Are we sure people prefer openness rather than constraints ?

One of these last years most important trend that is lasting enought to be more than a fashion, is the switch from a closed and constrained world to an open and flexible one.

– from proprietary and closes information systems to open ones

– from a communication model where those who can speak and those who must listen are defined in advance.

– from a rigid and structured working model to an adhoc one

– from a top down management model based on command and control to a model that’s rather based on support and facilitation.

According to many specialists these are major aspirations that are the consequence a of societal change. 40 years after “prohibiting was prohibited”, now imposing is prohibited.

There are two reasons to switch from one mode to the other. The first is nearly philosophic and political, the other is more rational and has to do with the limits and advantages of each model in today’s economy. But businesses are more likely to prefer the old one and they don’t care at all about the philosophical discourse and, most of all, in retrospect, assumption according to which employees are expecting such a change in the workplace can be questioned. Are we actually facing new aspirations or only choices made by default ?

Whoever has already experimented this kind of switch in the workplace has to admit it’s much more difficult than expected and that either the expectations were overestimated or employees are afraid to turn what they ask for into action. Managers are afraid to lose control, employees fear their new autonomy.

If employees ask for flexibility and autonomy, they also want structure and sense, a guiding principle to rely on. In short, if they want more freedom on the “how”, they want to be reassured about “what”, “what for” and “when”. Business processes were in many discussions at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference, and these two topics are very close :it‘s the articulation of the informal layer with structured activities that leads sense and alignment.

Isn’t it paradoxical that to get rid of one constraint people need to grab hold of it ? No if we take a different standpoint. Do people, internauts, employees look from freedom and openness or are they looking for the reassuring comfort of systems and methods that give them few autonomy ?

In restrospect, if we put integrists of all kind aside, those who hate constraints and authority and those for refuse to take any responsability, what’s left ? Average people don’t care about this debate, they’re not looking for either openness or constraints, they only want things that work.

– open information systems because they’re fed up being locked in systems that does not work and don’t provide them with the information they need

– open work models because the rigid ones prevent them for achieving their objectives.

People do not challenge closed and constrained approaches when they work, reassure them and lead to the expected results. The question comes when these models do not work anymore.

We seldom mention that but their are rigid models that work and employees do not question them because the can do their work without having to accomplish miracles everyday.

Autonomy and freedom in the workspace seem to be less a quest than stopgap solutions to what does not work. At end end it’s quite the same but not totally.

In the workplace, some things have to be known before trying to implement any open system ;

– people won’t buy it it it does not replace / complement, a closed system that does not work. If the actuel system works, support will be poor.

– people need a framework, guiding principles, even when it’s about autonomy. When can they take intiatives, to what extent, when to switch back to the “nomal” system. There’s a need for a system of graduated constraints instead of the manichean “process vs no control”.

“Open” is not an expectation in itself but the solution to a problem. So don’t forget to tell what problem and explain the relationship between the problem and the solution to make people adopt it.

At the end this is a paradoxical situation : employees reject rigid systems that does not work and worry when the new systems are not rigid enough.

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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