The changing nature of work, technology, and the division of labor in the last quarter of the twentieth century has been a central preoccupation of scholarship on organizations. Debate has centered on the extent to which a fundamental shift in employment systems has occurred—from so-called Fordist to post-Fordist models. The stylized facts portray the former as characterized by internal labor market systems in large organizations, narrow jobs in hierarchical career ladders, and long-term employment relations. The latter include decentralized organizations, flatter hierarchies, team-based forms of work organization, and shorter employment relations that reflect external market pressures.
The accumulated body of case-study and survey research over the last twenty years provides ample evidence that fundamental changes have occurred in employment systems (Appelbaum and Batt 1994). A few examples from national and cross-national surveys of work practices are instructive. First, they generally show the substantial use of 'flexible' work practices associated with post-Fordist systems, such as work teams, problem-solving groups, and total quality management. For example, the 1996 survey of Employee Direct Participation in Organizational Change (EPOC) in ten EU countries found that the overwhelming majority of workplaces had some form of direct participation scheme. A cross-national analysis comparing Europe, Japan, Canada, and the United States found that the overwhelming majority of workplaces in each region had adopted total quality management and the use of permanent problem-solving groups such as quality circles (OECD 1999).
Second, these surveys show there is wide variation in adoption of new work practices across countries, industries, and occupations. For example, in the European Union, adoption of simple forms of direct participation ranged from 61 percent of workplaces in Portugal to 90 percent in the Netherlands (OECD 1999). Across industries, 50 percent of manufacturing sites reported the use of employee involvement compared to 67 percent in banking and insurance, and 73 percent in professional services (OECD 1999). Similarly, the 1998 UK Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) found that some form of team- based work system covered anywhere from 68 percent to 92 percent of non-management workers, depending on industry or occupation (Cully et al. 1999).
In sum, these examples suggest both an overall trend in adoption of new work practices and considerable variation in these trends across countries, industries, and occupations. Economic actors faced with the same global conditions have a range of options and responses, depending on differences in public policy, institutions, norms, and managerial choices.