For years, this quote from Antoine Riboud, the former head of Danone, has stood on the front of this blog.
“The most successful businesses are those that think about technological change, work content and changes in social relations within the business in a unified way.
This sentence comes from a report on new technologies that he wrote in 1987 at the request of Jacques Chirac, then Prime Minister, and from which you will find other extracts in this old post as well as in this one. Readings that I recommend to you.
I could spend hours commenting on these various quotations, as they embody what I believe in and like to do on a daily basis, this “at the same time” that leads us to be interested in people, technology and work content at the same time, in a world where we systematically treat these three elements in a dissociated and counterproductive way, or even where we try to oppose them.
Before getting to the heart of the matter, let me add two other points, taken from the same report.
The act by which people are producing is only efficient and profitable if it takes advantage of the full potential of productive capital. For this we need their rigor, their imagination, their motivation, their autonomy. The capacity for obedience, for strength, for repetition, everything that goes in the direction of a well-mastered routine falls into disuse.
As well as:
“Technological change is not important in itself (…). What matters (…) is to make the work of people evolve at the right time, and if possible permanently, at the same time as their tools evolve. “
By the way, greetings to all those who only want to see the business world through their own spyglass, their own field, without looking not necessarily further but next door.
But today it’s not about this report that I would like to talk about but about another of his feats of arms, the famous Marseille speech which you can find here. If you can’t read french ask Google Translate or Deepl…it’s really worth it
Originally, this post should have been published on October 25th, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this speech, but the vagaries of my agenda decided otherwise.
The Marseille speech, still relevant 50 years later
This speech was given by Antoine Riboud in Marseille, during the National Conference of the C.N.P.F. (the ancestor of the MEDEF, the french employers’ federation), on October 25th 1972
Why is it so well remembered? Because for the first time, the boss of a large company broke a taboo and dared to defend in public things that people did not like to talk about at the time: the fact that the responsibility of the business does not stop at the walls of its factories, the environmental issue or the limits of the race for growth.
To begin a speech to the employers, when you are yourself the director of a large business, in 1972, with “There is only one earth. You only live once” is of course a proof of clairvoyance but undeniably a proof of a certain courage.
At the time he was aware that “many will see in my reflections only utopia or superficial ideas“. History proves that he was doubly right: first of all, because these themes are so topical 50 years later, and secondly, because the fact that we have our backs against the wall when it comes to these subjects today shows that even if his words have met with success over time, they have not led to major transformations in businesses.
What is interesting in this speech is of course Riboud’s lucidity in the facts he states, but above all, the fact that he proposes realistic solutions that take into account the problem as a whole (once again the “at the same time”), whereas, strangely enough, many people today share the same observations in their speeches without proposing “balanced” solutions.
I do not pretend to be exhaustive nor to follow to the letter the thread of the discourse but just to share some thoughts grouped by major theme.
The economy, people and society are the three pillars of Riboud’s speech. But where his approach differs from what we still hear today on the subject is that he does not think it is unnatural for them to impact each other.
When I hear many speeches today, it seems to me that the business should force itself to have a (positive) impact on its environment. For Riboud it’s the opposite: it has a natural impact, whether we like it or not, and the problem is that it closes its eyes to avoid realizing it.
The social dimension of the business, outside its walls, is therefore not a wishful thinking or something that needs to be forced, but something natural that needs to be accompanied in the right direction. The impact exists no matter what we think, it is its nature that is in the hands of the decision makers.
Generally speaking, society, people and business are three bodies that influence each other and can only progress together. Once again, the current discourse seems to promote the fact that an osmosis between the three would be unnatural and must therefore be forcibly provoked, whereas for Riboud it is natural, and the fault of leaders is, on the contrary, to make sure that it doesn’t happen.
Hence the famous dual economic and social project that was the hallmark of Danone. Once again, “at the same time”.
” People work eight hours of their day. The business’s responsibility does not stop at the factory or office door. Its action is felt throughout the community and influences the quality of life of every citizen.“
I could have called this part “the place of people” but if I put the subject back into the context of the shortcomings I see in business the real subject is trust. It’s not that the business as we know it despises people, just that it doesn’t trust them.
Let’s talk about autonomy. The autonomy of employees is not a whim that came out of nowhere: it is the result of an increase in the level of education and a wider diffusion of information. To prohibit the use of knowledge or even restrict access to information is both to deprive oneself of the potential of employees and to add to their pain.
“Denying the use of knowledge would be like giving a Honda 750 to all motorcycle enthusiasts and forbidding them to use it. You’d have to leave the bike in the garage!
Riboud also insists on the notion of personalization.” Rediscovering that personalization plays an essential role in authority relationships: you want to know the boss and be known by him“. How can we trust each other when we don’t know each other? Once again I remind you that, like the consumer, the employee has become a “market of one”. He does not want to be considered in relation to his membership in a group, a population, a segment, but in relation to what makes him unique from the other members.
Trust is essential to develop the individual’s place in the business, the esteem that is shown to him, which in turn will condition the esteem that he will have for himself. Why is this so? Because work must be modernized.
Modernization of work and organization
In the series of articles I am writing on the future of work, I keep insisting that the future of work is at least as much, if not more, about the content of work than about what is peripheral to it.
What does Riboud say about the modernization of work?
“It’s essentially the search for personalization. We need to reduce the fragmentation of work, find solutions to the repetitiveness of work and remedy the disadvantages of assembly-line work.“
As for my rather systematic criticism of the way businesses work, especially when we talk about “invisible flows,” it finds a reassuring echo here.
