Networking around Supervisors in an Industrial Corporation

Networking around Supervisors in an Industrial Corporation

Riikka Ruotsala (Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Finland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6603-0.ch012
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This chapter presents a network-level developmental intervention conducted in an industrial corporation. It focuses on production supervisors' changing work and follows how practitioners from the organizational support functions of human resources, occupational safety, and occupational health services build collaboration with supervisors. The notion of “client understanding” provides a starting point for the study: in order to serve supervisors, the support functions need to understand the challenges in the supervisors' operational environment. Results show that attaining client understanding requires, firstly, joint analysis of the sources of the problems and, secondly, the adaptation of dynamic and systemic explanations for them. The study describes the process of how client understanding, in the form of making generalizations, expands during the intervention. The findings have practical relevance for evaluating and developing collaborative practices in networked multi-activity settings.
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In the emerging era of co-configurative work (Victor & Boynton, 1998), organizations are increasingly coupled with their clients in collaborative endeavours to produce products and services together. This means that work is performed, managed and developed in increasingly complex and continually transforming network constellations. There is a growing need to understand dynamic inter-relations and complexities in organizational settings. Many organization studies have approached the issue from the managerial perspective: integrative thinking, dynamic problem-solving, decision-making, and managing contradictory tensions are considered to be managers’ core tasks (Sterman, 2001; Keating, Kauffmann & Dryer, 2001; Smith, Binns & Tushman, 2010). However, in modern networked work, the ability to see, envision and construct the “whole picture” cannot be left to managers alone; this requires the creation of collaborative work practices within and between organisations. This challenges practitioners to cross boundaries, to build relational agency (Edwards, 2009) and to understand how their work activities form a comprehensive, unified whole. In activity theoretical terms, this means an object-oriented approach to networks: grasping how the coupled activity systems (Engeström, 1987) work together and determining the network’s shared object of activity.

This chapter explores the issue of network collaboration from the client perspective. We draw particular attention to the challenges in client-service provider collaboration. Clients are comprehended here as the networks’ (partially) shared object of activity – something that compels the involved parties, that is, the service providers to form networks and to collaborate in novel ways. We argue that building successful, comprehensive services in networks is far more easily said than done. This is due to fragmented service production, which derives from a long tradition of the professional specialization and functional division of labour. Fragmented services may cause ‘grey zones’, overlapping work, and simply result in missing the complete needs of the client. Be the client a patient with multiple illnesses (Kerosuo, 2006), a divorced family, or a prisoner (Seppänen, Toiviainen & Kira, 2014; Seppänen & Kloetzer, 2014), many individual and societal aspects create the need for the development of more integrated network collaboration. This study focuses on a support service network within an industrial corporation. The production supervisors within one of the corporation’s production units are viewed here as internal clients. They form an intersecting point in the collaboration for practitioners from the organizational functions of human resources, occupational safety and occupational health services in the area of well-being promotion. The study presents a Developmental Work Research (DWR) based intervention (Engeström et al., 1996; Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013), in which the practitioners from the above mentioned service functions wanted to learn to better support supervisors in carrying out well-being related strategies and procedures in their daily work on the shop floor. The practitioners’ interest in examining their collaboration with the production supervisors stemmed from a recent corporate acquisition, in which the production unit became a part of the corporation. The intention of the intervention was to ‘put supervisors in the centre’ and view the ongoing changes and transforming practices from a wider, cross-functional perspective. We examine how the support functions reframed their services and built up collaboration during the intervention process.

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