Alexander Van Caeneghem: 'In an age of alienation, it is more important than ever to bring meaning into the equation.'

‘In our time purpose is more important than ever. It’s necessary to rethink the nature of work as something that is not just part of a value chain, but as a means to self-development and growth for people. The current emergence of “purpose” and “values” is a sign that mindsets are changing. New leaders translate the company’s purpose into an operating model.’ Alexander Van Caeneghem, director at TriFinance, shares his views on working in 2017 and beyond. He discusses paradigm shifts in organizational development, Economies of Motivation®, new types of leadership, alienation and technology. 

Interview by Dirk van Bastelaere

What is actually wrong with organizations nowadays and with work in general? On other occasions, you have been very critical about the way work is organized in our present economy.

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘Well, I think that a lot of organizations still work in a Tayloristic fashion. Often the nature of work has not changed significantly since the beginning of last century. Basically, you build a structure where everybody has a specific assignment, a specific level of authority to make decisions and a specific reporting line, all of this cascading down in one big pyramid. Incentives are of the carrot or stick type, so you have people do something because they hope to be rewarded or try to avoid punishment. Intrinsically, everybody needs to be as predictable and replaceable as possible. That’s more or less the model in a lot of organizations, even today.
‘You can reconceptualize the nature of work as something that is not part of a value chain to, in the first place, increase shareholder value, but as a means of self-development and growth. The current emergence of ‘purpose’ and ‘values’ is a sign that mindsets are changing. But if you want to go beyond the surface and install a culture of purpose, you need an operating model to support that. You need consistency and structure. And you need to be radical, in a way. You need to change the way you work to get people in a place where they can do what they want to do and what they think is the best thing to do.’ 

A structure to facilitate the growth of people

That view implies a radically different view on work and the nature of work, where external elements like wages, benefits or even work-life balance are less important than drive or engagement. You tend to say that wages and benefits are just ‘dissatisfaction removers’. They are a given. 

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘If you consider work as a natural phase in your life, next to growing up, going to school, having a family and retiring, then it is something that needs to be done. You do it to pay the bills and to contribute to society. In turn, when you retire or have bad luck, society will support you - which is of course great.
‘On the other hand, you can look at work as a form of self-realization, as a period in your life where you do things you want to do because they are, somehow, important. Work can be fun. Work can help you realize your ambitions. That’s what we, at TriFinance, call ‘Economies of Motivation®’. It’s the most powerful motivator.
‘Looking at the world through these glasses, you end up with a different concept of work. The organization can be an environment where you can let people grow at the speed that they want, into the directions they want, with the support they need. In that case you don’t try to remove dissatisfaction by bringing more equilibrium to the work-life balance, by providing fresh fruit every day or by offering a massage every Friday - which are great ideas, by the way.’

Was it the ‘people first’ view on work that attracted you in TriFinance when you entered the company in 2010?

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘What attracted me in TriFinance was indeed the people-centric way to look at the world, the fact that the company was not putting processes, controls, budgets, P&L’s first. I found the company through my own network. The philosophy was already well established, because the company is the realization of an initial big and holistic idea from founder Gert Smit. That view on the organization as a kind of structure facilitating the growth of people actually is one of TriFinance’s constitutive ideas.’

How come you already thought about work and organizations in those terms before 2010? Where did that come from?

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘As a management consultant I spent time in a lot of Belgian and international companies and different work environments, talking to people. It always struck me that many people were not very happy doing what they do, working in a not so pleasant daily context. I thought it strange, initially, how smoothly people seemed to accept that situation, considering we have to work forty-five years. I was astonished about the way adult people work with each other and talk to each other. How leadership in a lot of companies is very directive and top down, saying: ‘You must do this!’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I say so’. People humiliating other people in front of yet other people in meetings. Management sometimes resembles childcare for adults.’

How do you transport those views on people, work and Economies of Motivation® into different work environments and industries? Organizations have been struggling to implement this for the last twenty years. Why does it come so slowly?

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘It has to do with a paradigm shift. We are leaving the idea of the universal solution for organizations, as it was used in the past, where you have a structure that you basically can take off the shelf and apply in different contexts, irrelevant of culture, location, time etc. Of course, you have ideas and principles. There are things that organizations do well and that you can combine in a new fashion, but I don’t believe in people who try to sell ‘the new way of working’ as a 'simple' blueprint model that most organizations can apply.’

