Accueil » 23-4 ( 1968) » La participation et l’entreprise

La participation et l’entreprise

Gérard Dion et Bernard Solasse


Cette étude vise à fournir un cadre conceptuel pour comprendre la participation aux décisions dans l'entreprise. On y trouve: la signification du concept de participation; les formes quelle peut prendre; les conditions quelle présuppose; les questions qui peuvent en faire l'objet; le genre de responsabilité qui l'accompagne.


Participation and enterprise

Although in fashion, the idea of participation is a confused idea. Such confusion results from the great variety of intentions motivating those who refer to it, from the often contradictory nature of the objectives which the latter pursue, and from the diversity of concrete experiments with which it is associated.

The aim of this paper is to attempt to clarify the meaning of this concept and to specify the forms it can have in the decision-making process.

We shall not try therefore to give answers to questions as much of present interest as the followings : what is the present state of participation in enterprise ? It is possible and desirable to extend participation ? If so, what form will participation take and at what level will it be applied?

Before discussing these questions, it is necessary for us to use the same words in the same sense and to have a frame of reference. Although we recognize the limitations of such an approach, we think that the present paper shall be usefull to those planning more advanced studies on the subject. The analysis of the situation existing in Canada is, in fact, hardly begun with. The twenty third annual industrial Relations Conference of Laval 1 had a first try but only under a descriptive form. There is no doubt in our minds that these preliminary reflections shall be completed by series of more systematic analytical studies that, after having focused on the present situation in our country, would lead to prospective thoughts presenting the problem of participation not in a theoretical manner but by bearing in mind the characteristics of our society, its groups and organizations.

It would be very important to note at the beginning that participation can be at the service of heterogeneous ideologies susceptible to be the basis for different demands and plan of actions. Robert Cox insisted on this point in an article on the participation of the workers to the management of enterprises 2.

« The idea that the workers should participate to the management of the enterprise employing them has been existing for a long time under different forms: it has been an idea which has seduced many theorists and social groups for all sorts of reasons. Under its most militant form, it has been the expression of different ideologies based on the conception that society is the expression of group interests. This idea is an integral part of the programs aiming not only the transformation of the industrial organization but of the society itself. »


Participation as a situation, as a value, as an action

A first step, strictly intellectual in nature, permits the regrouping of the multiple meanings of that idea around three essential themes : participation as a situation, as a value, as an action.

As a situation, participation is the index of the existence of a common state, of a community of views or of interests. It translates the existence of a common way of being or of an effective consensus. In that perspective, we may mention participation in the results of an enterprise or participation in a common ideology; in the first case, participation is the index of relative equality in the distribution of assets and services offered ; in the second case, the index of adherence to values, to ideas.

As a value, participation is a norm for the action in which it involves both the general finalities and conditions :

The finalities : since participation, like any other value, is an end in itself under its three aspects as a situation, a norm and an action.

The conditions : participation presupposes free partners, responsible for their choices. They are not necessarily prompted by motivations and objectives which, in the long run and in their essential finalities, would be identical, but they never-the less agree, even if temporarily, in order to achieve limited objectives. This leads to a distinction in practice of various degrees, levels and purposes of participation ; this we shall do in a moment without overlooking, however, that the strategy and stakes of long-term participation confer on any experiment in participation its true scope and meaning. This leads back to a self-questioning on the nature of short, average and long term intentions.

As an action, lastly, participation is a practice or behaviour leading individuals and groups to concerted action. Here again, the extension and nature of the stakes of participation, like its practical conditions, vary. However, as an action, participation still implies an open attitude towards the other and when it involves the action, it implies the will to act jointly rather than alone ; in the end, participation in decisions implies an actual sharing of responsibilities and of the power of decision.

Participation and Democracy

These three dimensions of the idea of participation — situation, value and action — come together and in the end, blend into the concept of democracy.

