Toward a new hierarchy of norms in the workplace

This is a sequel of my thoughts on enterprise 2.0 and ERPs. It’s obvious that not everything has to be put into processes and given to machines that would run them endlessly and blindly….and than not everyhing has to be left to the wisdom of employees has well. An happy medium has to be found. In fact “middle” may not be the right word since it would mean a compromise that would not satisfy anyone and would add more issues without bringing any solution to past issues.

Let’s start with a kind of legal comparison.

Our friends jurists know something called “hierarchy of norms”. That means that different of norms exist, promulgated by different kind of authorities with some automoy provided any of them respect the one that hierarchically above.

That’s quite the same in the workplace where we can find :

– the constituion : everything the organization can’t depart from and is about legal, security (legal, of people, of goods…)

– the law : everything about how things have to be done. Processes etc…

– local regulations: within a department, a team, a manager can organize work as he want provided he respects the two above mentioned levels.

We may even push the comparison further.

– customs : this is what makes people make things in such a way because it’s always been like that. No one decided that, it comes from the past and the power of habits. This is partly due to the corporate knowledge, partly to knowledge transmission between generations of workers, partly from mimicry.

– jurisprudence : the way corporate norms are interpreted when they’re not precise or clear enougjh. Jurisprudence works until a new process or a new rule comes that makes it useless or contradicts it.

In the workplace as in the legal world, each of these elements comes from different authorities, have different ranges of enforcement, and are not sanctionned the same way.

Even if the State may look dusty and unsuited to our world, it’s one steph ahead because it understood a long time ago that constitution and laws can’t rule everything. Once can retort that it depends on the beliefs of the state administration, and that’s true. But it’s the same in organizations : the freedom and autonomy that are given to anyone depends on the top management’s culture and beliefs.

Enterprises, as for them, have always been thinking that the two first levels were enough and, instead of relying on the principle of subsidiarity, they tried to make everything fit into heavy and rigid systems, hence the failure of many projects that were said “structuring” and the limis that are encountered today in terms of corporate agility.

The previous paragraphs may look like commonplaces. On the other hand, if acknowledging that not everything can fit into ridig systems is one thing, drawing conclusions is harder. Talking about letting  go and loss of control is easy, but turning it into action in the workplace is a true challenge.

No need to be a soothsayer to know that not everything can rely on the wisdom of crowds. Some things can’t be departed from, some have to be done “this way and not any other”, at least for quality and security reasons. For everything else there’s what’s called enterprise 2.0.

Easy to say, hard to implement, most of all because those who raise the question are those who are the less confortable with the idea of gving up a kind of over-normalization and are scared by the idea of autonomy. We also have to keep in mind that autonomy may even scare employees, contradicting the common belief according to which they’re demanding it.

In shorth the “just do it…” attitude does not work, and advisors seldom are those who have to assume.

It may sound old school but, in the workplace, autonomy is a consequence of subsidiarity and subsidiarity has to be organised. The owner of authority has to be convinced and reassure, undersand what “loss” and “letting go” means, implies, and should not cause. As for them, employees won’t seize the oppportunity to become more autonomous if they don’t know what are the limits, to what it applies and don’t apply.

This is a good point to start thinking about everyone’s activities, wonder what one can and can’t do in a given context, decide when managers have to take things in hand. That will help to set clear rules that will reassure everyone (at the top as for middle managers), protect the organization and ensure that good initiatives won’t be fought because of too much precaution (the less things are clear, the more cautious people are). More, it would help to take the corporate culture into account in the new rules work out.

Such a way of doing things may look quite heavy. But it’s relevant for organizations that can’t intuitively fight againts their internal constraints intuitively and have to tackle things in a rational way to organize the letting go. Anyway, those who can do without already  did…but they would need such an approach to optimize their approach. That’s a point I noticed with a true interest in Cecile Demailly’s report : what is key for employees is to know what they are expected to do. In other words : what should I do, to produce hat outputs, what are the limits of my autonomy.

Anyway….even democracy has rules…

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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