“Systematic analysis in this area should make it possible to detect and resolve humiliations, hassles, the fact that no one listens to anyone, that no one answers to anyone, the hierarchy that controls without helping or that locks itself in its power and in its office.“
Confusion of means and ends
Growth is sometimes clearly named, sometimes it just appears in the background, but it is at the heart of the discourse. How to make it compatible with the well-being of individuals? After all, isn’t the title of the speech “Growth and quality of life”?
“To HAVE is to obtain one’s share of the wealth that man extracts from the earth through
TO BE is to have a place and to understand one’s role in the business pyramid.”
For Riboud, growth is a logical objective that cannot be called into question. No questioning, but a framework: growth yes, but not just any growth and not just in any way.
“Obviously, men have put their creative genius at the service of growth, but they must be careful not to create an imbalance between the means and the ends“.
Growth is a means to the service of the business’s dual economic and social project, it is not the objective.
I often regret that the good ideas and behaviors that people may have in the private sphere are not reflected once they have passed through the door of the business. An employee is a customer who walks through the office door.
Riboud tells us:
“Basically, we have to remind ourselves of the divorce that exists between the Producer Man (the Man at his work) and the Consumer Man (the Man at home).
In the first situation, we find: rigor, automatism, obedience and insecurity.
In the second situation, one discovers liberation, fantasy, leisure, travel, etc.“
He points to this contradiction to stigmatize the fact that businesses have both an economic reasoning that blocks the increase of wages and commercial ambitions that push consumption.
But in my opinion this goes far beyond the simple question of wages. No employee voluntarily makes an anti-environmental decision. As Yves Morieux said, no employee gets up in the morning and says “I’m going to refuse to collaborate to sabotage the business”. How do we explain that the individual who has highly integrated digital uses in his private sphere becomes a digital illiterate in the office to the point that businesses that were struggling in their digital transformation attributed it to the fact that “our customers are digital, our employees are not“.
It should not be believed that employees are unwilling or even stupid: on the contrary, they are very rational and adapt to their environment, to the objectives they are given and to the way they are evaluated.
I remember that in 2012 a business had set up a Green Capex so that decisions were not taken on purely economic criteria but by taking into account the environmental dimension and, this, without penalizing the evaluation of the employee and the decision. Oh, that was Danone.
In short, we should not expect businesses to change without a real paradigm shift that will lead to a rethinking of evaluation and decision-making criteria.
Quality of life
Another great contemporary subject.
Note that Riboud does not speak of “quality of life at work” but of quality of life in general. Very lucid. In my opinion, quality of life at work is like this joke called happiness at work: how can one be happy at work when one is not happy elsewhere? One is happy or not, it does not depend on the time of day.
As I pointed out in this article, whether we are talking about well-being or quality of life, businesses are often content with peripheral and cosmetic measures without tackling the heart of the problem, as indicated in the New York Times article that I quoted.
Riboud does not beat about the bush.
“First objective: reduce excessive inequalities. With an empty wallet, let’s not talk about choice or quality of life.“
These words are so relevant today! Which business puts salary policy at the heart of its quality of life at work strategy? No comment. In fact, it’s logical: when we talk about quality of life at work and not quality of life in general, how important is a wallet? We don’t go to work to spend money but to try to earn it.
It might be time to consider this as for the first time It might be time to consider this as for the first time pay becomes the top concern of employees when it comes to employee experience.
I also find it interesting that he refuses to talk about the poverty line.
“The priority objective is the disappearance of material situations that are below the well-being threshold. It is a question of collective consciousness.”
Well-being threshold. We do not measure a person’s situation in relation to his or her income, but in relation to his or her well-being, a much broader notion (even if it is much more vague). What definition should we give? Income would be an accounting concept, quantifiable, used by the business and which allows it to easily say “I did my job, let’s move on, I don’t care about the rest”. Well-being, on the other hand, would be the feeling or even the reality of the employee’s life and would imply much heavier responsibilities on the part of the business, within and outside its walls. Beyond the pay slip.
Is Riboud the inventor of QWL? Some say so, but in any case his vision was less narrow than the current one.
Bottom line: all that for this
According to observers present at the time, Riboud’s speech was received more than coolly by the French employers. But should we have expected anything else?
One can understand the skepticism and even the incredulity that greeted this speech in 1972, a time when the context was completely different from the one we know today.
So what ?
Sometimes there are words that get old and some words or writings need to be updated a few years later. Here, 50 years later, we can take the Riboud’s text without changing a word and it will seem as if it was written for the occasion.
Because business leaders have long refused to see the truth. A fault? Not only theirs, but they obey logics, stakeholders and do not always have as free a hand as we like to think.
Because Riboud was thinking a little too far ahead. He was talking about a future that did indeed happen, but was too far away at the time for people who are asked to produce short-term results. When I tell you that even the CEO of a big business is accountable to others…
Because, and this will also be felt in his report on new technologies, from which I don’t think anyone has retained anything, because businesses don’t have the culture of “at the same time”.
Riboud’s vision requires us to think jointly about a number of things that we like to think are antagonistic. But the business thinks in silos. Or rather, it acts in silos, even if its leader has a global vision. Moving forward on one issue means moving backwards on another. Instead of collaborating, the stakeholders fight each other. A familiar refrain.
By the way, how many business school students have had to deal with this text? None or very few in my opinion. It’s a pity because it’s an excellent “case” to submit to their sagacity and the proof that, tomorrow, they may not have to find the solution to an insoluble problem since 50 years ago someone has largely traced the way. Taking it is only a question of choice and will.
Do you know of a business that today claims the Riboud heritage and works in this direction? If so, I’m interested.
Today we idolize Musk or Bezos. Mr Riboud deserves a better place than his in our economic culture and in the pantheon of visionary business leaders. Rehabilitate Riboud? It is never too late to give common sense a place.