THE COMPANY FREEDOM MOVEMENT

Maurice Thévenet, Professor of Management at ESSEC Business School and Delegate General of the French Foundation for Management Education (FNGE), speaks up for the freeing of the company as we know it.

This article first appeared in French on www.rhinfo.com

Many business leaders or management specialists still allow themselves to offer advice to the state or wider society as if the economic institutions were in advance – and as if companies were the avant garde of the new society. To see companies battling with taking on board social networks, it is not unhelpful to ask ourselves if the institution isn’t lagging behind rather than in advance of its time. The poor image of companies and their leaders in opinion surveys, the stigmatisation of everything that passes for bad – whether the generating of psychosocial risks, the deterioration of the environment or the exhausting of natural resources – are indeed classic phenomenon describing a company which is running behind the changes of its times, or times that have shunted it into a museum. Don’t the cartoonists still picture the company boss in a top hat before a smoking factory chimney and workers in overalls?

Every institution has known a period of deep questioning: the army, the family, the Church or school. The company is not the last to know this movement that is difficult to characterise, but which is engraved in the long path to any freedom. Post-modern man congratulates himself on everything he has freed himself from to finally found a happier society than that which came before: he has freed himself from God with Nietzsche, unchained himself from the forces of the economy and capital with Marx, freed himself from the weight of his unconscious with Freud, unshackled himself from the constraints of household chores with Moulinex. Wouldn’t it be at last time for Man to liberate himself from work – the risks and maledictions of which we know only too well. The harm that work causes is also that of the enterprise: because the critics of all these evils point to the company – in the singular – and its management as those mainly responsible. Has the time finally come to free the company?

The liberation has begun

Freeing oneself from the company means ceasing – as managerial approaches implicitly contend – to imagine a company separated from the rest of the world by legal, spatial and cultural frontiers. Several breaches have already appeared in the ramparts of the institution. Let’s take two examples to illustrate this. The frontiers of the organisation have been brought into question by partnerships or alliances where the company has other types of relation than simple competition with its partners. In this form of institutional cooperation, companies preserve their personality and their culture but they combine their strategies, mix their teams, and join forces in certain operations while maintaining their freedom. We all know the particularity of Airbus but also all the forms, more or less successful, of joint ventures which flourish throughout the world to enable access to certain markets such as China.

The changes promised by the visionaries (Rifkin, 2013)1 in the third industrial revolution are indeed another illustration. Thanks to the internet, we can imagine cooperation between independent players to produce goods within the framework of the network and no longer the traditional structures: the customers – or the crowd – are called upon to carry out market or pricing surveys, product tests and advertising. The development in the number of self-employed in our developed economies (not simply local sole traders) is a good example.

In terms of human resource management, the concept of a nomad career has become widespread by not only approaching this as a path limited to the frontiers of the organisation, but open to the different institutions within the rewarding framework of the personal and unique project. Today, we can see the development of shared human resource management practices over a geographical area by encouraging the movement of people from one company to another as if the HRM Department had exempted itself from organisational frontiers. On a same project or same task, people work together without having the same employer but with a sole operational management.

Fundamentally, we should not only see in these illustrations new practices brought about by change in business and the economy. It is also an issue of anthropological evolution and the permanent changes taking place in our social and societal conceptions. As such, the slow movement of individualism towards singularism2 should be noted. With the first, it’s a question of positioning the individual next to the institution by respecting his independence and identity, whereas in the singularistic society it is no longer an issue of knowing how the person can contribute to the institution but how it has a duty, vis-à-vis the person, to construct his singularity.

There are other signs of this reversal of perspective with the new conception of the team that clocks in at work. The notion of teams was a cornerstone of managerial approaches because they crystallised the importance of the group – indeed in the same image as the institution. Moreover, the team was a value – a sort of end result of social life in common cooperation which guaranteed the effectiveness of work beyond the market. Thomson’s work3 showed how teams, indeed useful for encouraging the execution of a task and the quality of life at work, are not the best way to develop creativity – something that breaks with all the common preconceptions on the fact that people are always more intelligent when they are several!

