When a company undertakes a digital transformation, which implies a transformation in company culture, the outcomes are quite similar to what liberated companies put in place. This is the argument put forward by Ludovic Cinquin, General Manager of Paris-based information systems consulting company OCTO Technology.
Having worked over a number of years to help companies make the digital shift, both men have observed that – given that any transformation begins with the company culture rather than with the use of new tools – when companies aspire to go the digital route, it is very much in their interests to look to the model of the ‘liberated company’. Ludovic Cinquin outlined this view during his session at the USI 2015, (Unexpected Sources of Inspiration) conference in Paris in early July.
Ludovic Cinquin, at the USI 2015 event you gave your views on a rather intriguing topic – ‘From the digital company to the liberated company’. The digital company, OK, we understand that, but how would you define the ‘liberated company’?
Ludovic Cinquin: This is a term that people are starting to use and it’s becoming quite popular. It comes from a book published a few years ago called Freedom Inc., by Brian M. Carney and Isaac Getz. The expression refers to firms which set their employees free to act on their own initiative in order to meet the company objectives in the most efficient way. Such companies give their people a free rein to deal with the actual situations they come up against.
Does this mean that employees are also freed from the constraints of fixed working hours and managerial hierarchies?
Ludovic Cinquin: Sometimes, yes. Some ‘liberated’ companies have gone very far down this road, for example doing away with middle managers. Another more mundane example of liberated company practice is getting rid of clocking-in procedures. Some organisations even go so far as to work directly with staff to set up their remuneration packages. So as you can see, there are a number of different ways in which companies can become ‘liberated’.
Are there any examples of French companies taking steps towards such ‘liberation?
Ludovic Cinquin: Yes, there are three striking examples which are often quoted in the literature on the topic in France: Favi, a die-casting company based in Picardy, northern France; Poult, a biscuit-making company based in Montauban, southern France; and Chronoflex, based in Saint-Herblain in western France, which repairs hydraulic hoses. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many others that haven’t yet hit the headlines. In the United States, the Internet giants have to some extent taken these principles on board. Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook for example, could be described as ‘liberated’ companies.
François Hisquin: In the United States the model for this kind of company is online shoe and clothing store Zappos, which, incidentally, has recently been taken over by Amazon. Zappos founder and CEO Tony Hsieh has written a book on the subject entitled ‘Delivering Happiness’.
Ludovic, you make a link between the digital company and the liberated company…?
Ludovic Cinquin: Well, at Octo, we help a lot of companies that are trying to shift to digital. And we’ve seen that the process starts with a digital drive. What I mean by a ‘digital drive’ is for instance holding a hackathon, launching an iPad app or creating a Proof of Concept around a Big Data initiative. But still, sooner or later these organisations will have to meet the challenge of building a digital culture. And in the end building a digital culture comes down to acknowledging the fact that technology fundamentally changes the company’s ways of working and management-staff relationships. At USI I was arguing that companies looking to go digital would do well to seek inspiration from the liberated company – even though that liberated company may not be at all digital. The core business of biscuit-maker the Poult Group is entirely bound up with production. But it’s firms like these that are likely to be able to show others how to change the company culture and evolve towards ways of working which are more appropriate for the 21st century.
So can digital tools help to liberate a company?
Ludovic Cinquin: Yes, absolutely, but at the same time starting with the tools often proves to be a mistake. Company social networks are a classic example. Many companies have set up a social network, presuming that this would make them ‘digital’. But if the company culture isn’t in step, you’re just basically bolting another widget on to your organisation which will remain useless and unused.
Twice in the last few years Octo has topped the list of ‘The Best Place to Work in France’ (small business category) compiled by the US-based Great Place to Work® Institute. So at Octo have you implemented a version of the ‘liberated company’?
François Hisquin: Not exactly. We didn’t wake up one morning thinking that we needed to become a liberated company. However, when we founded Octo in 1998 we were – and still are – very good at applying those principles. We’ve put things in place that work quite naturally. We avoid putting shackles on our staff and laying down rigid processes, as big companies tend to do. My answer to your question is not clear-cut. But if we believe the ranking by the ‘Great Place to Work’ Institute, which is the outcome of surveys carried out inside the company, it seems we do have a model that works pretty well.
You mentioned the big company machine. Is the notion of a ‘liberated company’ really compatible with big company attitudes?
Ludovic Cinquin: Henry Ford said something which I really like, which isn’t necessarily linked to the idea of liberating companies. He said: ‟Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right!”
The fact is that there’s a huge number of things that can be implemented at big companies, but self-censorship is perhaps so deep-rooted that they don’t always try hard enough to go in that direction. That’s a mistake.