Small, fast-growing firms are often considered incubators of innovation—but are they incubators of innovation in employment relations? That’s one of the questions driving a major Australian Research Council Discovery project underway across Australia. The project, headed by three WOW members, Professor David Peetz, Professor Adrian Wilkinson, and Senior Research Fellow Dr Keith Townsend, has used a mixed method approach to examine this question—given scant attention in previous peer-reviewed research. Early findings suggest that while many small firms are mimicking large companies in their HR practices, some, with their hands tied by lack of resources, and lacking knowledge of the ‘done thing’, are turning creating idiosyncratic solutions into people problems.
The study has already gathered data from 1 426 Australian firms of varying ages and growth rates, as well as conducting intensive case study examinations of what are termed ‘gazelles’ in the literature—the small subset of very fast growing firms believed to be responsible for the majority of net employment growth both in Australian and overseas. The study, entitled “Emerging Workplaces and Employment Relations Innovation”, has also tapped into the ongoing longitudinal Australia at Work study run by the University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre, to gain a snapshot of the employee in young, relatively fast growing firms.
The Emerging Workplaces project has already given rise to publications in the Australian Economic Review and the British Journal of Management, with early findings including the suggestion that managers of fast-growing firms run a danger of experiencing what the research team call ‘managerial autism’—that is, failing to respond flexibly to the ‘emergency’ of growth. The project team of David, Adrian, Keith, Research Fellow Dr Olav Muurlink and PhD Scholarship awardees Ashlea Kellner and Maggie May, recently welcomed a second Research Fellow, Dr Madeleine Brabant.