Is the digital world that is progressively being rolled out in front of our eyes instilling in us new ways of thinking about work? With new paradigms to deal with new issues, but a single basic challenge: to ensure that work becomes a source of freedom for all?

Future of work: what to expect?

Now more than ever, the technological advances being made are prompting us to take a fresh look at the way we structure our organisations and the way we think about work. We need to ensure that our ways of working are able to bring about a new cohesion, give us a new sense of communality. We need to reorient knowledge and knowhow, we need greater inclusiveness and better training, so as to help people’s talents emerge and maintain dynamism in the spheres of creativity and innovation. 

At the ninth annual Lab Postal gathering, the issue of work was central to the discussions. The two-day event offered some ‘Back to the Future’ analysis, trying to discern the new face of the French industry ecosystem towards 2020. One session entitled: ‘Faire autrement: vers de nouveaux schémas de pensée’, (‘Doing things differently, towards new ways of thinking’) highlighted some new paradigms and new approaches to work organisation. There were four guest speakers: Claude Terosier, founder of the Magic Makers startup; innovation management consultant Yvane Piolet; Belgian-born author Walter Baets, who is Emeritus Professor at French Tech campus ‘The Camp’; and Sylvie Joseph, Head of Internal Transformation at La Poste. These interventions provided a good opportunity to draw up a comprehensive picture of the forthcoming changes in the way we invent and make or do things, not least how we invest and create value within a company structure, and perhaps also to encapsulate and redefine what we mean by work and how we should be working, going forward, in order to match up individual skills and appetites with the need for performance.

Lab postal

Round-table session: ‘Doing things differently: new ways of thinking’ at the Lab Postal 2017 event

Towards a society of versatile Makers

We have now entered a new era of making and doing which is bringing about a shift in our understanding of what work is and what companies are. Technologies and techniques have changed, entailing major upheavals in the knowledge and skills required. It is no longer a matter of learning before doing, but you cannot simply go and ahead and do without knowing either. More and more companies are espousing the learning by doing method, on which L’Atelier reported recently. “Learning with your hands‟, an expression repeated many times during the session, does not diminish the value of work, nor is it a licence to act without thinking. Instead it basically means thinking while doing.

Whereas in the past work was broken down into two ordered parts – learning then doing – ‘learning with your hands’ clearly combines the two stages into one, which in itself is likely to achieve gains in productivity and efficiency. But for whom? For the company, of course, but also for its employees and apprentices who are not just trying to execute one-off tasks but learn an entire trade or business.

Claude Terosier, founder and President of Magic Makers, talked about the essential role of experimentation. Her startup, whose motto is ‘Learn to code so as to learn to create’ runs computer programming workshops for children. The aim is that they will learn everything by having fun, which she believes is the best way to “take charge of your own learning”. So she has been striving to create a new educational framework that allows children to work together and so learn with and from each other, to experiment, to persist, to take a chance, sometimes to despair – in short: to work. This implies a role reversal: formerly passive recipients become active agents.

This philosophy is very much in line with the Maker culture, a new training paradigm which promotes group learning through collaboration, based on a common shared heritage. This way of organising education also follows the example of online community groups, where everyone makes their contribution to the whole and people inspire one another. It also makes use of open source software. This approach, still too often the preserve of young startups and freelance specialists, could well come to penetrate the corporate world, disrupting HR procedures, training, and internal organisation processes.

Developing a range of talents by changing the way we learn

Established companies, which are going to have to adapt their organisations to the changes taking place in society and to take on board as best they can the new realities and expectations in the jobs market, might do well to follow this approach. Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2017 says that Millennials (aka Generation Y-ers, i.e. those now around 18 to 35 years old) are looking for greater flexibility at work, which they believe is the key to well-being, greater productivity and commitment to their job. Having grown up in a difficult economic environment, these people tend to be torn between freedom and stability. “In spite of the perceived across-the-board advantages of working as freelancers or independent consultants, nearly two thirds of all Millennials said they would prefer to be in full-time employment. Millennials’ anxiety about world events and increasing automation may be partially responsible for them wanting to remain in their jobs, but the allure of flexible working options might be just as influential‟, says the Deloitte report. They would also prefer to work at a company that is recognised for taking on the best candidates. On the job market, as in the rest of society, there exist opposing currents that are hard to reconcile: anxiety in a changing world where everything is cross-fertilising at breakneck speed; and the urge towards greater freedom and creativity made possible by this unique turning point in history.