Freedom must continue

The movement must continue. The following are at least three ways which show how a too ‘entrepro-centric’ vision may still change. The intercultural managerial approach, rendered popular by the international development of organisations and globalisation, was generally quite a simple approach. It was all a question of taking into account the diversity of cultures and helping professionals cope with cultures (national and organisational), mostly by taking into account diversity and adjusting themselves to integrate and transcend this diversity.

Observing large international companies today – or a simple trip to the great capitals of the world economy such as London or Singapore – shows the emergence of a new category of manager who no longer seems to belong to a particular culture but rather to a sort of a-national caste. The nationality on their passport is now far from the language they use at work, far from the national context of their education and training, far from the locality of their employer’s headquarters, and far from how their kids are educated – and even less with their place of residence. An article4 by Hong and Doz on L’Oréal is witness to this phenomenon by pointing less to a sociological change than a change in the management practices in the firm. This leading cosmetics brand works along the lines of world growth and consequently manages its talent accordingly5. To ensure its development, it recruits and develops a pool of talent belonging to various cultures. The abundance of cultural origins aims to develop employees’ sensitivity to the cultural differences of local markets, rendering them attentive to the subtleties of different languages and facilitating the building and performance of multicultural teams and the relation these have with managers or subsidiaries that are still too mono-cultural.

Molinsky6 goes even further in this direction by suggesting to managers, in order to be effective in multicultural contexts, to ‘take the risk of being untrue to oneself and incompetent’ to know how to behave in a way which is contrary to their values and beliefs – as if the person could and should go beyond the frontiers of his cultural identity (national and organisational) to succeed. In this same article, Davenport and Lyer suggest that managers no longer manage their careers and companies using traditional ways of organisational change, the proper functioning of systems and processes and the employer brand. Problem solving as diverse as staffing and cost reduction may especially benefit from the proper use of social networks which enable issues to be shared beyond the company’s frontiers by effectively using them to target the right communities and networks which provide solutions to the problems encountered: it is thus the whole traditional policy in the company which is brought into question.

Again, in this same article, Davidson amuses himself demolishing our traditional working methods by questioning the benefits of concentration. Those who facilitate meetings, like managers, are often infuriated by the dispersion of their co-workers who multitask during meetings: fiddling with their smartphones, opening multiple windows on computers and letting their attention drift at the will of their favourite sites and networks and their enticements. It would indeed be for the author a means of gaining in creativity, revitalisation and skills development. Here too, it is by freeing oneself of received ideas about the factors of personal efficiency at work that we help things along. It is no longer liberation but deconstruction!

Enterprise and the end

It is often during a period of crisis that champions, companies and new methods emerge and we must make the effort to continuously question the implicit hypotheses of our ways of management as being those of work in the context of the traditional company. History also tells us that organisations have always been very adept at integrating and leading changes that we thought would question organisational antiquities: many innovative enterprises have joined the traditional models of their forefathers at the risk of disappearing.

Such an approach does not, however, prevent us from returning to a principle of precaution. History also shows us that companies with a strong culture and traditional methods have survived and developed over time if they make the continuous effort to strengthen the logic between the traits of their culture and the problems they encounter. They understood that in the storm, reference to solid foundations can constitute a strength if they do not feebly find refuge in them. For it is not the company that we should liberate but rather the belief that the company constitutes the end of History.

Sources:

Rifkin, J. The third industrial revolution. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Martuccelli, D. La société singulariste. Armand Colin, 2010.
Thompson, L. Creative Conspiracy : The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration. Harvard Business Press, 2013.
Hae Jung Hong, Doz, Y. Les talents spéciaux des cadres multiculturels. Harvard Business Review, avril-mai 2013 (édition française)
Dejoux, C, Thévenet, M. Talent Management. Dunod, 2011.
Molinsky, A 3 compétences désormais indispensables aux managers. HBR, op.cit.

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