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Over the course of the 1980s attitudes to management have changed somewhat. Thanks in part to the state promotion of the ideas and ideals of enterprise (Keat and Abercrombie, 1991), the status of management and of key "hero" managers (Huczynski, 1993) has been elevated to a standing, perhaps, never before witnessed in Britain. Yet at the same time this high status work has become more complex, less certain and more demanding. In Britain in the 1990s, therefore, we may perceive two sides to management. The public, self-confident side - talked up by consultants and bolstered by the rhetoric of enterprise and the private, perhaps more introspective side, which at work, or increasingly at home, frets about how the contradictory imperatives of enterprise are to be realized (Legge, 1995).
Hand-in-hand (or perhaps more accurately, hand-in-glove) with the state, management consultants have played a key role in all this; simultaneously bolstering and demolishing management confidence and managerial careers. Over the course of the 1980s the role of these consultants has enlarged considerably (The Times, 1995) and there is good reason to believe that these consultants will continue to play a major role in shaping and reshaping management, since in diagnosing organizational problems and providing templates which may be applied to solve these problems, consultants occupy a privileged market position. We can see, for example, that management consultants have played a key role in revitalizing "enterprise" and management confidence (Huczynski, 1993) by providing the necessary tools and the "can-do" mentality (Dunn, 1990; Heery, 1996). Equally, we could argue that in developing novel solutions to management problems (and in ensuring appropriate rates of product development), consultants have reshaped management thinking, to some degree, by fostering an eclectic approach to management; an approach which happily plunders a range of social scientific disciplines and subject areas. For example consultants have borrowed from areas such as sociology, social anthropology, political philosophy and have acquired such booty as quality circles, autonomous work groups, the concepts of organizational culture and cultural change management, and most recently the notion of worker empowerment.
In this paper I wish to focus on this notion of worker empowerment. Indeed I hope to dampen what appears to be management's, or at least management consultancy, enthusiasm and uncritical acceptance of the term so that I might encourage a reappraisal and a more sanguine discussion of the concept of empowerment, as it is applied to discussions of the workplace and to the analysis of the employment relationship.
The paper is structured as follows. In the next section I will attempt to sketch the orientations and underpinnings of the management-oriented literature on empowerment. From here I will attempt to reappraise this particular notion of empowerment by analysing the changing contours of this debate on employer/trade union/employee relations as it has drifted from ideas of control, towards some ideal of co-operation. I will then outline a less commonly aired line of analysis by revisiting discussions of political philosophy to show, that in plundering from other disciplines, management consultants and students of management tend to be attracted to the shiny baubles and trinkets. However, I hope to show that often what they take away from these various subject areas is mere "gilt" and that what they leave behind, through their failure to look more closely, is the real "gold". The paper concludes by drawing out lessons for the analysis of representation and decision making at work.
Empowerment: orientations and underpinnings
At root the current managerial interest in empowerment conveys, if not a universal truth, then certainly a universal truism: that those who work directly on any production process, or directly with any client or customer, will tend to understand the requirements of the job better than those who operate at …