• The firm. Techno-organizational changes, industrial relations and performances. An enquiry on Reggio Emilia local industrial system
  • Antonioli, Davide <1977>


  • SECS-P/01 Economia politica


  • It is not unknown that the evolution of firm theories has been developed along a path paved by an increasing awareness of the organizational structure importance. From the early “neoclassical” conceptualizations that intended the firm as a rational actor whose aim is to produce that amount of output, given the inputs at its disposal and in accordance to technological or environmental constraints, which maximizes the revenue (see Boulding, 1942 for a past mid century state of the art discussion) to the knowledge based theory of the firm (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Nonaka & Toyama, 2005), which recognizes in the firm a knnowledge creating entity, with specific organizational capabilities (Teece, 1996; Teece & Pisano, 1998) that allow to sustaine competitive advantages. Tracing back a map of the theory of the firm evolution, taking into account the several perspectives adopted in the history of thought, would take the length of many books. Because of that a more fruitful strategy is circumscribing the focus of the description of the literature evolution to one flow connected to a crucial question about the nature of firm’s behaviour and about the determinants of competitive advantages. In so doing I adopt a perspective that allows me to consider the organizational structure of the firm as an element according to which the different theories can be discriminated. The approach adopted starts by considering the drawbacks of the standard neoclassical theory of the firm. Discussing the most influential theoretical approaches I end up with a close examination of the knowledge based perspective of the firm. Within this perspective the firm is considered as a knowledge creating entity that produce and mange knowledge (Nonaka, Toyama, & Nagata, 2000; Nonaka & Toyama, 2005). In a knowledge intensive organization, knowledge is clearly embedded for the most part in the human capital of the individuals that compose such an organization. In a knowledge based organization, the management, in order to cope with knowledge intensive productions, ought to develop and accumulate capabilities that shape the organizational forms in a way that relies on “cross-functional processes, extensive delayering and empowerment” (Foss 2005, p.12). This mechanism contributes to determine the absorptive capacity of the firm towards specific technologies and, in so doing, it also shape the technological trajectories along which the firm moves. After having recognized the growing importance of the firm’s organizational structure in the theoretical literature concerning the firm theory, the subsequent point of the analysis is that of providing an overview of the changes that have been occurred at micro level to the firm’s organization of production. The economic actors have to deal with challenges posed by processes of internationalisation and globalization, increased and increasing competitive pressure of less developed countries on low value added production activities, changes in technologies and increased environmental turbulence and volatility. As a consequence, it has been widely recognized that the main organizational models of production that fitted well in the 20th century are now partially inadequate and processes aiming to reorganize production activities have been widespread across several economies in recent years. Recently, the emergence of a “new” form of production organization has been proposed both by scholars, practitioners and institutions: the most prominent characteristic of such a model is its recognition of the importance of employees commitment and involvement. As a consequence it is characterized by a strong accent on the human resource management and on those practices that aim to widen the autonomy and responsibility of the workers as well as increasing their commitment to the organization (Osterman, 1994; 2000; Lynch, 2007). This “model” of production organization is by many defined as High Performance Work System (HPWS). Despite the increasing diffusion of workplace practices that may be inscribed within the concept of HPWS in western countries’ companies, it is an hazard, to some extent, to speak about the emergence of a “new organizational paradigm”. The discussion about organizational changes and the diffusion of HPWP the focus cannot abstract from a discussion about the industrial relations systems, with a particular accent on the employment relationships, because of their relevance, in the same way as production organization, in determining two major outcomes of the firm: innovation and economic performances. The argument is treated starting from the issue of the Social Dialogue at macro level, both in an European perspective and Italian perspective. The model of interaction between the social parties has repercussions, at micro level, on the employment relationships, that is to say on the relations between union delegates and management or workers and management. Finding economic and social policies capable of sustaining growth and employment within a knowledge based scenario is likely to constitute the major challenge for the next generation of social pacts, which are the main social dialogue outcomes. As Acocella and Leoni (2007) put forward the social pacts may constitute an instrument to trade wage moderation for high intensity in ICT, organizational and human capital investments. Empirical evidence, especially focused on the micro level, about the positive relation between economic growth and new organizational designs coupled with ICT adoption and non adversarial industrial relations is growing. Partnership among social parties may become an instrument to enhance firm competitiveness. The outcome of the discussion is the integration of organizational changes and industrial relations elements within a unified framework: the HPWS. Such a choice may help in disentangling the potential existence of complementarities between these two aspects of the firm internal structure on economic and innovative performance. With the third chapter starts the more original part of the thesis. The data utilized in order to disentangle the relations between HPWS practices, innovation and economic performance refer to the manufacturing firms of the Reggio Emilia province with more than 50 employees. The data have been collected through face to face interviews both to management (199 respondents) and to union representatives (181 respondents). Coupled with the cross section datasets a further data source is constituted by longitudinal balance sheets (1994-2004). Collecting reliable data that in turn provide reliable results needs always a great effort to