Dialogues, El Akremi
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Starting from the impact to think differently about flexibility

Assâad El Akremi is an active researcher in organisational development in the Occitania region of France and is the co-author of the book “La société flexible” published 20 years ago. One of its chapters explains that flexibility is used for the purpose of control that a company can exercise on its employees. Is this still the case today? And how is the issue being addressed now and how will it be addressed in the future?

You wrote a book on the subject of flexibility more than 20 years ago. If you were to rewrite it, what would you do differently?

If I were to rewrite it with co-authors – because I was not the only author of this book – I would focus more on a question of the impact of flexibility on our lives. And how to ensure that this flexibility has a rather positive impact on the individual, on the group – the collective, on the company and on society in general.

I will give you an example: we have done a lot of work in management, on how to make a company flexible, agile, on HR practices. But we have forgotten that when you work on a practice, you always have an impact that is not intentional. When we work on flexibility in companies, we work a lot on how to streamline the processes by creating, for example, what is called lead management, because we believe that this will make the structure more flexible. In reality, when I look at how this actually impacts the companies I go to, you realise that at the end of the day, this logic has become a process race, which becomes an additional burden that creates a lot of difficulties for teams and for individuals. Sometimes we create unintended consequences that have an unintended impact of what we intended. And flexibilisation is a very clear example of unintended consequences.

There is another point, in 20 years people’s expectations have completely changed. I have spent time with employees, and what they are demanding is much more “I want to participate, I want to have autonomy, I want to decide, I want to know, I want to be respected, etc.”. And all of this implies that today we need to bring the question back to what are people’s expectations. This does not mean that we have to satisfy everyone’s wishes, but it is very important that we always think about the impact, not just the practice.

While we should think at the individual level and, above all, we need to think at the systemic level, at the global level.

Where are you today and where has this book brought you?

I realise that even though this book was written 20 years ago, it is increasingly topical. Because there is high demand for autonomy, freedom but also flexibility. And this demand is also a demand for a change in the economic model. This means that today I work a lot on the social, societal and environmental responsibility of companies. And the notion of a change of economic model to integrate social, societal and environmental performance also involves the flexibility models that we must put in place so that our performance, individually and collectively, is not only economic, but also social, societal and environmental.

When I put practices in place on flexible working hours or teleworking, I also have an effect on the environment: because there is a gain in terms of kilometres when people work at home. When I put practices in place that give the individual the possibility of adapting his or her working hours and presence to the rhythm of his or her life and also personal life, I also create social performance because individuals are better off on a personal, family and private level.

That is to say, the mistake we made was to think essentially in economic terms, and within the company’s very precise limits in terms of flexibility. While we should think at the individual level and, above all, we need to think at the systemic level, at the global level.

It is also necessary to think in terms of “multi-levels”, to think at the level of the individual, the collective, the company and the social level, or even the global level. How can we create an economic model with social, societal and environmental performance, not only in the West, but everywhere.

In a few years, there will be more and more waves of people who will be in very difficult situations elsewhere, who will come to Europe and always with these tensions that will be created. When we look at what is happening in Europe, we must not bury our heads in the sand about this. There will be a very significant migration problem. And this migration problem is because we have always thought not at the systemic level, but only at the level of certain perimeters, which are reduced to certain interests.

Why is flexibility a theme of the future?

I will start with the question of expectations. Social expectations are expectations that come back to questions of freedom and autonomy. And so if we take the case of an employee, today he or she will increasingly want to have autonomy in relation to his or her working hours, which is seen in recruitment. There is a demand for autonomy in relation to the workplace. There is also a demand on the working method, how I prioritise. There is even a demand on how I am going to be evaluated, and I want to be evaluated. So there is already high demand from individuals, at company level.

If we look at the level of society, you realise in France but also in Switzerland that there is high demand for citizen participation in decision-making: referendums. And these demands for autonomy and participation point to the need for flexibility in ways of functioning. And when we say flexibility, we mean adaptation. And when we say adaptation, we mean flexibilisation. And when we say flexibilisation, we now mean agility.

