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  • A leads to X where other features B and C are also present, but not otherwise; B and C may be causally prior to A, or exist alongside it.

  • The effect of A on X is mediated by D and E, which operate causally as intervening variables.

  • F and G create conditions which tend to lead to X, but they also encourage the development of A, whose existence makes X more likely.

An example of the first view would be an argument that shop floor restrictiveness (A) tended to lead to poor productivity (X) but only where managerial complacency (B) was also present. Its difficulty is that it does not explain the origins of A, and nor does it offer any historical (diachronic in Jacoby’s terms) analysis of the interaction between different factors, including any feedback effects from X to the prior conditions.

The explanation suggested here is closest to the third example, but only in the following sense. The focus is the set of cases where restrictiveness can be identified, and the question concerns its role in the performance of the relevant firms. How far any of this contributed to productivity performance at the level of the economy is a separate question. Conditions such as F and G might include a structure of firms in which managerial re-organization was limited. A crucial historical episode was the celebrated engineering dispute of 1897 (not discussed by Kilpatrick and Lawson), in which managements won a significant victory but did not use this to root out shop floor customs or establish a more rationalized work organization on the lines of that in the US (Zeitlin, 1990). This managerial approach encouraged a style that tolerated workers’ shop floor controls when these seemed either innocuous or too troublesome to address, together with militant attacks when conditions suited. Not surprisingly, workers distrusted managers, and informal job controls re-emerged. When, later, issues of international competitiveness grew pressing, managerial solutions tended to emphasize cost-cutting rather than longer term innovation. And such solutions were deeply distrusted by workers. Hence restrictiveness was created and reinforced by other factors, but it played some part in the troubles of certain celebrated sectors such as car manufacture.

A good deal of research has addressed the organizational conditions allowing a pattern of shop floor practice to emerge. As Kilpatrick and Lawson (1980) note, these conditions include the small size of UK firms and their focus on specialized, rather than mass, markets; the incentive to rationalize was thus weak. It is also well- established that the multi-divisional form appeared later in the UK than in the US. Such a structure militated against the early development of professional personnel managers with a remit to establish formal systems of workplace governance. A reflection of this style of management was the relatively late development of IR as an academic field, even though the founders of the subject, the Webbs, were British (Kaufman, 2004b).

This analysis is consistent with much of what Lawson says, notably in relation to the situationally rational character of worker behaviour and the fact that this behaviour was the product of social conditions rather than a simple constraint on managers. But it also suggests several features that could be made more explicit in his account. First, restrictiveness was only one part of a complex set of features of workplace organization. Second, it was activated and kept alive by managerial policies that emphasized short-term battles over longer-term re-organization. Third, how far it is the hidden secret of productivity performance at the level of the whole economy remains questionable.


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