A society, an organization, a group lean towards democracy when, in respect of pluralism, they endeavour to attain objectives and ends expressing a large consensus ; when the parties concerned can and actually do participate in the drawing up of options and decisions involving their collective future whether directly or indirectly through representatives ; and when they mutually give up the idea of monopolizing power and they exercise it according to procedures and within the framework of freely accepted rules.

This excludes « forced » participation which does not respect the freedom and responsibility of the partners, whether it be based on the rousing of the masses through propaganda or through hidden persuasion.

The abstract and theoretical nature of this step is obvious but unavoidable insofar as participation as a value transcends historical situations and existing practices. Like any value, participation is more a should-be than a fact ; it is a permanent conquest, never completed and always threatened.


Degrees of Participation

The notion of degrees of participation can be clarified by referring to the various steps of a decision-making process.

To simplify, it seems that a decision-making process may be broken down into five major steps :

1. gathering of information ;

2. drawing up and formulating possible options ;

3. the decision proper ;

4. implementing the decision ;

5. controlling the implementation of the decision.

To the various steps of the decision correspond various « degrees » of participation.

The latter concept in turn should be clarified. Firstly, it assumes a quantitative meaning ; participation may be more or less intensive. It then seems that as relationship between the various degrees of participation and the forms of participation can be established grosso modo. Lastly, a general correlation can be established between the degree of participation and the degree of « engagement and responsibility » that it implies.

1. To the first step of decision —the gathering of information — corresponds only a minimum degree of participation which nevertheless is necessary in order to be able to speak of participation. In that case, participation is expressed formally in the communication or exchange of information but in no way involves the responsibility of the partners present.

2. To the second step of the decision —the drawing up and formulation of possible options — corresponds an intermediate degree of participation. Formally, here, participation is expressed in consultation ; this means that it involves, in addition to communication and exchange of information, the formulation of advice and recommendations by the concurring participants.

In that case, each participant should on one hand express his own point of view or that of the persons whom he represents, and on the other hand, consider those expressed by the other participants in an attempt to reconcile both in relations to the objectives which the consultative agency itself is pursuing. The particularisms should not be repudiated but exceeded, reconciled in a common perspective, fulfilling the role, the mission of the consultative agency.

In other words, each participant should firstly make sure that his opinion — which may perhaps be the same opinion as held by the people whom they represent — will be taken into consideration by the other participants. This first dimension of the role of each participant is one of information but this role is not limited to that because one should speak of participation in the form of exchange of information and not of participation in the form of consultation. Hence the second dimension of the role of the representatives of a group in a consultative agency. As members of that agency the participants are called upon to express a collective opinion ; therein lies their specific role. That opinion will not be established solely from the special criteria of each representative but should consider those which answer to the duties of the agency itself.

In that perspective, the responsibility of each participant is twofold ; he is responsible to himself or to his representatives and responsible to the agency itself. However, the consultative nature, by definition, of that agency limits the responsibility of the participants. They remain free to contest the recommendations issued and obviously the decisions which such recommendations might entail.

3. To the third step of the decision —the decision proper — corresponds the fullest and most exacting degree of participation.

In that case, the participants are not only associated with the previous steps of the decision — gathering of information and drawing up of possible options —whether directly or not, but decide jointly. The decision becomes a joint decision ; the power to decide is then shared and exercised collectively.

The « joint-decision makers » are also jointly responsible for the decision taken and thereby lose their right to contest it ; it would be a contradiction in terms to contest a decision for which one would be fully responsible. This would be possible only subject to withdrawal from the deciding agency ; this would imply the elimination of any participation at this level.

4. To the fourth step of a decision — implementing the decision — corresponds a more complex situation.

a) The joint decision obviously binds the participants at the implementation level ; each should cooperate in the implementation of a decision for which he is jointly responsible — or run the risk of contradicting himself.

If such is the case, it does not seem that a new degree of participation corresponds to the implementation of the decision. At the most, it is necessary to speak of the permanence at the time of an earlier obligation.

b) However, participation can be limited to the implementation of a decision without having previously put emphasis on codecision and consultation ; such is, moreover, the situation encountered most often.