Co-existing organizational paradigms

How should for instance a chemical company specializing in pesticides, a retail company or an IT company proceed? You say organizational development is all a matter of customization.

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘As I said, mostly there are no blueprints. The organization's purpose is a good way to start. Shareholder value can be a purpose, but it’s quite often a poor purpose. It’s not what drives people. Whether you work for a chemical company, a retail company or an IT company, it all boils down to meaning, to the degree you are able to extract meaning from or even inject meaning into what you do. It does not matter if you are building the Space Shuttle or sewing a gown, it’s different people doing it and every one of them can find purpose in what they do. That’s the point of departure.
‘Then there are quite a few organizational philosophies. There you must look for the best way to fit the purpose of the company and the purpose of the people working for the company. “One size fits all” does not apply there. Of course, there are some principles, some power paradigms. There’s freedom versus control. There’s team results versus individual results. You have several dimensions and typically every dimension is a continuum. Combining a few dimensions typically produces a good fit for an organization.’

You were talking about a paradigm shift. I have the impression that the more paradigms we develop, the more paradigms remain. This residue of paradigms we are left with, only seems to make the world of work more complex. 

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘Exactly. This coexistence of paradigms makes it harder to understand and manage. There are lot of counterintuitive aspects to it as well. If you talk about freedom and space for people, you counterintuitively must supply strong definitions of certain roles and functions and expectations in the organization. You must be very well aware of your place in the whole. You receive output of other people as input for your own work. You process it, and your output in turn becomes input for your colleagues. So you really need to make the organization as transparent as possible in order to get people to connect to what they do, to engage them. The old way of working denied this kind of complexity and the nuances of this concept, because of the alluring power of blueprint thinking.
‘These coexisting paradigms put us in an interesting situation. Maybe robotics and technology will eventually lead to the nearshoring of production that was offshored the past twenty years. We have always wanted to make things more efficient. We wanted to do more with the same number of people or less people. If you think about robotics process automation, the paradigm of old-school ‘human’ efficiency becomes less relevant. Inefficiency makes automation of course more difficult to set up and manage, but you actually just automate human inefficiency - in a move that should actually increase total efficiency.’ 

The return of 'alienation'

It’s a fact that the accumulation of knowledge happens at an ever-increasing speed. Might not that speed at which this knowledge develops destabilize or confuse people in those organizations?

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘It’s interesting to apply a seemingly outdated concept like “alienation” to that development. In the past the specific contribution that people made in organizations, be it in a value chain, be it in a very specific hierarchical structure, was very tangible. Now that contribution seems reduced to the interaction with a tool, a machine or some interface. Many people have lost the connection to the specific service or product they are creating, because they are being managed on their input and output into a specific system. Complexity, alienation, change, fragmentation are not only affecting organizations, but society in general, inciting many people to a quest for meaning.
‘That’s, of course, again the idea of the purpose, where you can articulate a goal or can do goal-setting as a company, as a team or as an individual. Only a goal is not as rich a concept as ‘purpose’, which has a connotation of ‘meaning’ and ‘sense’. If you have a purpose, you do things because they are meaningful. You literally make sense.
‘Alienation is not typical of the industrial age, it’s also happening now. A lot of what we are discussing is happening in an industrial age mindset. Whether we talk automation in the age of 18th century weaver Ned Ludd or an ERP system, the concept is similar. The promise that ERP systems will solve basically any single problem that you have as a company, proves to be false. It’s an illusion. We had a wave of ‘best of breed’ tools that were plugged into and interfaced with your ERP system. And now the next wave is already rising: that’s the robotics wave, with robots being agnostic of anything that is beneath their layer of robotization. If the corporate frameworks remain unaltered, those systems will only increase alienation.’

There’s also a kind of ‘noise’ that is the result of difficult interaction between people, or of friction between people and machine, people not understanding the routines they are supposed to follow.

