By Trevor Young-Hyman, August 14, 2011
While worker ownership, in its many forms, informs the practices of businesses and receives increasing attention from policy makers, academic attention on the topic remains somewhat underdeveloped and dispersed across a range of disciplines. This discrepancy is all the more striking because the practitioners of worker ownership can benefit from both research that conceptualizes the various potential forms of worker ownership and research that tests the effects of worker ownership. By bringing together a diverse set of academics and practitioners to discuss the challenges and opportunities of worker ownership, the Beyster Fellowship Symposium provides a unique and valuable environment for debate and exchange.
The 2011 Beyster Fellowship Symposium was held between June 26th and 29th at the La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, California. Since 2009, the Foundation for Enterprise Development has organized an annual meeting to bring together scholars and practitioners of worker ownership for idea exchange, networking, and presentation of new research. During the mornings, researchers presented continuing and recently completed research by academic attendees. In the first afternoon, attendees met in small groups organized around common interests including democratic governance, stock options, ESOPs, motivation and ethics, and public policy. During the second afternoon session, attendees participated in a simulation exercise about strategic decision-making and equity compensation for workers in the software industry. Mid-day and evening meals served as opportunities to establish contacts, discuss research, and learn about novel approaches to employee ownership.
Attendees are invited by the Foundation for Enterprise Development and some participants receive invitations as elements of fellowships or grants for research on employee ownership. At the 2011 event, scholars hailed from universities across the US and Canada, and from a range of academic disciplines. Scholars ranged in age and experience, and older scholars expressed a clear desire to encourage research on employee ownership and foster a new generation of researchers. Among the practitioners in attendance were representatives from national organizations like the Employee Ownership Foundation and the Global Equity Organization, and principals from public and private consultancies like the Ohio Employee Ownership Center and The Menke Group.
Research presented at the symposium illustrated the diversity of topics that contemporary scholars of worker ownership are exploring. Using large datasets that chart the economic performance and business practices of firms with elements of worker ownership, from stock options to worker cooperatives, scholars are testing the various elements that may impact firm performance. A paper by Francesco Bova of the University of Toronto found a relationship between employee ownership and financial disclosure and transparency, which may address the commonly held concerns about access to capital for worker-owned businesses. Adam Cobb, from Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, presented ongoing research suggesting that both ESOPs and profit-sharing retirement plans may both have positive effects on firm performance. Other scholars presented research using case studies and ethnographic methods to depict and conceptualize the experiences of various workers in employee-owned businesses. Joan Meyers of Rutgers University presented research on the differing effects of workplace organizational structures on workers of different races, genders, and class backgrounds in worker and non-worker owned businesses. Lily Song from M.I.T. presented a comparative ethnography of the experiences of immigrant groups participating in urban economic development programs, offering preliminary findings that cooperative ownership may enhance access for disadvantaged groups. Other unique research included efforts to understand the political context for the emergence of worker ownership through historical research and a project using GIS mapping software to identify and categorize clusters and industry concentrations of worker ownership in the United States.
Ultimately, the diversity of research presented at the 2011 Beyster Fellowship Symposium illustrated both the range of exciting topics available to scholars of worker ownership, but also the varied meanings and interests that scholars attach to the concept of worker ownership.
More information on the Beyster Fellowship Symposium can be found here:http://fed.org/advancing-research-beyster-symposium