Thierry de Baillon on Balancing Control and Autonomy

There always has been more to human collectivities than the collectivity itself. — Thierry de Baillon

Thierry is a thinker whose writing has been the connection between us. I am fairly sure that we haven’t met, but as in the other instances in this series, that has proven to be no impediment to a great interchange.

About Thierry de Baillon

From his website:

Building on a multi-disciplinary background, as trend spotter, marketer, designer and management consultant, Thierry de Baillon spends a large part of his time helping organizations to adapt to our world of complexity and uncertainty, and to innovate for and with customers.

Blogger, speaker, Thierry is also a member of Change Agents Worldwide, and the initiator of the Future of [Collaborative] Enterprise research project, an open laboratory trying to uncover what the future of organizations will look like in an era of hyper-connectivity.

The Interview

There is more to organizations than the way a group of people gather to get things done. — Thierry de Baillon

Stowe Boyd: You recently wrote about research from Quintarelli and Besana that suggested that middle management is not the bottleneck in the uptake of social ‘collaboration’ (what I call work management tools). You then made the case for organizational structure as a dead weight holding back change to more humane practices even when the culture seems to be ready for that change. You wrote,

Restoring goodwill requires much more than changing management’s mindset, it calls for a reweaving of the formal structure of organizations.

What sort of structure do you think balances the need for control and the need for autonomy?

Thierry de Baillon: Let me first explain what I mean by “structure” here. I wouldn’t want to discuss the superiority of wirearchies over hierarchies or heterarchies, or the advantages of distributed decision making. These are, I guess, things you and me are convinced about. But there is more to organizations than the way a group of people gather to get things done. By doing so, they create a common language, a particular set of rules, of practices, a more or less shared culture, by which they create an artifact called an organization. When Ronald Coase described organizations as economic entities aimed at minimizing costs more efficiently that markets do, he was referring to firms per se, independently of the way people organized themselves for the job.

There always has been more to human collectivities than the collectivity itself. Maurice Godelier, the French anthropologist, has documented how, in traditional societies, the bond between individuals wasn’t conditioned by blood ties, but primarily by the territory they occupy. In today’s organizations, I see two main structural elements that impede our capacity to evolve toward a more balanced and sustainable way to get things done (aka work).

The first one is the symbolic acceptance we grant to the concept of *work*, as an activity that is still, for most of us, disconnected to the rest of our life. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, work has been associated with a physical location, and organizations were synonyms to places where things get done. As Sir Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” and our behaviors have been conditioned by a kind of exoskeleton that insulated, not only the activity taking place there from the external world, but also the way we think and behave there, from the one in “the rest of our life”. The lines are blurring as the workplace becomes more and more virtual, but the divide is still there. As a consequence, many people do not feel like they can think and act freely, even when hierarchical pressure disappears. How is it that coworkers partying liberally together at a dinner, sometimes hardly share an emotion when working on the same project? How is it that people surfing Facebook with ease are so embarrassed when asked to contribute to their company’s ESN? Work/not work, we have to get rid of this mental switch, and to challenge our assumptions about what work is.

The second element is something which has hardly been touched, and won’t be that easily; it is the legal, contractual environment which binds people together as an organization. Where trust and shared purpose should prevail, the founding act of any entrance into the corporate world is a contract. Evaluations, job descriptions, and the whole equipment intending to describe the world of work and the place an individual occupies inside it, are also contractual. History tells us that, before the Statute of Fraud was passed in 1677, contracts were mostly verbal and relied on the principle of good faith, but then they evolved over time, to conform to the philosophical and legal needs of the growing commerce and industry. Such an evolution occurred in the US, but also everywhere in the western world. Laws were progressively modified according to two axes: the first to ensure that the premise is effectively fulfilled, the other one to ensure than nothing more could be enforced. Trust was the founding reason for contracts to exist, but they were slowly modeled by distrust. To effectively design different organizational structures, we need to tackle the fact that legal adhesion to any kind of structure, and all our actions inside it, are branded with distrust.

Not to say that the way decision making occurs and how relationships take place aren’t crucial. But if you ask me to design a better lobster, rewiring the nervous system or changing the way it fixes oxygen won’t have any major impact until I start rethinking its chitinous shell.

SB: I buy the notion that proximity — when people are physically near — leads to a strong impact on us, whether that is physical or graphical proximity. But necessarily we are influenced by those we interact with, which is increasingly likely to be virtual interactions, right? Someone I ‘chat’ with a dozen times a day has a bigger impact on the people in the elevator.

TdB: Of course, and this will become a real challenge for organizations. If this impact is about knowledge, or thoughts, it is positive. Yet, as you begin to exchange more with a friend, or a competitor, or whoever, than with your coworkers, your sense of belonging dissolves, and only the formal weight of the structure remains (contractual obligeance for all, unease or even maybe guilt for some). Not only companies have to build and assess a shared purpose to answer this, but they have to make sure that this purpose has, and keeps, a real impact in our daily life.

SB: In the same article, you make the case that high levels of employee disengagement represent a psychosis in the workplace. I’ve quoted McLuhan, who wrote

Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools!

If we consider organization to be a technology that we have come to take for granted — like written language, eyeglasses, or stairs — our psychotic workplaces require new forms of organization, and new ways of work.

TdB: I totally agree with you. At a practical level — as well as a conceptual one — the way organizations operate, their nature itself, is obsolete. This generates more and more anxiety as, in absence of clear clues about how to drive the transformation, the job of managers and executives is more and more about trying to keep things together, in order to keep generating profit for shareholder sad and bonuses for themselves. I can’t help but thinking of a Tetris game, with pieces falling faster and faster, and the player trying housing them, up to the point when he makes a big mistake and the play goes adrift.

