Trade Unions as Knowledgeable Participants in Workplace Innovation

Exploring the exciting ways in which European trade unions are stimulating, resourcing and sustaining workplace innovation.

Workplace innovation?

Workplace innovation describes working practices that enable people at all levels of an organisation to use and develop their skills, knowledge and creativity to the fullest possible extent.

It is found in workplaces where employees are empowered in day-to-day working life and where there are continuous opportunities for them to instigate and lead improvement and innovation in products, services and processes.

Such workplace practices include self-organised teamworking, weak internal organisational divisions and demarcations, inclusive improvement and innovation teams, management-union partnership, openness and transparency, and distributed leadership.

It is when all these practices come together within a system of mutually reinforcing practices that the benefits for organisations and their employees are really dramatic.

We call this The Fifth Element.

Workplace innovation is a trade union issue

Workplace innovation leads to high quality of working life as well as high performance. There is a considerable body of evidence to demonstrate that it achieves high performance through employee well-being, health and engagement.

Yet survey results from across Europe show that only a minority of workplaces make full use of these practices, with negative consequences for workers’ health, well-being and quality of working life, as well as for employment growth.

Trade unions possess unique knowledge of how organisations really work. They are repositories of experience embracing many different situations and stretching over many years. Yet this experience and understanding is often an underused resource in workplaces.

At the frontline, union representatives can release their members’ tacit knowledge and ideas for improvement and innovation. At strategic level unions can deliver robust advice and consultancy, securing trust from employees and employers alike. Actively involving unions in dialogue about challenges and opportunities is the key to unlocking this potential.

This is why IndustriALL, the European trade union for manufacturing, emphasises the importance of workplace innovation for “putting industry back to work” in its Manifesto.

At enterprise level, workplace partnership arrangements must move beyond traditional industrial relations. Collaborative management–union forums, as well as works councils, can become drivers for improvement and innovation through trust, shared commitment to mutually beneficial outcomes and willingness to address barriers to sustainable change. A great example of this can be found at US healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente’s Labor-Management Partnership, where the trade union coalition led by John August pioneered an initiative to transform patient care and working lives through the introduction of multi-disciplinary teamworking.

In Denmark, CO-Industri works closely with enterprise-level forums (“Collaboration Councils”), providing hands-on support and signposting to evidence-based practices. SIPTU in Ireland created the IDEAS Institute which provides expert support to help companies and their employees introduce smarter ways of working.

See the EUWIN case study and video of Becton Dickinson, whose Drogheda plant was rescued from likely closure by the Institute’s intervention.

Beyond the individual workplace, several unions actively raise awareness of the benefits of workplace innovation through their members, by creating learning opportunities for shop stewards and through wider dissemination activities LO-Norway, for example, is publishing a report on the drivers for workplace innovation, emphasising its importance for competitiveness and quality of working life.

Trade unions such as LO Denmark and LO Norway play important roles in public policy advocacy, proactively making the case for government programmes and initiatives which support workplace innovation. Countries such as Finland and Germany are amongst those where trade unions are fully engaged in policy implementation, helping regional and national government agencies stimulate and resource effective workplace innovation.

In conclusion, social partners need to become learning organisations through innovation in roles and structures if they are to realise their full potential in stimulating and resourcing positive workplace change. This includes the potential for collaborative innovation between unions and employers’ organisations.

While important and inspiring examples can be found in Europe there is no blueprint; each trade union needs to find a model which reflects its own specific geographical, historical and sectoral context.

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European Workplace Innovation Network (EUWIN)

EUWIN was established by the European Commission in 2013 and is now entirely supported by contributions from an international network of partners co-ordinated by HIVA (University of Leuven). EUWIN also functions as a network partner for the H2020 Beyond4.0 project.

Contact: Workplace Innovation Europe CLG (