It is possible to contest or approve an outside decision, participate or not in its implementation depending on whether one accepts it or rejects it.

It does not seem that an individual or a group can be held responsible for the implementation of a decision in which they presumably did not participate unless, implicitly or not, they previously engaged themselves to implement it.

5. To the fifth step of the decision —control of its implementation — corresponds a situation analogous to the one which we have just described.

a) The joint decision, the joint responsibility prompts participants to jointly control the implementation of the decision.

b) However, there may be participation in the control of the implementation of a decision without there being prior participation in its drawing up and in taking the decision. Such participation may assume two forms depending on whether it is a question of collecting information or opinions on the implementation of the decision considered 3 .

Modes of Participation

The notion of mode of participation refers to the practical conditions of participation as an action,or if one prefers, to the manner of participating.

On that point, we shall restrict ourselves to making two comments, essential in our opinion where participation in decisions is concerned. The first to distinguish between direct participation and indirect participation, the second to underline the importance of the moment at which participation is situated in a decision-making process.

1.Participation is direct when it is effected without a middleman, indirect when it is effected through delegates, representatives, agents. In practice, this distinction assumes great importance ; direct participation is impractical as soon as a certain number of participants is attained.

Indirect or delegated participation implies that the representatives of the group are truly « representative », that is, they are not only the faithful spokesmen of those whom they represent but also that they can actually « involve » them and act on their behalf.

This is of great importance as soon as the degree of participation reaches an intermediate level, that is, in case of consultation and a fortiori of joint decision and joint implementation. From that time onward, the representation of the participants constitutes the sole guarantee of the effectiveness of such agencies. This appears clearly in the case of joint decision ; implementation of the decision then depends on the behaviour of each participating organization, therefore on the representation of their agents ; it is only insofar as the members of such organizations will feel themselves bound, obligated through the choice of their representative that the decision will be implemented.3

2. The notion of modes of participation also brings into play the « time dimension » especially where participation in decisions is concerned.

Numerous cases can be cited ; we shall pick out only the most significant ones ;

— Participation in the information may be simultaneous or subsequent to the collecting of information ; this has only relative importance.

— Participation in consultation may come before or after the decision but the consequences will not be identical. If participation in consultation comes before the decision proper, the possibility remains, at least theoretically, of influencing a recommendation with some chance of success or, on the other hand, of actually participating in the decision taking itself. But, if participation in consultation comes after the decision proper, it loses some of its value and interest ; it has scarcely any practical bearing and becomes related to an « opinion poil ». It is rather a consultation-alibi or a dupery. Here we consult to avoid listening and even in order to compromise. However, it may be that consultation constitutes in that case one of the preliminary steps of a new decision-making process.

— Participation in a decision may be simultaneous or subsequent to the decision as an action. In the first case, the participants will actually be associated with the decision as such ; in the second case, participation has meaning only if it is associated with the possibility of exercising a right of veto which would in fact postpone the implementation of the decision.

— Participation in the implementation and in the control of the implementation of a decision does not raise any special problems.

Participation will be all the more intensive and effective when the participants are associated with the various steps of the decision successively and according to the « forms of participation » which we have previously mentioned.

Levels and Objects

There is a close relationship between decision and level of organization ; this relationship appears clearly when the various levels of organization are defined in terms of power, that is, ability to decide and implement the decisions taken. The nature, the field and the scope of decisions corresponding to the various levels establish the bounds and define the eventual object of participation.

This is applied at the establishment, enterprise, regional, industrial branch or national economic level. According to the nature of the objectives pursued, « participation » should come at any one of those levels and at each level, it may take, at least theoretically, any one of the forms which we previously mentioned.

One of the major questions encountered in any debate on participation is first to discover and determine at what level and then according to which procedure (form) might the questions be approached, according to whether they concern for example :

— organization of labour ;

— technical of technological problems ;

— personnel training ;

— labor relations including direct and indirect wage payment ;

— economic and social questions (investment, price, etc.) ;

— economic and social policies of the governments.

