What we can learn from app-using grannies

Source: Management Scope (19/06/2019); Author: Angelo van Leemput

Leaders can learn a great deal from elderly grandmothers who effortlessly use apps to communicate with their grandchildren. We need to develop a better understanding of what stimulates people to engage with the endless deluge of tech, believes Professor Dirk Buyens. Unlearning is also a key skill in this process: ‘What may have been true yesterday could be standing in your way today.’

Dirk Buyens is Mr human resources management. In the Low Countries and far beyond, he is an authority on HR questions and has published dozens of scientific articles on the subject. At home at his kitchen table in Ghent, HR is still very much the order of the day. His wife is HR Director at a large Belgian hospital, and two of his three children also work in the sector. ‘Could that have something to do with the way we brought them up?’ he somewhat bashfully suggests. All his hope is now pinned on his third son, who is still studying. ‘He has sworn he’s going to do something different. But with a degree in applied economics, anything is possible.’ And yet Buyens himself was not initiated into the field from a young age. ‘My entire family worked at Agfa’s film factory.’ Euronext-listed Agfa-Gevaert is the pride of Mortsel, Buyens’ birthplace, in Belgium’s Campine region just ‘below’ Antwerp. This pride is still in evidence when he talks about the firm. ‘Agfa was once the crown jewel of European photography. You had Kodak in the United States, Fuji in Asia and Agfa in Europe.’ But, as they put it in another neighbouring country, das war einmal (that’s all in the past now).

‘Agfa-Gevaert has been restructuring for 30 years now. They missed the boat with digital photography and could have been the market leader in large photocopiers by now. What’s left is a company that is focused on the graphic industry and on medical imaging systems. The firm has gone from employing between 30,000 and 40,000 people to a mere 7,000 to 8,000 employees. Agfa-Gevaert was on the brink of bankruptcy a few times, but if you cease trading today, that means not being able to meet your pension obligations tomorrow. It’s that simple.’

Agfa-Gevaert has clearly had difficulty with the changing world. How hard is it to adjust?

‘It’s far from simple. Today during a presentation I was saying that what Henry Ford was able to do 100 years ago with Ford, Musk cannot do today with Tesla. Musk is not succeeding in running production in a routine way. He’s good at creating. He has a company full of innovators, but large-scale production is beyond them.’

Worse still: for a Tesla’s windows, Elon Musk has to rely on Carglass, for example. Tesla can’t get them in itself…
‘What a coincidence that you should cite Carglass. Because it’s a perfect example of a company that has succeeded in organising efficient production, and in moving with the times. They have implemented a very lean organisational structure, which is incredibly customer-oriented, and strongly focused on keeping costs down. Another thing that Carglass does well is to slowly expand its activities. The firm made its name repairing car window damage, but is gradually moving towards bodywork damage, which of course is a smart idea. The firm is also exemplary when it comes to HR. Carglass is strongly committed to customer satisfaction research using Net Promoter Scores, and places heavy emphasis on employee satisfaction. The company wants to be the greatest place to work, and this shines through in everything it does, not as a fad, but truly as fundamental company culture. It always uses its own staff in its branding and advertisements. It is a credible story.’

Is this credibility the most important thing for the company culture?

‘I’m certain that it is. It’s not so much about what you say, provided that you mean what you’re saying and consistently practice what you preach. At the hospital where my wife works, they say that the patient plays a central role. But is that really true if the first 50 parking spaces are reserved for doctors? Are you truly being consistent in that case? I know a company, which will remain nameless, that wanted to convey that it was the best at everything. Naturally they wanted to be the best employer too. So the sales managers were all given a beautiful, expensive company car from a German brand. But the boss insisted that these cars were kept spick and span. During a sales meeting, all the parked cars that didn’t look smart enough had a huge sticker placed on their windscreen: This car is company property. Treat me right. The kind of sticker that you have to pick at for two hours to get it off. You can laugh at it, or you can find it ridiculous, but the message is clear: it’s important to us that everything looks absolutely perfect, and we take care of each other and of our equipment. Fair enough.’

What are the important things for the employee of the future?

‘For young people especially, purpose is a top priority, but you need to be careful: it strikes me that people are easily satisfied with a wafer-thin story. Job applicants will always ask what Mr Heineken or Mrs C&A is doing for the world, apart from making a profit. If an organisation does not have an answer to this, then that organisation has a problem. But if Mr Heineken or Mrs C&A replies that they want to clean cars three times a year for charity, then these young people are fine with that. That’s what I mean by wafer-thin. Another thing you still see with young people is the allure exerted by certain brands. Here at the business school I see young people leave who are fixated on brands. They love them. They all want to work for the branded houses in the fast-moving consumer goods sector. It’s almost a profession of faith: these brands hold the same kind of appeal as the church once did. Often these young people are sick and tired of corporate life after five or ten years, so they move into self-employment. It is one of the big challenges for the large companies: how do I manage to attract and retain the next generation? That’s not so simple.’

In your publications and presentations, you always talk about the raplex environment, which stands for a ‘rapidly changing and complex environment’. Is this environment now changing even faster than ever? Or is change something timeless?