This is why now is the moment for companies to embrace these movements and adjust to this new world. This begins with the training of those who will be leading the innovation drive in the future. As well as being an author and Director of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Walter Baets is also Head of Training and Transformation at new-generation smart city-focused campus The Camp, and this was his subject at the Lab Postal 2017 session. Set up near Aix-en-Provence in southern France by French digital marketing executive Frédéric Chevalier, ‘The Camp’ is a unique university campus offering co-creation workshops in which participants focus on digital change and the city of the future. The 12,000m2 campus is a hybrid establishment, a cross between a university and an incubator, where young people are trained in innovative skillsets by developing their own prototypes and where learning by doing is the watchword. Central to the teaching methodology is the notion of developing collective intelligence through the sharing of ideas and viewpoints which sometimes differ or even clash. Explained Walter Baets: “You learn with people you disagree with and alongside those who have the same basic notions as you but think differently‟. In addition, the campus organisers have set out to create an inter-generational, multi-disciplinary ecosystem where talent is able to develop freely. As regards innovation, the approach is more about collaboration and creation than competition. This is why The Camp and Magic Makers prefer to be judged on what they do rather than by traditional ranking models. Every idea may potentially lead to an innovation, so it is more useful to boost motivation so as to get the best out of people’s endeavours.

Holacracy set to replace a hierarchical, top-down structure?

So how can a company adapt its organisation to these new ways of doing things? A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the heyday of the management model popularised by Frederick Taylor. An ocean of change and restructuring, waves of decentralisation, even offshoring, and torrents of transformations have successively changed the way companies are organised. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve the required flexibility, especially for large firms.

Sylvie Joseph, head of internal transformation at the La Poste Group, is working at the very heart of this issue. La Poste Group is a huge corporation employing over 250,000 people. For such a large concern, digital transition poses some fundamental questions and means that the way the company is organised will have to be completely reworked. Nonetheless, Sylvie Joseph is convinced that it is vital to adapt because “when you’re immobile, you’re already dead‟. In order to transform itself, La Poste is starting to reinvent its corporate culture through small-scale experimentation involving interaction between a number of business areas which get together on an autonomous basis.

This is in fact one of the main trends in the overall transition to digital that is currently taking place at a number of companies. The hierarchical, top-down structure of large companies is simply not suited to the way the 21st century works, not least because it does not meet the challenges of innovation. Closed and rigid, the pyramid structure really leaves very little room for the emergence of diverse and original ideas stemming from discussion and collaboration. To a large extent, a company mirrors society and follows its trends. In French, they actually use the very same word for a business corporation and society at large. However, the traditional company’s old ‘monarchical’ or ‘oligarchical’ pyramid structure is now undergoing a revolution, becoming less a power-sharing organisation and more a venue for collaboration. The new organisational model allocates responsibilities in accordance with a common objective and allows everyone to learn from everyone else with responsibilities redistributed to suit. Hierarchy is dead, long live Holacracy!

Contrary to what one might think though, a Holacracy is not simply the emancipated company which Isaac Getz – co-author of Freedom, Inc – describes as “an organisational form in which employees are totally free and responsible for the actions they judge to be correct – they are not their bosses – to undertake”. Holacracy, a word invented in 2007 by Brian Robertson and Tom Thomison, denotes instead an organisational model which has broken with the pyramidal system and has set out to reshape company governance around collective intelligence. From the pyramid, we move to the circle, a model which encompasses rather than piles up. Here is a new inclusive system which enables people to work together so as to generate innovative and creative collective intelligence. The hierarchy does not entirely disappear but is reformed. This new internal organisation model – based on dialogue, interaction, meeting up and cooperation – makes for dynamic action leadership, boosts transparency and takes an inclusive attitude to the workforce, who will be far more motivated and inspired.

Perhaps the last word however in corporate model-building would be the mechanical clock, in which each gearwheel has to mesh perfectly with the next one in order to get the entire machinery to turn. Interdependence in a free-spinning framework where each person’s input enables everyone to succeed. Could this be the essence of a company – a coming-together of people, talents, knowledge, differences and personalities in a crazy game of ‘Who Am I?’, who suddenly, effortlessly manage to innovate and shine?

By Théo Roux