In the last decade, there has been growing recognition by European policy makers of the importance of the involvement of employees in decision-making and the provision of opportunities for skill development. This reflects concern to ensure the skills and motivation required by the growth of a ‘knowledge-based’ economy. It has been reinforced by an awareness that the objective of increasing employment levels is likely to be contingent upon people’s experience of the quality of their work and a continuing updating of their skills. It is also a response to the growing evidence that employees’ ability to control their work is linked to both psychological and physical health and, by extension, has important implications for work productivity through its effects on absenteeism and sickness rates.
It is a view that could draw on a long theoretical tradition emphasizing ‘autonomy’ in decision making and skill enrichment as the two factors central to an individual’s capacity for self-realisation. But it could also draw support from a significant body of research – in particular by sociologists and social psychologists.
This paper sets out to examine how far such arguments can draw support from cross-national empirical evidence. The first section describes the emergence of this new theoretical perspective and outlines its key tenets. The second looks at some of the critical discussion of its claims about the similarity or dissimilarity of particular groups of countries and considers some contrasting arguments about the key sources of differentiation between capitalist societies – in particular the employment regime perspective. The third examines the evidence about macro-institutional differences in industrial relations that are thought to structure differences in the dynamics of capitalist regime. The fourth takes up the issue of how well the diverse perspectives can account for differences in involvement in decision-making at work, while the fifth extends the discussion to the issue of skill development.