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PD: Notes from Nygaard, 1975  
Computer Professionals for 
Social Responsibility 

Participatory Design: Notes from a classic article by Kristen Nygaard

Randy Trigg

May 19, 1995

Nygaard, K. (1975). Kunnskaps-strategi for fagbevegelsen (Skills strategy for trade unions). Nordisk Forum 6, 10(2), 15-27.

This article was written at the close of the oft-cited project with the Norwegian Iron and Metalworkers association of trade unions (NJMF). It covers primarily the goals of the researchers and union representatives at the start of the project, how those changed over the 2 1/2 year course of the collaboration, and an appraisal of the results.

The article is in Norwegian, all quotes are my translations. I feel especially unsure about the translations of certain key terms. Foremost among these is: 'bedriftsdemokrati'. Literally, it means something like "operational democracy". Historically, I presume that it's been translated as "workplace democracy", but then why not use 'arbejdspladsdemokrati' or some such? I suspect some work is being done by the use of 'bedrift' here, perhaps grounding the sense of 'democracy' in the everyday running of a work site?

My notes are organized according to the sections of the article.

1. Introduction

Includes background on the major players on the research and trade union sides, gives details on funding, how much and from whom. Main point is that this was the first project at the Norwegian Computing Center where the sole contractor was a professional association ('fagforbund'), in this case NJMF. (There had been earlier cases where the contract was with a combination of worker and employer associations.)

2. Background for the project

The heart of this section is a long quote from a report from NJMF's 1970 national meeting. They suggest working to "counter tendencies to establish systems where people are treated as mechanical and programmed production factors." (p. 16) They note management's use of new methods that emphasize long-term planning, control systems, information systems, simulations, structure rationalizations, etc. and the requirement for outside consultants that these systems bring. Because the employers have "bought into" these methods which effectively cut off employees, the methods open the possibility of eliminating workers and their interests in how operations should be controlled and developed.

"The union works to give its members control rights over operations ['bedrift']. The proposed legislation attempts to create a formal basis for a workplace democracy ("bedriftsdemokrati") [operations democracy?]. But we create only a paper democracy if we don't build up skills such that we understand all operations problems just as well - and better - than management. We must school our members and representatives and we must use the wealth of skills available to us from research institutes and consulting groups." (p. 17)

Closes with a list of work sites participating in the project.

3. Problems with the original work plan

Gives the 6 points of the original plan and the critique that the plan didn't fit into a larger context that could be meaningful for union members: "We realized that we were in danger of writing a series of reports that would stand unused and unread, on the union representatives' book shelves." (p. 19)

They realized that results were crucial, but how to define "result" in this context? They arrived at the following definition: "Results are all actions from NJMF, central and local, which, with support from the project, aim to give the association and its members greater influence over information handling and control in operations." (p. 17)

4. The revised work plan

One important feature is the generation of training materials appropriate for NJMF. This requires first that they be in Norwegian, that they use new words and concepts needed for the unions, and most important, that they be an instrument for understanding one's situation and for taking effective action. (p. 20)

The training courses were locally tailored and problem-based (not "book" based) , with the idea that problem identification has to start in one's own workplace. In this process, the researchers were also students. "This made the project one of the most intense learning periods they [the researchers] had experienced." (p. 21)

A crucial element was the production of written material, but not just by researchers. In fact, in three of the four work site groups, union members did 65-70% of the writing (the other group was 40% ). Each group generated a significant report.

5. Comparison of the work plans

This section looks back at the original work plan in light of what actually happened. For example, one original goal, to conduct surveys, was seen as useless and never carried out. The goal of improving skills was addressed by generating training materials. It was seen as most important to quickly get something out there for trial use and feedback rather than discussing the contents of some hypothetical textbook.

"The important fundamental difference between the two strategies is:

- the first stategy was oriented toward descriptions of situations and production of reasonable suggestions from the researchers,

- while the second strategy, the one we followed, was oriented toward helping to start processes in NJMF that could lead to action, and build up increasingly valuable platforms of experience leading to further actions." (p. 22)

6. Basic assumptions and goals

Planning and control systems reflect employers' interests.

Many researchers working in system development think their systems are "objective" and "neutral" w.r.t. conflicts of interest between employees and employers. Many sides of the research activity are objective, but subjectivity is especially present in choices. What one studies scientifically, which factors should be brought in, which fundamental opinions and assumptions one adopts, and how one organizes the research one participates in. Researchers ought to clarify these choices for themselves and for others. "This is especially important when one works together with unions, when the skills built up are directly bound to members' interests. It can be very difficult for union folk who aren't specialists to distinguish the subjective sides of a research report." (p. 23)

Basic principles (quoting from the first research report):

The trade union movement shouldn't be bound to certain stances and actions, but be prepared to make choices with as much freedom as possible.

The project also borrows three of the goals from the NJMF's own statement of purpose, including: "...[from paragraph #2] through cooperation among departments, build unity and power in the work to further employees' professional, economic, social and cultural interests for furtherance of socialism. ... [from paragraph #4] to work to insure freedom, rights and continue the democratic forms of administration that have developed in Norway. [from paragraph #5] work toward economic and industrial democracy ... assure employees a satisfactory influence over operations, active work toward increased productivity and a just share of the results of production. Improve employees' conditions and the common welfare in society." (p. 23-24)

From Marx: "The working class's liberation must be its own accomplishment." For this project, the interpretation is: "(1) workers must have control of their own 'interest battles' and neither be controlled from the outside nor be totally dependent on help from others. (2) Workers should further their own interests in such a way that all employees participate in choosing goals and actions to reach these goals. (3) All workers should have an active role in the work of liberation." (p. 23)

"Workplace democracy" ('bedriftsdemokrati') should be understood as a state in which employees individually and in cooperation can: (1) have decisive influence over salary and work relations, and over the directions of the workplace's development through organs that treat all employees equally. (2) freely evaluate what is in their own interests on the basis of their skills and the knowledge they believe is essential to understand the work and its environment." (p. 23)

The last point above is important because "language, concepts, models and theories" for an organization, work content, and society, reflect the interests and ideologies of those who have created these languages, concepts, models, and theories. Thus we should put off modelling organizations, work practice, and society until that modelling can be controlled by workers. We necessarily must be more interested in describing the possibilities for action, than in some ideal state of the workplace.

"Harmony" models can't be used because of differences in interests between employees and employers, though the models are predominant in financial, planning, and control systems currently in practical use. We build instead on models that can incorporate commonalities and conflicts. This is necessary because the unions' goal is to change power relations in the workplace and in organizational structures.

Rather than "Skill is power", our maxim might be "Power brings skill" for those who can afford to use the skill generating organs of our society. And note that skill is only one of many necessary requirements for gaining power. More important for workers are organization and solidarity.

7. Further developments

This section sums up the article and apologizes for the lack of detailed examples (there wasn't enough space).

We now have the first two "data agreements" between local unions and employers. We're closing in on a central framework for such agreements between LO (an umbrella organization of trade unions) and Arbejdsgiverforeningen (umbrella organization of employers).

The project hasn't all been sweetness and light. Foremost among the problems were resources: there's been a lack of economic and organizational support for the participating union representatives; also a need for more people from the outside playing "support roles" especially in the early phases; and finally, coordination resources that provide overviews and give inspiration, information and central support.


These consist mainly of the project reports.

This page is produced by CPSR members Randy Trigg and Andrew Clement [others?]. Comments, suggestions and pointers to non-commercial resources are welcome.

Last updated on March 5 1999

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