which are connected uncertain results. Data at micro level are often subjected to a trade off: the wider is the geographical context to which the population surveyed belong the lesser is the amount of information usually collected (low level of resolution); the narrower is the focus on specific geographical context, the higher is the amount of information usually collected (high level of resolution). For the Italian case the evidence about the diffusion of HPWP and their effects on firm performances is still scanty and usually limited to local level studies (Cristini, et al., 2003). The thesis is also devoted to the deepening of an argument of particular interest: the existence of complementarities between the HPWS practices. It has been widely shown by empirical evidence that when HPWP are adopted in bundles they are more likely to impact on firm’s performances than when adopted in isolation (Ichniowski, Prennushi, Shaw, 1997). Is it true also for the local production system of Reggio Emilia? The empirical analysis has the precise aim of providing evidence on the relations between the HPWS dimensions and the innovative and economic performances of the firm. As far as the first line of analysis is concerned it must to be stressed the fundamental role that innovation plays in the economy (Geroski & Machin, 1993; Stoneman & Kwoon 1994, 1996; OECD, 2005; EC, 2002). On this point the evidence goes from the traditional innovations, usually approximated by R&D investment expenditure or number of patents, to the introduction and adoption of ICT, in the recent years (Brynjolfsson & Hitt, 2000). If innovation is important then it is critical to analyse its determinants. In this work it is hypothesised that organizational changes and firm level industrial relations/employment relations aspects that can be put under the heading of HPWS, influence the propensity to innovate in product, process and quality of the firm. The general argument may goes as follow: changes in production management and work organization reconfigure the absorptive capacity of the firm towards specific technologies and, in so doing, they shape the technological trajectories along which the firm moves; cooperative industrial relations may lead to smother adoption of innovations, because not contrasted by unions. From the first empirical chapter emerges that the different types of innovations seem to respond in different ways to the HPWS variables. The underlying processes of product, process and quality innovations are likely to answer to different firm’s strategies and needs. Nevertheless, it is possible to extract some general results in terms of the most influencing HPWS factors on innovative performance. The main three aspects are training coverage, employees involvement and the diffusion of bonuses. These variables show persistent and significant relations with all the three innovation types. The same do the components having such variables at their inside. In sum the aspects of the HPWS influence the propensity to innovate of the firm. At the same time, emerges a quite neat (although not always strong) evidence of complementarities presence between HPWS practices. In terns of the complementarity issue it can be said that some specific complementarities exist. Training activities, when adopted and managed in bundles, are related to the propensity to innovate. Having a sound skill base may be an element that enhances the firm’s capacity to innovate. It may enhance both the capacity to absorbe exogenous innovation and the capacity to endogenously develop innovations. The presence and diffusion of bonuses and the employees involvement also spur innovative propensity. The former because of their incentive nature and the latter because direct workers participation may increase workers commitment to the organizationa and thus their willingness to support and suggest inovations. The other line of analysis provides results on the relation between HPWS and economic performances of the firm. There have been a bulk of international empirical studies on the relation between organizational changes and economic performance (Black & Lynch 2001; Zwick 2004; Janod & Saint-Martin 2004; Huselid 1995; Huselid & Becker 1996; Cappelli & Neumark 2001), while the works aiming to capture the relations between economic performance and unions or industrial relations aspects are quite scant (Addison & Belfield, 2001; Pencavel, 2003; Machin & Stewart, 1990; Addison, 2005). In the empirical analysis the integration of the two main areas of the HPWS represent a scarcely exploited approach in the panorama of both national and international empirical studies. As remarked by Addison “although most analysis of workers representation and employee involvement/high performance work practices have been conducted in isolation – while sometimes including the other as controls – research is beginning to consider their interactions” (Addison, 2005, p.407). The analysis conducted exploiting temporal lags between dependent and covariates, possibility given by the merger of cross section and panel data, provides evidence in favour of the existence of HPWS practices impact on firm’s economic performance, differently measured. Although it does not seem to emerge robust evidence on the existence of complementarities among HPWS aspects on performances there is evidence of a general positive influence of the single practices. The results are quite sensible to the time lags, inducing to hypothesize that time varying heterogeneity is an important factor in determining the impact of organizational changes on economic performance. The implications of the analysis can be of help both to management and local level policy makers. Although the results are not simply extendible to other local production systems it may be argued that for contexts similar to the Reggio Emilia province, characterized by the presence of small and medium enterprises organized in districts and by a deep rooted unionism, with strong supporting institutions, the results and the implications here obtained can also fit well. However, a hope for future researches on the subject treated in the present work is that of collecting good quality information over wider geographical areas, possibly at national level, and repeated in time. Only in this way it is possible to solve the Gordian knot about the linkages between innovation, performance, high performance work practices and industrial relations.


  • 2008-06-26


  • Doctoral Thesis
  • PeerReviewed


  • application/pdf



Antonioli, Davide (2008) The firm. Techno-organizational changes, industrial relations and performances. An enquiry on Reggio Emilia local industrial system, [Dissertation thesis], Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna. Dottorato di ricerca in Diritto ed economia - law and economics , 18 Ciclo.