At a practical level — as well as a conceptual one — the way organizations operate, their nature itself, is obsolete. — Thierry de Baillon

As the world evolves faster, companies fall into obsolescence. To keep on with this pace of change, it is too late for organizations to only change their managerial paradigm, they have to voluntarily open themselves to the external world. Steve Denning has recently written a brilliant article around a book called The Three Ways of Getting Things Done, from Gerard Fairtlough, in which Mr Denning stated that the change cannot happen from inside the system. I second this, in the sense that all the conditions of the shift are already there, at our fingertips, but in the outside world.

We are living one of the rare periods in history when technology is taking the consumer world in a gigantic leap forward, similar to the era when the printing press or the high-pressure steam engine were introduced to the world. The first railroads appeared to transport people, but it didn’t take long before early industrialists understood what they could get from being able to carry goods across the country. Many companies grew and transformed themselves in order to be able to take advantage from this new deal. We are nowadays in a similar situation, as new evidences of collaborative economy are popping up every day, or as anyone will soon (if not already) be able to start a manufacturing business from scratch in no time, using 3D-printing and virtual marketplaces. Yet, organizations seem to stay blind to this disruptive change. If they stay so, in some near future, consumers won’t need them anymore.

Companies must open themselves to the external world, economically and technologically, to adapt to this matter of fact before it is too late. They must also open themselves socially and psychologically. And this gets back to the nature of work, and the dichotomy that exists today between production and consumption. This is pure nonsense! Any worker is also, directly or indirectly, a customer from his company or from one of its competitors. And every customer is also a worker somewhere, some of them having already maybe got through the problems the company from which he/she is buying is facing. There is tremendous potential knowledge here, just waiting for organizational doors to open, and for mental barriers to break. In that sense, I see less the company of the future as a complex system surrounded by a porous membrane, than as a Klein bottle, an entity with no real inside or outside.

Companies must open themselves to the external world, economically and technologically, to adapt to this matter of fact before it is too late. They must also open themselves socially and psychologically. — Thierry de Baillon

SB: I am completely in agreement with Fairtlough’s model — hierarchy, heterarchy, and autonomy being the three ways that things get done — and I think we are sliding toward autonomy. And the quote:

We need to kick the bad habit of automatically choosing hierarchy.

Denning argues that the fall of hierarchy has to come from realizing that it is suboptimal, that other approaches lead to better outcomes and higher productivity. I agree. The trick then — if ‘trick’ is the right word — is to lead managers to make the decisions that will deconstruct hierarchy, because it stands in the way of what hierarchy in principle seeks to achieve.

TdB: Hierarchies will stay with us for a long time, maybe forever. It isn’t an “or” situation, but rather an “and”, and hierarchies based on capabilities or availability aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as they don’t translate into arbitrary power and subordination, and are agreed on by all stakeholders. If you look at a family, for example, there are multiple hierarchies at work at the same time, and a constant tension between autonomy and hierarchy. Here lies, for me, the true meaning of the word “empowerment”, which is so much (too much?) used today. Maybe, instead of employees, managers are the ones who need the most to be empowered…

SB: The abiding thread in the Socialogy series is the application of scientific findings and reason to the affairs of business, which runs in general on folklore and tradition. What discipline or branch of science do you think is most relevant to affecting the sorts of changes you believe are needed in business?

TdB: I am utterly resistant to the idea that hard science could bring a solution to our problems. We are getting obsessed with data! While data is really useful to understand the present situation (I think of social network and value network analysis, for example), we intend to use it to accompany, or even to predict, evolution. We are trying to rationalize complexity. Yet, one of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems is that, to accurately predict their evolution, one needs to know the exact initial state of each variable one is trying to take into account. A single error may lead to huge variation in the way it evolves. So, as we try to move into finer granularity, into better understanding, we would need to improve data gathering in a really exponential way. Look at weather prediction, for example. Technology as allowed us to make huge improvements in the models used, and computing power allows the collection an incredible amount of data to feed them. Yet, we are not better at predicting what the weather will be beyond the next 48 hours than we were with the rough models at our disposal ten or twenty years ago. The more, the fuzzier.

The real question isn’t how, but why. Not why changing, I guess we all herald this enough, but why do we find ourselves in such a situation? It is far from being an easy question. I love the fact that you use the expression “folklore and tradition” to describe our thinking about business affairs. This goes deep into human sociology and psychology, into the symbolic tissue which binds our societies together, and that we must now reverse engineer, layer after layer.

So we also need the help of anthropology, to better understand how firms form and grow, and how the relationships between them and our society has shaped their behaviors, as well as ours. But I guess that many people before me have written and talked about this. One discipline I haven’t often seen mentioned, but which I believe is necessary to help in changing the world of work, is history. Not only must we learn from experiments in new forms of structure, like socio-technical systems, but the past is rich in social constructions that, either leaded us into what we are now, or were abandoned along the path of an evolution that wasn’t always Darwinian. The Middle Age, for instance, was a period of intense organic growth, favorited by the struggle between power and autonomy, and the Renaissance constantly balanced between the old and the new, between technology and craftsmanship. Moreover, history of law would help us in understanding how we progressively set in place the rigid frameworks that rule the world of work, and in restructuring the codification of our relationships in a more human, more creative context.

SB: I am fine with social science, and especially anthropology to help us move forward. History too. Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, so we should look to it for the cadence and tempo of things to come.

Thanks for your time and attention, Thierry.

TdB: I only knew the French translation of this quote, which says “but it babbles”. I find the original much more interesting. As you say, history could set the tempo of things to come, and we should also look for patterns and variations, not to predict the future, but to gain enough familiarity with it before it sweeps us along.

Thanks for inviting me, and for this great exchange, Stowe.

Originally published at on 28 May 2014.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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