‘Change is timeless. The examples of the steam engine, the car or the TV are often cited. So change in itself is nothing new: it is just that the speed and variety of the changes taking place are now greater than ever and therefore more complex. We ain’t seen nothing yet. But I don’t want to be a prophet of doom – I mainly see the positive things and the opportunities. In five years’ time, it will probably be unthinkable for you to physically invite someone to attend a job interview. It will all be done online. Indeed, as an employer I’ll soon know everything about you as a candidate online. In ten years’ time, you’ll only be making a physical appointment out of politeness. You need to physically shake hands at some point. The tech side of things won’t be the problem. The challenge is to get people on board.’

And there lies the challenge for the management…

‘Indeed. Managers need to seek out the right stimulus. How do you manage to take employees with you? The intrinsic motivation is very important. 80-year old grandmothers communicate with their grandchildren using apps. It is important to work out and understand the stimulus that makes them get on board and embrace this tech. I think that managers and companies chiefly need to look for an answer to the question: what’s in it for them? This means that they need to put themselves in the employee’s shoes. How can we get staff to the point where they are not only using the tech, but also thinking about how they can go one step further from there? That is a key challenge in quite a number of industries.’

Are companies not all looking for people with the same 21st century skills? Isn’t there a danger that there will be a run on people with the same profile?

‘Yes, but you shouldn’t be afraid of that. 100 years ago, we were all suddenly looking for literate people. Did we panic then? Yes, perhaps we did, but in retrospect we can conclude that the problem solved itself. It led to the point where employees are all literate.

The same thing will happen now, and the connection will come about automatically. Although I do think that the education system should adjust somewhat. How much longer are we going to teach primary school children to write elegantly? Isn’t it more logical to teach them to type? Or perhaps to go a step further and immerse them in voice recognition? We have to dare to ask these questions. Also, we shouldn’t be scared of change or digitisation. Yes, service staff will soon be replaced by chatbots. But that’s a good thing, because otherwise an employee will have to explain how your pension works for the 34th time. In any case, if I ask three people a question about my pension, I get four different answers. A chatbot will probably know what the situation is immediately. What’s more, I don’t anticipate that there will be resistance on matters like this. People see the advantages. At most, there will be resistance when the new jobs are handed out. We need to try and do that fairly.’

Strategic HRM is being given an increasingly important role in the boards of big companies. In your opinion, what is the most important thing about organisational structure in 2019?

‘The most important thing you can say about an organisational structure is that it has to be a conscious decision. The structure must be aligned with the strategy: structure follows strategy, not the other way around. There is no such thing as a right or wrong structure, but the structure must be linked to the strategy. Launching a new strategy while the old structure is still in place is a waste of time. Naturally, this is easy to say, but in practice it has proven incredibly difficult to implement. Changing the structure always hurts, because it always means taking power away from one person and redistributing it amongst the others. There will always be winners and losers, and so you get resistance. It’s not easy.’

Where do you find the greatest resistance to change?

‘The annoying thing about structural changes is that they are not linear. Changes always happen in a pendulum motion, swinging from one side to the other: from radical centralisation to radical decentralisation; or from all the power to the EU, to all the power to the Member States. That is not a problem, but you can never swim against the tide. What’s more, some employees have already seen the pendulum swinging past two or three times in their career. They’ve seen it all before and they say: do whatever you like, I couldn’t care less.’

In the Netherlands, we are working on making employment conditions more flexible in order to make organisations more agile. Is that a solution or a threat?

‘That is the advantage of the pendulum: sometimes it goes a little too far, but it always swings back. So I’m not worried about that. Today it may be necessary to outsource IT specialists. Great. If it soon becomes apparent that we need them in-house, that’s fine too: then you’ll have to buy them back. That’s not a problem. What is important when you’re changing employment conditions is that both the employer and the employee benefit. If only the employer benefits, then it is doomed to failure. The opposite is also true: you have to try and find a balance and you have to keep talking. I regularly encounter organisations where the management feels resistance to the unions. Then I say: imagine you didn’t have to deal with a union, but with a kind of yellow vests movement amongst your own people. How would you deal with that? So be happy that there is a union that you’re in dialogue with.’

You also hear rumours that unions are resistant to agility…

‘Definitely. I actually think that we need to face up to those kinds of unions. “Once a concession has been made, there’s no going back,” is no longer appropriate. It is important to be open to new developments and to one another. To see the pendulum move and to swing with it together in the most optimal way.’

A person has to keep on developing throughout their life and learning new things. But you’re describing ‘unlearning’ as an important characteristic. Can you explain that?

‘Unlearning is the conscious process that leads to us throwing away learnt behaviour, knowledge and convictions. What was true yesterday can get in your way today. I was born in an era that we had the Winkler Prins encyclopaedia at home, in 24 volumes. I don’t think I even opened it up a dozen times. Imagine that I was still getting my knowledge from that encyclopaedia? We are living in a different era, with different skills. Now there’s talk of elevator learning, extremely small modules in which knowledge is passed on in a maximum of three minutes. You have to dare to let things go and not romanticise history.’

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