The concept of a “liberated company” has received plenty of publicity in recent years and yet people are not always fully aware of what lurks behind the enticing promise of this brand of liberation. François Geuze draws on the experience of his long corporate career as a manager and company auditor as he provides us with his far from favourable perspective.
It is François Geuze’s belief that the development of collaborative activities, of which the liberated company is supposedly some sort of supreme embodiment, is mostly aimed at trying to resolve the specific difficulties that arise as a result of the weakening of traditional collective structures. In a more individualist world where organisations have deliberately favoured monitoring and evaluation solutions with an increasingly individual focus, teamwork (working as a unit) has become less rewarding, less tangible and less vibrant. But how can we work well together and collaborate intelligently if we don’t know each other properly, if we isolate ourselves, ignore each other and don’t trust one another? There are no tools or processes that can actually create or replace the sense of belonging required if you want people to work together effectively.
Under such conditions, a so-called “liberated” company might seem capable of providing an alternative to traditional collaboration models. Only it isn’t that simple…all too often, what liberated actually means is liberated from middle management. But simply making jobs disappear won’t make the associated workloads disappear, too! Strategy-making will therefore end up being recentralised, which will in fact result in power becoming concentrated instead of decentralised. Though oversight responsibilities will be spread out over the whole workforce, this will mean more and more collective pressure as opposed to liberty. All against the backdrop of an ever-louder call for autonomy and shared accountability that the individual might not necessarily desire and which, generally speaking, bring with it no reward.
“All too often, liberated companies are nothing more than systems of corporate abuse in disguise. ”
Essentially, the liberated company corresponds historically to the third generation performance quest. The first sought to streamline work behaviour and activities (Scientific Management/ Taylor). The second sought to enhance and replicate available skills (HR/ training/ E&EP). The third would like to generate performance by maximising commitment and to maximise commitment…it has to change the individuals, not only in terms of what they do, but also what they think and who they are. That’s why liberated companies look more like sectarian movements than organisations for collective progress…
Give managers some wriggle-room again!
François Geuze’s suggestion for how to improve collective operations in organisations (and there’s no denying that this is a major priority) is to reinvigorate leadership positions…instead of trying to eliminate them! Rather than believing that tools will somehow magically be able to sort out any and all collaboration issues anonymously and impersonally, we would be better served by giving greater freedom and autonomy, as well as a measure of clear room for manoeuvre to those who are actually in contact with teams on the ground. Not only because people still expect certain things of their managers, but also because these people understand the specific circumstances in which the company has to operate better than anyone. In an increasingly complex world, it can actually be tempting to let algorithms do all the thinking for you, just like it can be tempting to wish to collaborate horizontally without any contact or direct involvement. But it’s impossible. And often dangerous.