One shall not expect everything out of participation. The enterprise is one decision taking place among others. The scope of both its actions and decisions is limited.

Participation's « Stake »

If the object of participation refers to its immediate content, the notion of « stake » has a wider meaning since it concerns the average and long term strategy, objectives and aims which the groups and organizations present are pursuing.

At that level, it is scarcely possible to draw up a series of general comments ; only an examination of the special situations permits an all-round and specific statement of participation's stake. On the other hand, a general statement seems necessary ; the increasing socialization which characterized our industrial societies calls for increasing participation whose most obvious index lies in the multiplication of committees, commissions, board which most often are consultative. Such new situation is less a consequence of a sudden change-over to the requirements of democracy than the sign of an increasing interdependence among groups and organizations resulting from the complementary nature of their functions which makes them indispensable to one another.

Contradictions may here oppose the short and long term. Participation can be only a strategy at the service of contestation : participation is sought in order to contest from within. From that time onwards, participation is only an immediate objective, a tactic subordinated to a strategy which, in the longer run, aims at contesting. On the other hand, contestation, conflict may tend to obtain recognition which constitutes the first step towards participation.

Furthermore, in the end, a situation of a predominantly conflicting nature does not exclude the existence of areas of participation of limited scope.

Conditions of Participation

A distinction must still be made between the general conditions of participation. Perhaps it would be preferable to speak of the state of mind of the partners and of the special specific conditions of each case which concern the structures and means to be used. Listing them would be an endless task which would be identical to the description of the multitude of situations encountered. Therefore, we shall set forth only the general conditions of participation.

A first condition lies in the existence of a minimum of consensus among the partners on a common plan or action to be realized jointly. This is indispensable so that participation will prevail over contestation so that it will not be a mere tactical moment for a strategy of predominantly conflicting nature. The existence of such minimum consensus is largely subordinated to the existence of common interests.

A second condition is the recognition of the other as a responsible partner in its own role and not only of the strength and power which he represents. This recognition of the other, who in fact is a « valid speaker » is largely fostered by taking into consideration the complementary nature of the economic, social and political functions of the groups and organizations present. « Recognition of the other » is a major point where promoting indirect participation is involved. It involves the respect of the various levels of an organization, the refusal to disassociate the bottom from the top, the will to foster internal democracy.

A third condition is to aim for equality among the means. Equality among the means is firstly equality in access to information, in knowledge of the problems to be tackled ; then equality in competency, that is, in the ability to overcome the questions and problems in abeyance.

Lastly, a fourth condition applicable only when participation in decisions is involved is to aim for a distribution of power.It would be useless to speak of participation in decisions even if the three foregoing conditions were met but if power of decision remained the exclusive prerogative of a minority group or organization.


If in our society, the validity of this outline is scarcely contested when applied to political realities, it is contested when the organization and functioning of the economy are concerned.

In addition to statements of principle favouring industrial democracy, to calls to participate and to the multiplication of consultative committees and commissions especially on the governmental level, basic questions persist which we could attempt to regroup around a few theme topics :

— A first series of questions concerns the existing situation ; to answer them, an outline, even a summary one, of the existing forms of participation, should be drawn up insisting particularly on their stake.

— A second series of questions leads to a more basic questioning on the possibility of extending the field of participation as a means of access to decisions by insisting mainly on the conditions required to do so.

It is around these two themes that reflections on participation in enterprise should be built.

(1) GÉRARD DION and others,Le syndicalisme canadien: une réévaluation, Les presses de l'Université Laval, Québec, 1968, 293 pages.

(2) ROBERT COX, « La participation des travailleurs à la gestion des entreprises. Etat et avancement du projet. I—Un champ d'enquête fertile » inBulletin de l'Institut international d'études sociales, Genève, No. 2, February 1967, page 73.

(3) GÉRARD DION, « Représentativité et représentation » in Industrial Relations, Volume 21 (1966), No. 3, pp. 317-332