencies run like major corporations with an increased importance in hierarchy and a diminishing role for workers to have a voice. This has resulted in a high level of toxicity in many workplaces. Externally, it has contributed to a rise in how people are treated. No longer as citizens but as clients or consumers. We are all diminished by these workplace changes.

We are living at a time when the contribution of workers to the operation of the workplace and business is even more important than it has been in the past. Only businesses that are innovative, use the strengths and skills of their team members will prosper and grow. COVID-19 has made a major impact on how we will work and how businesses will grow. Those micro managers insisting work from home staff that they must work the allotted hours, who don’t have a focus on productivity belong to a different era and hold their companies back. What is needed is a spirit of cooperation, a flexible approach and an eye on how the strengths that lie at the core of the business can be maximised for the organisation to grow. This is a time for a new industrial democracy.

At a time like this an approach such as Appreciative Inquiry is even more important for businesses to grow and develop. Appreciative Inquiry offers a collaborative and participative environment for all levels of the business to work together to grow the business. By examining what it is that makes the organisation great to work for, what it is that makes it successful, what the strengths are that are operating when the organisation is at its best. This is called the positive core of the business. Once this is discovered investigating how to maximise and build on the positive core to grow the organisation. Appreciative Inquiry offers an opportunity for collective dreaming, innovation and ideas where all can contribute to the life of the business.

We are at an important time using such an approach will make a real difference in the future of business, corporations, organisations and government. That has been a driver behind the approach I have taken in developing online learning and workshops. A collaborative approach where the collective wisdom of the organisation is used to dream and put into practice a new direction for the organisation is what we need now. Basically, Industrial Democracy through the implementation of Appreciative Inquiry.

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