Innovation at Work: The Working with Technology Survey, 1980-91

Canadian firms, like their competitors in other countries, face a number of competitive pressures arising from globalization, technological change, trade liberalization, fiscal restraint, and deregulation. Increasingly, it is being recognized that the productivity and quality improvements that are such a necessary part of competitiveness require a comprehensive approach to innovation, including not only technological change but also new ways of developing and deploying human resources within the organization. Human resource management, then, is being seen as a key to the performance of individual enterprises and to the overall competitiveness of national economies.

To address issues relating to the human resource impacts of technological change, the Economic Council of Canada conducted the Working with Technology Survey in 1985. That survey asked respondents about their experiences with computer-based technologies in the 1980-85 period, focusing particularly on the impacts of these technologies on the respondents’ internal labour markets. Establishments in all industries, with the exceptions of agriculture, construction, and the public sector, were surveyed and usable responses were received from 946 establishments.

The 1985 survey found that computer-based technological change was becoming widespread, but that it was on a relatively small scale at the establishment level, for the most part. Office technologies predominated and most cases were of stand-alone applications. Only limited impacts on human resources resulted from the introduction of the technologies and not a great deal of retraining of workers was reported. Organizational innovation had not spread very widely among survey respondents and neither workers nor unions were involved much in the process of implementing technological change.

Since then, the pressures on Canadian business to be competitive and, as a consequence, innovative have grown. This led the Economic Council of Canada to initiate a follow-up survey to the Working with Technology Survey (WWTS); when the Council closed in June 1992, sponsorship of the research was transferred to the Industrial Relations Centre at Queen’s University.

The WWTS follow-up survey collected data for the 1986-91 period from the respondents to the original survey, focusing again on their experiences with computer-based technological change, related adjustments in their internal labour markets, and organizational innovation. All respondents to the first survey that could be located were sent a mail questionnaire that was identical to the first survey, with a few small modifications. The result is a unique data-base that contains information, covering more than a decade, on the experiences of Canadian businesses and workers with technological and organizational innovation.

This summary report provides some of the first results of the analysis of the data contained in the Working with Technology Survey for the 224 respondents who responded to the questionnaires in both 1985 and 1991. Comparisons of establishments’ behaviour across the two time periods provides many valuable insights both into tech change and its impacts on workers, and into organizational change. More detailed survey results will be reported later in the course of the Human Resource Management Project.

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