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The “liberated companies” do not escape the principles of employee control

For the past fifteen years, a movement has emerged in France in favor of companies qualified as “liberated”. It is for example, near Montpellier, Enerfip and its 14 employees, the first European platform for financing the energy transition. It is also Chrono Flex (more than 400 employees), located on the outskirts of Nantes, specialist in repairing hydraulic hoses. It is also the Montalbanaise Poult biscuit factory.

Its principles of extensive employee empowerment and shared governance have been popularized in particular by the book Liberty and Co. published by Isaac Getz, professor at ESCP, and Brian Carney, member of the editorial board of wall street journal. Everything suggests that control could give way to freedom at work.

However, close observation of emblematic cases of this type of organization shows that they remain governed by principles of control. Thibault Brière’s testimonial book entitled Toxic Management“chilling” according to the drafting of the World, underlines moreover that their invisibilization could even facilitate manipulative drifts. There would therefore always be control in the life of organizations and it would be better to assume it.

“Lost in Translation”

As our work, like many others, points out, it is indeed difficult, if not impossible, to make something organized (organization) without organizing (organizing). Understanding this involves clarifying the notion of “organizational control”, derived from the Anglo-Saxon concept of “controlling”, poorly translated into the language of Molière. Indeed, it is neither quite the “checking”, the verification, nor quite the “monitoring”, the surveillance. There are in fact different modes of control, some formal, others informal, and each type of organization has its control-mix, his way of associating them. Starting with the so-called “liberated organizations”.

Organizational control refers above all to the notion of influence. It is a question of directing the behaviors in the direction of the accomplishment of the goals of the organization. How to distinguish the different types? By means of control: compliance with standards and procedures, performance measurement, adherence to values? By what is controlled: actions, results, characteristics and qualifications of personnel, culture and standards?

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Typically, there are three major modes. Results-based control refers, internally, to management control methods and tools. It can also take the form, with external stakeholders, of market control in the case of the production of private goods. Control by rules and procedures refers to all the formal systems put in place by the organization to detect and correct non-compliant behavior. Social control, finally, is more informal: it can be based on the power of a person, the pressure exerted by the group or, even by oneself.

And do what you please?

It is relatively easy to establish a correspondence between the modes of control and the types of organization, starting with those distinguished by the Canadian management researcher Henry Mintzberg in reference works. They can be schematized as follows:

Each type of organization has its own way of exercising control. Provided by the author

Where in all this do the so-called “liberated” companies and other “holocracy”, “opal organization” or “spaghetti organization” fit? Their control-mix is in fact dominated by forms of social and informal control. The functioning of these organizations makes the bet to rely on social control by the restricted group.

These companies are based on autonomous or semi-autonomous teams and the regulation of activity is primarily the business of the members of said teams. The effectiveness of such control implies that the teams do not exceed a certain size. Beyond that, the team is split in two.

Control by the group of peers is extended and reinforced by another type of social and informal control that Michel Crozier, a great name in the sociology of organizations, would gladly have qualified as “government by culture”. Management by values ​​indeed gives a missionary tone to these organizations. Of a nature certainly very subtle, this type of control invites the members of the organization to share values ​​and to act in conformity.

It is this model that is the basis of the Buurtzorg company, which has revolutionized the organization of home nursing in the Netherlands. As we have shown, it now inspires social and medico-social actors in France, starting with home help services (SAAD) and home nursing services (SSIAD).

Henry Mintzberg already underlined it in 1989, this type of organization can achieve the purest form of decentralization: all those who are allowed to enter the system share its power. But all this does not necessarily mean an absence of control, it is even quite the opposite. It tends to be particularly powerful in this type of configuration because it is not simply about the behavior of its members but practically about their very soul.

The English writer Sir Anthony Jay also noted in his book entitled Machiavelli and management that the fundamental teaching principle of new Jesuits when they are recruited is the following word “Worship God and do what pleases you”. Of course, this does not mean that they are free to do as they please but, on the contrary, to act strictly in accordance with the set of beliefs in which the order participates. This is not something very different from so-called liberated companies.




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