Alexander Van Caeneghem. ‘That’s right. But don’t forget the impact of context. Why do you do what you do? What is the input you need to do something? Your input is somebody else’s output. What do you actually deliver? It’s not just that people do something in a tool or a system and that’s it. If you look at it from that reduced perspective, it’s very hard to find pleasure and meaning in what you do. It boils down to transparency and insight - typically in that order. 
‘Work is done in the way somebody put on paper, for instance through a job description, assigning tasks that people must execute. That makes it very easy to execute and supervise. Work is not necessarily over-organized, but it’s often still rigidly organized, in a way that does not allow for a lot of autonomy or collaboration.
‘Ironically, from an organizational development point of view, newer organization models typically require even more organization. In new designs, you let go of things that are common, replacing them with seemingly informal ways of working, but you need to define very well what these new ways of working are. You must organize that.
‘You cannot depend on a typical management hierarchy with a cascade of authority and freedom, but you need to discuss with each other who will do what and what the goals are. You distribute authority. It’s organization, but not as we know it. It’s more value driven. It’s more process driven. It’s more transversal. It’s more shifting coalitions, working in different settings with each other.
‘It comes with a new type of leadership, which is more coaching and convincing. Authority is not power that is vested in you, or in a management hierarchy or a position that you hold, but more something that you acquire in the way you interact with people and the degree up to which you are able to convince people of doing things. New leaders work peer-to-peer. They see the bigger picture and translate the purpose of the company. They articulate what needs to happen in the different processes in different parts of the company. They work with people and guide them. They detect what their people’s purpose is and help them to link their personal purpose to the purpose of the company.’

If you are talking about people looking for purpose and organizations creating purpose, that seems more remote than ever from today’s reality, which is alienation.

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘In an age of alienation and fragmentation it is more important than ever to find and bring meaning. If you keep treating work as you used to with all these dimensions that are factually changing work, you ignore a reality. That system is bound to implode sometime. In our time purpose is more important than ever, because you can no longer derive it from a metaphysical source or the power argument in society. Identity and the sense of belonging are hot items, also in politics, for example in the rise of nationalism.’

Can you specify how you want organizations to create purpose for people?

Alexander Van Caeneghem
: ‘I’m not sure if that’s the correct angle to approach it. Having organizations create purpose for people might even be paternalistic. You can articulate a purpose as a company, but people will need to find their own purpose. The question is: can they relate to the purpose of the company? And there are many ways to do that. You can find it in your own development, in skills, in knowledge. There’s even a very direct way with people identifying with the mission and the purpose of their organization.
‘By definition this link, this hook-up is temporary. The layer of the organization as such is not necessarily important. An individual can relate to different companies during her or his career. People relate to other people. People find purpose in specific constellations in which they work with other people. But those constellations can change. And you can’t just transplant a certain constellation of talent to a different environment.’

Taxing robots?

To conclude: You are very often skeptical about the evolution of technology and the impact on people.

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘Technology is a given. It can do amazing things. But in many companies, we see that people become slaves to the machines. Technology can take you to amazing places, but in a lot of contexts, there’s no idea where you want to go in the first place. I’m mainly skeptical towards these uncritical techno-evangelists. For me, technology needs to support, not control. I don’t see too many people with a vision on how technology can support the growth of people, instead of simply make an organization’s existing value chain more efficient and more effective.’

Is the main purpose of technology for you that it can automate routines and free-up people to do more value-added work?

Alexander Van Caeneghem: ‘As long as a human perform the same tasks as a machine, or technology or a robot, (s)he is by definition inferior: slower, less efficient, more error-prone. People will have to do those things that robots can’t do, involving empathy, creativity, intuition. It’s well known by now these factors can’t be automated. That way, robots can actually make people more human.
‘Generally I see a lot of optimism, in a sense that things will change and automation will lead to the creation of new jobs in managing and controlling. But that might of course be a bit of an illusion. Everything that is rule driven can and will be automated, including audit and management.
‘If you have fewer jobs, you may have to redesign the whole fabric of society. Many of our social structures are based on labor, workforce participation, taxing labor. Our social security system is still funded for more than 60 percent by taxing labor. Taxing robots, for instance, as Bill Gates suggested, might not be a bad idea. And here again we see how different paradigms coexist. We definitely will have to figure out how a social system developed for the industrial age will be able to survive in the robotic age. That will, of course, be a necessary condition for us to remain more human.’

International consultant TriFinance is part of ParkLane Insight and operates in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Alexander Van Caeneghem works as Strategy&Content Director and is director of CFO Services, one of its fastest growing advisory units.

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