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In recent years, the term empowerment has become part of everyday management language (Collins, 1994; Cunningham et al., 1996; Hennestad, 1998; Wilkinson, 1998). It has also been associated with popular management movements of the times such as human resource management (HRM) and total quality management (TQM). Empowerment is regarded as providing a solution to the age-old problem of Taylorised and bureaucratic workplaces where creativity is stifled and workers become alienated, showing discontent through individual or collective means.
There are a number of problems with the existing prescriptive literature on empowerment. First, the term is used very loosely and it is not always clear if we are comparing like with like. Second, it is rarely located in a historical context: empowerment is seen as an entirely new phenomenon. Third, there is little detailed discussion of the issues likely to arise when implementing empowerment or the conditions which are necessary for such an approach to be successful. It is assumed that employers will simply welcome the new approach, seeing it as beneficial to them and the organisation. The literature also takes a universalistic approach, regarding empowerment as appropriate to all organisations in all circumstances. Fourth, the literature trivialises the conflict that exists with organisations and ignores the context within which empowerment takes place (Marchington, 1995). In this paper we examine the roots of empowerment, examine why it came into prominence in recent years, suggest a classification of empowerment, and discuss the evidence as to its impact.
The term "empowerment" is generally used to refer to a form of employee involvement initiative which was widespread from the 1980s and focused on task-based involvement and attitudinal change. Unlike industrial democracy there is no notion of workers having a right to a say: it is employers who decide whether and how to empower employees. While there is a wide range of programmes and initiatives which are titled empowerment and they vary as to the extent of power which employees actually exercise, most are purposefully designed not to give workers a very significant role in decision making but rather to secure an enhanced employee contribution to the organization. Empowerment takes place within the context of a strict management agenda. Empowerment schemes tend to be direct and based on individuals or small groups (usually the work group), a clear contrast with industrial democracy and participative schemes such as consultative committees which are collectivist and representative in nature.
Empowerment in context
Taking a historical perspective, innovations at work group level can be seen as long-standing. Prior to the industrial revolution, goods were made by craftsmen who had responsibility for the entire process. Up to the turn of the century, automobiles were constructed by skilled craftsmen who planned production, solved design problems and constructed the car as a unit (Gartman, 1978, p. 195). In the 1920s the ideas of F.W. Taylor, the father of scientific management, were influential in getting management to break jobs down into small tasks and decide the best method of carrying out each task using work study methods. Under this regime, workers had little discretion with conception separate from execution, and brainpower was to be centred with management. The system was based on worker compliance. While scientific management was very successful in terms of boosting productivity, there was concern over the alienation of workers reflected in high labour turnover, absenteeism and conflict. The work of Elton Mayo and the Human Relations School criticised Taylorism and suggested that involving workers had strong business as well as moral benefits. Workers could be self-motivated and carry out good work without close supervision (Rose, 1978).
With many problems apparent with traditional forms of work organisation there has been continuing interest in getting workers more involved, although the type of initiative fashionable has waxed and waned over time. In the 1960s job enrichment was established as an alternative work paradigm, the aim being to provide meaningful work for employees with some degree of control and feedback on performance (Buchanan, 1979). In short intrinsic motivation was seen as critical to job satisfaction and jobs were to be enriched by reintegrating maintenance tasks and providing some decision-making opportunities. Walton (1985) lists firms such as General Motors, Proctor & Gamble and Mars as leaders in work innovation in the USA during this time. In the 1970s there was greater interest in industrial democracy which emphasised workers' rights to participate, and legislative backing for worker directives in much of Western Europe (excluding the UK) provided impetus for such structures. By the 1980s new forms of participation were developed less concerned with the concept of joint negotiation and with much greater emphasis on employee involvement such as quality circles, team briefing and profit sharing as part of a wider set of reforms in working practices. The key point about these schemes is that they did not challenge management prerogative (Ackers et al., 1992; Marchington et al., 1992).
It was the late 1980s which saw empowerment emerge in its modern form. While earlier involvement initiatives may have been empowering, empowerment needs to be seen in a particular business and political context.
The rhetoric of enterprise which reflected the shift to the political right in Western Europe and the USA underpinned the new management approach (Legge, 1995). The discourse of empowerment fitted with notions of enterprise culture with individuals seen as entrepreneurs taking destiny into their own hands no longer encumbered by bureaucratic rules and union obstruction. Such ideas were advocated by the influential popular management writers of this period, including Peters (1989) and Schonberger (1990) whose ideas popularised approaches such as TQM and HRM. Peters ("involve everyone in everything; leading by empowering people") and Schonberger ("we want take charge employees") both exhorted organisations to empower staff as mass production in a predictable environment was no longer seen as the norm. A flood of books advocating empowerment began to appear (Byman, 1991; Foy, 1994).
In retrospect it could be argued that Peters and Waterman's much derided bestselling book, In Search of Excellence, published in 1982, was influential in helping lay the foundations for the modern empowerment movement. While many may not have read the book, their perceived wisdom and buzzwords became fully dispersed within management circles. A central message was the need to move away from the hard rationalist models driven by accountants and engineers to a more simple intuitive style of management. "Productivity through people", "autonomy and entrepreneurship" summed up the new philosophy which when combined with "the customer is king" provided the context for current empowerment ideas. The message was that successful organisations focused on managing culture. Implicit in this analysis was the view that managers could unleash the talents of individuals by dismantling organisational bureaucracy. Managers were exhorted to trust and involve employees. Different forms of control were demanded. "Simultaneous loose-tight properties" referred to control through shared values (customer service, etc.) with employees having greater discretion with regard to how they carried out their jobs to meet these core corporate values.
By the late 1980s business thinking had become attracted by the notion of new modes of managing. It was argued that markets …