We forget that flexibility is this individual, organisational and social capacity to adapt to change.

It is therefore necessary to adapt to changing demands and differences. Because these preferences change. All our economic models and all our management models have obscured this idea of the instability of people’s preferences and expectations. It has always been thought that a rational individual is someone who makes a choice and then sticks to that decision. In reality, it has been known for almost 50 years that individuals have varying, unstable preferences. And, therefore, it should be accepted that, in the future, this should be integrated. And if we are not flexible at the level of the company and the individual, we will increasingly be confronted with the frustration of individuals.

The second point that shows that flexibility is a subject for the future is the idea of transformation. We forget that flexibility is this individual, organisational and social capacity to adapt to change. Today we live in a so-called “VUCA” world, a world in which everything is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. On this basis, it is essential to have this capacity for continuous adaptation. And as we have moved from a view of change as the transition from state 1 to state 2, to a view in which transformation is a continuous process to achieve something that is never achieved, an ideal of functioning that is constantly changing. Having this resource or capacity for agility is essential. And from the moment that individuals do not have it, individuals will be in a kind of frustration and fatigue, because they will have the impression that it will never stop.

Regarding the vision of learning in the future, how will skills be managed in the future?

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the evolution of professions. You know that in 30 years there will be many professions that we don’t know about today. This evolution is also linked to digital technology: it is being instilled everywhere in relation to artificial intelligence, blockchains, algorithms, etc. And there is sometimes a naivety that digital technology is going to help the development of the professions at the same time, that it is going to make a profession easier or more difficult. In reality, digital technology is becoming part of professions, not helping their development. Digital technology is penetrating and radically changing professions. For example, the profession of dermatologist or radiologist is changing radically. From the moment we integrate this idea, you can see to what extent professions are being transformed. Not only that they are not known today and will appear. This is the first groundswell.

The second groundswell is that, in the evolution of our society, we are in the process of arriving at an economic model that is running out of steam. As we can see, it is complicated socially, economically and politically. It is complicated with wars; we see that they are coming. It shows that we are in a phase where we need to transform our societies in a radical way. We are looking for new ways to work! We should not be pessimistic, but there are some interesting avenues. And these avenues show that we have to change. The idea of Gro Brundtland and sustainable development in 1987 is an interesting one. When you look at her report, which is the basis of sustainable development, she says it herself: our economic system needs to change to integrate the impact on the environment, the impact on society. At the same time, we need to reflect on all this. There is a change in terms of performance: it is not just productivity. It is also about social, societal and environmental performance.

And this refers to the idea of impact. To come back to employees, we can see that they are looking for meaning. Add to this demographic, generational changes, etc.

I also think that in the future our soft skills will become hard skills.

So what about the skills of individuals?

All this shows that skills need to change.

Since recently, with the COVID crisis, we have said that our training on soft skills is very important, but we must also return to hard skills. Given the transformation of professions, it is essential to integrate job skills, technical skills, i.e. specific skills.

I also think that in the future our soft skills will become hard skills.

In fact there is a strong trend for transferable skills (soft skills) to become professional skills.

Then we make forecasts, we look at the skills needed: digital skills will be central so that everyone has a basis. Interpersonal and cognitive skills, and then leadership and self-leadership skills. And so we have a totally different view, with the evolution of professions in mind, of what we put behind the term skill. There are big changes in how we will train people.

What about skills in a VUCA world?

If individuals are to be at ease and well in a VUCA world, they should also be taught how to be flexible as this is a skill to be acquired, always with a greater or lesser predisposition in each individual.

There is a feeling that being flexible is seen as a soft skill. But, in reality, it is increasingly seen as something that is essential in the core of businesses, and indeed it is learned through principles.

The only danger is that individuals who are to be taught agility through learning will take it in a direction that can be extremely rigid: it is a question of the relationship to the principle or rule. When our conception of agility becomes only oriented towards the application of the rule, it becomes a problem.

