Managing the networked labour process

The case of German ground handling operations

Dominique Ziehe, University of Innsbruck
Markus Helfen, University of Innsbruck

In today’s service economy, the interorganizational collaboration in service delivery networks (SDN), i.e. networks of firms involved in the provision of a service (Tax et al., 2013), has become a widespread phenomenon. Over the past decades, the governance of SDN and similar inter-firm networks on the inter-organizational level has garnered considerable theoretical and empirical attention in various streams of the management literature (for an exemplary overview see Provan et al., 2007). In contrast, the question of how the multi-employer work arrangements constituted within these SDN are managed remains a gap in the employment relations and HRM literature (but see Rubery et al., 2002; Swart & Kinnie, 2014). And although there is an informative stream on front-line service work (e.g. Bélanger & Edwards, 2013), it rarely touches upon the profound consequences of an interorganizationally fragmented labour process, i.e. situations in which single work tasks of a single service delivery process are assigned to independent organizations and their employees.

Against this background, we aim for a better understanding of how service work is managed in SDN, by distinguishing the business relationships between firms from the work relations between service workers in an inter-organizationally distributed labour process. For doing so, we focus on how the networking between firms is translated through relational coordination (Gittell et al., 2010). The concept of relational coordination argues that dependencies between tasks and people across organizational boundaries are managed more effectively if the network of relationships is reflected upon and communication adapted accordingly (Gittell, 2000).

For our purpose, however, we need to modify the concept of relational coordination by using a practice lens on the service labour process (Nicolini, 2012). Thereby, we emphasize the inner connection between the structuring of the SDN and the practices actually deployed to manage the networked labour process.

Our empirical case for studying the management of networked service work are ground handling operations at three German airports. Ground handling is a formidable case to study networked service work, because in the aircraft turnaround process SDN of various service providers (loading, fuelling, catering, etc.) are involved and the cooperation of the different service workers in handling an aircraft can be observed in one location. Ground handling itself, however, is characterized by task dependencies, uncertainty and time constraints posing considerable challenges for coordinating the labour process interorganizationally.

Here, we zoom-in (Nicolini, 2012) into the networked work process by focusing on the ramp agent’s work role. Having conducted 39 interviews with ramp agents, managers as well as worker representatives, our key informants are the ramp agents who are assigned operational responsibility for coordinating and controlling the process through dispatching all relevant information and resources and connecting the various work tasks of the different service providers to ensure a proper service sequence. At the same time, the interorganizational structuring of the work process implies limits to ramp agents’ hierarchical decision-making. Hence, studying the ground handling process through the view of the ramp agents provides insights into whether and how relational coordination is deployed to manage the networked process and to what extent interorganizational structures and other context conditions might intervene in such a deployment.

Our comparative analysis reveals that ramp agents use relational coordination in contradictory ways as they are constrained by organizational jurisdictions and performance pressures. Especially, the interorganizational context of the work process and the overall work load set limits for ramp agents to use relational coordination across organizational boundaries according to the Gittell model. Rather than managing by supporting shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect as well as adequate communications (frequent, timely, accurate and problem-solving), ramp agents used different practices to ensure coordination. We identified five practices ramp agents developed to accomplish aircraft handling despite disadvantageous working conditions: reflecting the own work role in a network context, modifying routines and anticipating emergencies, problem solving through co-working, filtering and buffering information and building, maintaining and terminating personal work relationships.

Although our findings are restricted to one service delivery process in one peculiar SDN setting, we expect these practices to be rather widespread across service operations involving a multitude of organizations which are coordinated through similar boundary spanning roles on the operational level. Inasmuch as these and similar practices can also be identified in other networked work processes, our findings allow to qualify the antecedents of relational coordination and enlarge the variety of management practices used to steer networked service delivery. As for the antecedents, the practices of relational coordination may be used in settings described as high-performance work systems but are modified and replaced in other settings which are marked by strict performance targets and cost pressures. In these cases, and related to the second aspect, other practices may support service workers better in coordinating their work activities. Further research is needed to clarify how improvements in interorganizational collaboration on the level of the work process might also affect other strategically important outcomes such as quality, speed, customer satisfaction, and worker well-being.


  • Bélanger, J. & Edwards, P. (2013). The nature of front-line service work: distinctive features and continuity in the employment relationship. Work, Employment & Society, 27(3): 433-450.
  • Gittell, J. H. (2000) Organizing work to support relational co-ordination. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 11(3): 517-539.
  • Gittell, J. H., Seidner, R. & Wimbush, J. (2010). A relational model of how high-performance work systems work. Organization Science, 21(2): 490-506.
  • Nicolini, D. (2012). Practice Theory, Work & Organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Provan KG, Fish A and Sydow J (2007) Interorganizational networks at the network level: A review of the empirical literature on whole networks. Journal of Management 33(3): 479-516.
  • Rubery, J., Earnshaw, J., Marchington, M., Cooke, F.L. & Vincent, L. (2002). Changing organizational forms and the employment relationship. Journal of Management Studies, 39(5): 645-672.
  • Swart, Juani & Kinnie, Nicholas (2014) Reconsidering Boundaries: Human Resource Management in a networked world. Human Resource Management 53(2): 291-310.
  • Tax, S.S., McCoutcheon, D. and Wilkinson, I.F. (2013). The service delivery network (SDN): A customer-centric perspective of the customer journey. Journal of Service Research, 16: 454-470.