For 30 years, leading executives have proclaimed “people are the company's greatest resource.” But is that anything more than an empty motto? Three new and very different books on today's working life say it isn't. Fortunately, people are more than the company - because in that ‘more' lies the possibility for renewal.
By Morten K. Pedersen
Is the conflict between the exploitative company and the exploited employee over, or is it more widespread than ever? Is the company, in reality, wholly uninterested in the employee's creativity because it is too difficult? In all the talk about visions, values and company culture, does the company lose sight of everything the employee can (also) offer?
If people are really the company's most important resource, the company must recognize that the employee is “more” than the company, and that means the company must give the employee opportunities to show that ‘more.' Change and renewal come from the employee who is not just like the company, but who is more than the company.
Back in the mid-1970s, something happened to the way we understand the relationship between employees and the company. Pehr G. Gyllenhammar, the then-president of Volvo, the Swedish carmaker, declared to great media fanfare this motto: “People are the company's most important resource.” Gyllenhammar's motto, and similar declarations in many other companies, launched the revolutionary thought that the employee and the company are in the same boat. By reorganizing production from monotonous and wearying assembly-line labor to challenging teamwork, the company would make it possible for the employee to use his creativity on the job. The company would again have a motivated and self-directed employee.
The theory was a response to the previous 20 years of sometimes bloody battle between a working class strengthened by a robust economy, and a weaker group of employers. It was an attempt to resolve the conflict, inherent in capitalism's approach to production, between the exploitative employer and the exploited employee.
30 years later, Gyllenhammar's motto is still the basis for how we understand the relation between employee and company. But, in 2002, economist Richard Florida - with great influence, it turns out, on business, politics, and public debate - identified the creative class as the employees of the future. Florida's notion of the creative class holds that employee creativity is the company's greatest asset, while the company is the frame within which the employee can exercise his creativity to his and the company's great benefit.
One of the three new books on employment is Swedish journalist Mikael Nyberg's whopper kapitalen.com: the Myth of the postindustrial paradise (2005). Nyberg takes on widely-held idea that working life today is a postindustrial paradise in which employees and companies live in mutually developing, happy symbiosis. In the postindustrial paradise, new technology is said to have overtaken the boring, monotonous work. Instead, knowledge, competencies, and creativity are at the center of the workplace, to the benefit of both company and employee.
Nyberg fundamentally disagrees. He describes, for example, how many manufacturing and service companies impose “trimmed production.” Employees are organized into teams that decide themselves how to carry out an assignment. Monotony is out, and the creative challenge is front-and-center goes the story. But, at the same time, the company reduces its inventory so that everything must be done just-in-time, and the company is constantly undermanned. The team is responsible for finding a solution so the just-in-time extended production line - from supplier, to company, and on to dealers - is never broken. The team's solution must be reported to management, who then decides if it can pull an employee out of the team. If it can and does, the team must come up with a new, creative - in other words, time-saving - solution.
Nyberg believes, therefore, that it is a cliché when managers claim people are the company's most important resource. Nyberg's description of trimmed production clearly illustrates that employees and their company are not in the same boat. This is an important point that many companies, with a fraudulent show of goodwill, try to downplay. But what can an employee actually do about it?
The extreme boom years of the 1960s, which allowed the working class to go on the offensive against capital interests, are unlikely to return soon. A revolution of the whole “system” is also unlikely in a society where wage earners find it hard to find common ground. In Nyberg's long and harsh dismantling of modern working life's mythical bliss, no powerful heroes or heroines appear who can force the exploitative company to make concessions to the exploited employee.
One possible heroine is the French economist Corinne Maier. She has written the little, but venomously satirical book, Bonjour Laziness: Why hard work doesn't pay (2005), which became the most talked-about book in France in 2005.
For 13 years, Maier worked as an economist in EDF, the large, monopolistic, French electricity utility. Like Nyberg, she questions the company's sincerity when it claims that people are its most important resource.
In Bonjour Laziness, she writes:
Work in large corporations ties the individual hand and foot,
a person that, if he was left to himself and his own free judgment, could allow himself to think about things,
doubt, and, yes - who knows? - even challenge the ruling order! But that's not on.
In other words, Maier is deeply, deeply frustrated. She is frustrated by seeing promotions go to colleagues who simply parrot management. She is frustrated by corporate jargon's desperate attempts to sound meaningful by overusing words such as ‘implementation,' ‘optimization' and ‘learning.' She is frustrated by sitting in ‘meetings until we bleed' with nothing being decided. The company does not recognize Maier as an individual - that's frustrating. In Bonjour Laziness, she suggests that those who share her frustration begin to exploit the company through calculated laziness.
There's no room for Maier and what she's capable of. There's only room for that which the company, in its narrow values, empty visions, and limited corporate culture, has already determined there is room for. Maier is more than going-along-to-get-along, more than jargon, more than an endless cycle of meetings. Thus her most important complaint is that the company - despite all sorts of detailed declarations to the contrary - neither can or wants to be a frame in which the employee can practice his individuality.
A Danish survey of the working life of knowledge workers shares Maier's complaint. Instead of recommending laziness, however, it advises companies to keep and nurture a gray zone in the relationship between the company and the employee.
Bøje Larsen, Kristine Munkegård Pedersen and Peter Aagaard are all employed in the Center for Business Development and Management, Copenhagen Business School. Together, they have written the book Begejstring & distance: Om unge videnarbejderes motivation (Enthusiasm & distance: On the motivation of young knowledge workers) (2005). In the book, which is based on a qualitative survey involving 14 interviews with young, academic knowledge workers in the Copenhagen area, the authors attempt to capture what drives the young, academic employee to work as energetically as they do. The authors divide the interviewees into three groups according to how engaged they are in their work, and what they are engaged in:
Despite their great engagement in their companies, the corporate-engaged do not identify fully with the company they work for (it goes without saying that this also applies to the other two groups). They all have needs, desires, and dreams that exceed those of the firm. There exists, then, what the authors call a “gray zone” between the employee and the company.
The gray zone is important for the company's ability to find new and better solutions to problems,
because it is there the resources are found that have not yet been brought into the company's formal
leadership systems. The gray zone, according to the authors, is threatened, however. They write:
zone is threatened by both the classic organizational forms that place the employee in a well-defined
subordinate role that no adult can accept, and by the ‘modern' organizational forms that attempt
to create family and togetherness out of the company, and impose the entire interaction between company and
employee with the company's ‘values,' ‘culture' and ideology.
It is precisely EDF's effort (and that of other companies) to “make family and togetherness out of the company” that has led Corinne Maier (and many other employees) to opt out. Maier's frustration illustrates that EDF's managers (and managers elsewhere) have eliminated the gray zone where employees can formulate their own projects to the benefit of their own motivation and the corporate bottom line. Begejstring & distance advises managers to protect and maintain a gray zone between the company and employee; in doing so, managers recognize the employee is more than the company - to the benefit of both.
The three new books on today's work life are obviously very different. Nevertheless, they share a common theme: all three question the tendency of the corporation to see the “good employee” as one who is exactly like the company.
From management's perspective, for example, there is no problem with the corporate-engaged, since she does what she's told. The corporate-engaged is aligned with the company. But for that very reason, the corporate-engaged employee is the wrong place to look for renewal. Renewal comes from the employee who is not just like the company, but who is more than the company. If the company does not recognize this and allow for it, it risks missing the renewal that, in many cases, both today and in the future, it will desperately need.