What works in the work place?

Theory of Employment Systems
November 17, 2000

The field of comparative industrial relations and employment studies has developed extensively over the past ten years. There has been increasing interest in the task of comparing the changing nature of employment systems. One of the weaknesses with this development is that it has functioned on the basis of stereotypes and binaries. Employment and industrial relations are studied and contrasted on the basis of the strength of the regulatory system, the role of the state, the robustness of the trade union movement and the organisational culture of capital. The idea is to contrast “weak” and “ strong” systems and to measure their impact on management strategies, for example, and the changing nature of the employment relations. There has also been a tendency to reify macro - level factors.  

This dilemma is David Marsden’s central concern. In his latest book, he argues that such macro-level “national -institutional effects” are just one part of the story explaining the diversity to be found within employment systems. We have tended to explain diversity by referring to phenomena such as vocational education systems or labour law processes as being “ exogenous to, or determined independently of employment systems”. Mistakenly, the relations between managers and workers within the work place seem to be viewed as an outcome of social and political considerations. Marsden has written a scrupulous study of micro - level employment processes, which begins to explain differences within national arenas of employment from a micro  perspective. 

This is achieved through a “ societal approach ” that aims to answer the problem of how managerial authority, flexibility and the control of opportunistic behaviour develop. He points to four employment rules that exist within national contexts, and it is the development of these rules that explain differences in employment systems. These transaction rules limit managerial authority and structure the employment relations. They are classified as follows: the workpost rule (the assigning of specific tasks to job holders); the job territory/tools of the trade rule (the identifying of tasks associated with a particular job territory); the competence rank rule (based on competence hierarchies amongst employees); and the qualification rule (where competencies are established in the first instance, ie work is orgainised according to skill requirements ). These rules can be used to explain the changes emerging within the new ages of employment flexibility, for example, why boundaries between jobs are more of an issue in one context than another. Drawing on such key individuals as Ronald Coase and H. A. Simon, Marsden studies national differences through a range of themes such as performance management, pay and incentives, and skills and labour markets.

I would advise academics working in industrial relations, labour economics and human - resource management to refer to this text. It will also be useful to anyone interested in training and development issues. Given the recent obsession with training and lifelong learning, the book offers a dynamic understanding for those intent on explaining diversity in the way skills issues are governed in the work place. 

This is a systematically structured book that builds on a range of classic and recent literature. Linking the task of providing a broader understanding of employment diversity and change with the micro-politics and rule systems of the work place is imperative. This book should facilitate this process and set a benchmark for such debates. 
Miguel Martinez Lucio is senior lecturer in industrial labour studies, Leeds University Business School.

Theory of Employment Systems: Micro-Foundations of Societal Diversity

Author - David Marsden
ISBN - 0 19 829423 9 and 829422 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00 and £18.99
Pages - 298

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