Thursday, June 13, 2019

What Do Industrial Relations Scholars Research? From the Traditional to the Emergent (and a Hidden Message)

Last week I attended the 56th conference of the Canadian Industrial Relations Association on the beautiful UBC campus in Vancouver, and was asked to give some closing remarks. I decided to capture the conference’s topic by creating a Wordle or Tag Cloud from the presentation titles that shows more frequent words in a larger font. After doing the best I could to combine French and English words, here is the resulting Wordle (click to see a larger version):

So what are industrial relations scholars researching? The big words capture the central areas of the field: work, workers, and jobs. But lots of disciplines research work. The particular expertise that industrial relations brings is on the role of institutions in shaping work outcomes, and we can see these traditional topics front and center, too: labor unions, law, policy, institutions, and regulation. Bargaining, collective, and global are also words that appeared multiple times on the agenda.

But industrial relations isn’t only about labor unions, collective bargaining, and laws. They are harder to spot because of the smaller font associated with fewer representations on the agenda, but some human resources and organizational behavior topics are also present, such as selection, mindfulness, organizational change, sales contests, stress, and job performance. And like other disciplines, industrial relations is not static. We are confronted with new theories, methodologies, and practices that we must grapple with. So unfortunately for this Wordle approach, in some ways the most interesting words are the smallest in that they reflect emergent topics, including: robotization, the gig economy, platforms, Uberizing, Twitter, industry 4.0, guaranteed basic income, cannabis, and others.

Industrial relations also embraces comparative research. So for a Canadian association’s conference in which most of the attendees are Canadian, it’s not surprising that the largest geography-related words are Canada and Qu├ębec, with British Columbia and Ontario also make appearances. But if you look carefully, you can see a large array of other countries and regions that provide the setting for the research that was presented, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Italy, Syria, Australia, Bangladesh, and China.

Here is the upper-right quadrant of the Wordle so that you can get a better view.

And if you look closely, hopefully you can see what I can see… (click here if the animation doesn't work or to see the final result)


That’s right…efficiency, equity, and voice are also (or should be) central constructs in industrial relations. I presented this at the conference as somewhat of an inside joke because I developed the trilogy of efficiency, equity, and voice along with the accompanying triangle imagery in my first book, Employment with a Human Face. So it was nice for my ego when the big reveal led to a great audience reaction as they associated this with my book.

But there’s a serious point here. Far too often, industrial relations can study and support institutions without really questioning what they are trying to achieve. For example, the traditional approach to studying U.S. labor relations often focuses on an uncritical exploration of how the existing labor processes work: how unions are organized, how contracts are negotiated, and how disputes and grievances are resolved. But what’s missing is the why. Industrial relations processes and institutions are simply a means to more fundamental ends or objectives. What are these objectives? Under what conditions are collectively bargained work rules a desirable or undesirable method for achieving these objectives? In the 21st century world of work, are there better ways of pursuing these objectives? These are the central and engaging questions of industrial relations.

This begins with explicitly defining the objectives of the employment relationship. As I wrote in Employment with a Human Face (p. 180),
Because work is a fully human activity, employees are entitled to fair treatment and opportunities to have input into decisions that affect their daily lives. In other words, equity and voice should be added to efficiency as the fundamental objectives of the employment relationship. Efficiency, equity, and voice are therefore the key analytical dimensions for studying the employment relationship. The study of employment—human resources and industrial relations—is the analysis of the contributions of individuals, markets, institutions, organizational strategies, and public policies toward the employment relationship objectives of efficiency, equity, and voice.
To me, this is point of industrial relations as an academic enterprise. Which then connects to a related normative agenda. Again quoting from Employment with a Human Face (p. 181),
The modern employment relationship and the corporation are purposeful human constructs. Humans have always had to work to survive, but modern employment—working for someone else in a limited-liability corporation—is a creation of society. In that corporations are created rather than natural institutions, society must determine their ends and the rights and obligations that accompany the modern employment relationship—they are not preordained, natural, or beyond control. Achievement of economic prosperity, respect for human dignity [and identity], and equal appreciation for the competing human rights of property rights and labor rights require that efficiency, equity, and voice be balanced. The question for research, policy, and practice is therefore how to structure the employment relationship—how to govern the workplace—to achieve this balance.
As seen by the topics presented at CIRA, these questions are the continuing concern of traditional subjects in industrial relations as well as new applications to emergent topics as the world of work continues to change and evolve.

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