Our training courses should be more oriented towards cultures: learning organisation cultures. The origin of the learning organisation comes from Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline”. He wrote this book to say that, given the need to transform our organisations and the fact that we will increasingly have a kind of obsolescence of knowledge, our organisations should be learning. But a learning organisation contains 5 steps:

the first is personal experience (my motivation, how I see the project, and how I develop my skills to achieve it).

The second is the mental model (my beliefs, my paradigms, elements of a culture).

These are two pillars at the individual level.

Then there are two pillars which are collective:

the first is the shared view: collectively.

And the second is team learning.

And the fifth discipline is the systemic view.

When you look at all this, for individuals to be able to develop this learning organisation, they would first need to have this capacity to understand their individual way of functioning, their projects. But also the shared project and in collaboration with others. And also to understand in a global and systemic way.

Before developing agile companies that change all the time because knowledge changes – we learn and unlearn – we should develop a learning culture in companies, and in our society. And we don’t have that learning culture at the moment.

Can you tell us more about this in terms of training and continuing education for example?

Most of your members are responsible for training, and all this shows the huge challenges they will face. This means that there is a lot of work to be done on how to set up our training programmes, to integrate these dimensions. This will show the importance of what we call multimodality. Many of the people responsible for training I see in companies focus on e-learning. And this is a problem, because e-learning is only one modality.

Training has reached its golden age in my opinion: in the years to come, the person responsible for training will be more of a key person in a company.

A learning organisation is necessarily multimodal: in other words, we do not learn only at a distance. We learn experientially: when I work, I learn. Work is training and training is work. I also learn in a team, I learn by solving problems with others. I even learn outside through exchanges. So it is multimodality that will be essential. It’s not just blended: we need to go beyond that.

To give you an idea, there is a study that says, today, an employee learns 30 minutes a day, in different ways. In 15 years, an employee will spend 2 hours a day learning.

In the future, the employee will not spend 3 hours online to learn. This is the challenge: how to think of each action as a training action. This means knowing what people do, because what people do is also training.

Second element: given the evolution of expectations and needs, individuals will increasingly have personalised demand. This is where digital technology is a strength. For example, we are now moving a lot from the LMS to the LXP: in other words, we are much more interested in the learning experience or the learner’s experience. And based on this, we will profile the individual and we will adapt the content, and send him or her content that corresponds to his or her profile and learning style. So there will be an increasing need to use what is called machine learning and AI to find out how people learn. In other words, in the future, people will learn in a room or in a company where there will be almost as many training programmes as there are people.

Training has reached its golden age in my opinion: in the years to come, the person responsible for training will be more of a key person in a company.

Do you see any counter-trends? That is, areas where flexibility is decreasing today or will decrease in the future?

The counter-trends are essentially in our position regarding what flexibility is. Sometimes flexibility is reasoned with a mental model that is still old. The most telling example might be all that Max Weber has done on bureaucracy and the ideal bureaucratic type. He was an author of modernity. His first question was what kind of authority would be legitimate in a modern Europe, i.e. how to think about the legitimacy of authority. On this basis, he constructed the ideal bureaucratic type in which what matters most in an organisation is the formal and impersonal rule that applies to everyone in the same way. But Max Weber says there is a great danger: from the moment that individuals will give priority to the rule to the detriment of utility and the relevance of utility, we will fall into the iron cage. And the iron cage is all the rigidity of bureaucracy. Everything negative that is said today about bureaucracy and its rigidity was thought up by the author of bureaucracy himself. There is a great danger from the moment we think that the rule is our purpose. But the rule is always at the service of a meaning, a purpose, a positive impact.

The danger of flexibility is the same. That is to say, when we think that flexibility becomes an end in itself, it becomes counterproductive, even very dangerous. The danger is the relationship to the technique, to the means. That is to say flexibility is a means, not an end. Being flexible is not an end in itself, but a means to achieving something different and contributing to a collective well-being.

* Edited by De Nanteuil-Miribel M., El Akremi A., La société flexible: Travail, emploi, organisation en débat. 2005. Publisher: Erès.

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