Behind the "transformation" tree, the forest of managerial innovations

Updated: May 1

Christian Defélix*

Professor, Director of the IAE of Grenoble

Head of the Human Capital and Innovation Chair

University of Grenoble Alpes (UGA)

*Faculty member of the Business Science Institute


Article originally published on The Conversation France.

This article is taken from a paper at the 2018 Congress of the Association francophone de gestion des ressources humaines (AGRH): A. Bastien, A. Berard, C. Defélix, M. Le Boulaire and T. Picq (2018), "The metamorphosis of organizations: multiple managerial innovations, HRM on the agenda?"

"This is not a wave. It's a wave of change. The transformation that is taking place in companies is as complex as it is protean". This was the headline of a recent dossier in a major daily newspaper dedicated to business. Indeed, it is hard to find a company, a public organization or even a social economy entity that does not boast of having launched its own "transformation"! Most of the time, we see first the digital component of this transformation: digital marketing, connected objects, production and interpretation of massive data, use of artificial intelligence... Abundantly described and commented on, this "digital revolution" is indeed changing the company's relationship with its customers, but also its internal working relationships, and its relationship with the environment. And what if this was only the visible part of an iceberg of changes and transformations, to be put in the plural?

Behind the "digital transformation", multiple attempts to manage differently

While it is customary to talk about digital transformation, it would be more accurate to describe the variety of transformations brought about by the use of digital technology in the major functions of the company. These include: industrial production, which is increasingly influenced by digital tools; the relationship with customers, which is both enriched and made more complex by digital tools; and the increasingly precise traceability of the supply chain. As for human resources management, massive data and increased transparency of information are enabling, or imposing, many changes.

But behind these digital applications are also new exchange and collaboration functionalities. When there is a "transformation", it is far from being only digital: it concerns the whole way of working. The pyramid-shaped organization chart, the "exoskeleton" of bureaucracy, to quote Gary Hamel, professor at the London Business School, is shaking under the blows of new managerial practices such as co-development, agile project management, design thinking... We must therefore not stop at the screen of digital functionalities, and open our eyes to what Autissier, Johnson and Moutot rightly describe, in their latest book, as a "desire to work differently. At a time when criticism of the stacking and compartmentalization in which management is lost is multiplying, the current trend is to set up more collaborative operations, based on more autonomous actors or entities working in network mode, including within the company.

Agility on all floors

The term "managerial innovation" is often used to describe the experimentation or implementation of these collaborative approaches. The most common approach in this area is to focus on practices or tools that, in themselves and through the content they represent, would bring novelty and would thus be a source of impact. While this quest is long-standing, several organizations in search of managerial agility stand out today. The video game industry, which is the object of increasing attention from management researchers, provides an excellent illustration: At Ubisoft, the world's third-largest publisher, they rely on the findings of neuroscience and chronobiology to adapt to the expectations and personalities of the younger generations of employees, to practice adaptable schedules, to multiply multidirectional feedback and not reduce it to a hierarchical relationship... Being more agile, decompartmentalizing functions and boundaries, reducing managerial and vertical control to allow new strategic projects to emerge, all these practices can be described as managerial innovations in terms of content, insofar as they change "the way managers do what they do", to quote Gary Hamel once again.

However, this approach in terms of content remains limited. On the one hand, many of the practices presented as intrinsically new are in fact rehashes of old ideas. For example, the principles of the liberated enterprise date back to the 1930s. On the other hand, the implementation of these practices can be imposed by management, and therefore very "traditional".

Beyond the content, a second reality of managerial innovation today consists in applying tools that are already known, but in new contexts. In recent years, we have seen a subsidiary of a large public group serving the general interest and the economic development of the country launch a so-called "liberated" organizational mode to remedy its economic problems and the decline in the commitment of its teams... only to stop the experiment and backtrack two years later.

In other cases, managerial innovation in context is not limited to such ephemeral transplants, and can take the form of practices that consist in playing with contexts and action perimeters in the long term. For example, the Vinci group, which employs 185,000 people, of which only 250 are at headquarters, is organized into more than 3,000 entities, each of which is a small or medium-sized business. Unlike many large companies, what is sought here is not the pooling of functions, nor rationalization, but an organization in which each entity manager acts as a real company manager, as close as possible to his or her markets.

Innovating through process

Finally, there is a "third way" for managerial innovation. This can be found in the way things are done, with the adoption of change being the greatest challenge to be met. We call this innovation through process: it means first of all trying, experimenting, and renewing over time and through repeated efforts the implementation of new functions. At this world leader in animal health, for example, we are now seeing the gradual emergence of collaborative and agile operating methods, but through a process that has nothing to do with hierarchy.

Take a manager, originally specialized in industrial development. He is first made aware of the so-called scrum methods, then of a managerial approach adapted to creative teams. Then, like a pioneer, he launches a new kind of training-action that allows the creation of prototypes. The newly installed Strategic Industrial Projects Department spotted him. Together, they developed new co-creation and conflict management processes. Finally, when a consultant arrived to audit this department with such particular methods, the feedback was so positive that the company's head office decided to progressively switch the whole company to this agile organization mode!

In this case, the managerial innovation is not in the concepts or the principles adopted, which belong to a known register. It resides much more in the process of disseminating these practices: first, the individual initiative of an intrapreneurial actor, then the communication of the first advances, and finally a gradual progression. Two constants throughout the diffusion process: experimentation, as well as the ability to reassure and inspire.

From content only to context and process

More or less, the managerial innovations that are hidden behind the banner of "transformation" are therefore based on the same line of force. Namely, a less vertical and hierarchical operating mode, in favor of more horizontal, collaborative and networked logics. But this "content", which is ultimately quite homogeneous, masks a variety of contexts and processes. The paths taken therefore remain diverse and numerous. The collaborative mode(s) can thus be obtained in a variety of contexts - either internally, within the organization itself, or externally, by having several different organizations work together - and according to more or less emergent or deliberate processes.

We can thus schematically deduce four major typical situations that provide a more global view of the current forest of managerial innovations.

From then on, we are invited to desacralize the "content" of managerial innovation, in the sense of tools alone, even if lists of best practices continue - and will continue - to flourish in order to draw up a list of innovative or transformative managerial practices. Rather, it is a matter of broadening our view to organizational boundaries that are shifting, and of reflecting on increasingly diverse processes. Field managers, observers, consultants and researchers will benefit from this broader representation. In light of this, they will be able to:

  • Promote relevant content for managerial innovation, by seeking to reconcile the company's identity with the ambitions of the transformation: tell the story, go back to the roots of the company to get people to adhere to a new project, not scare the social body and promote the construction of a collective vision;

  • Play on all possible contexts for managerial innovation: maximize opportunities for exchange, mirroring, and dialogue with the external environment and stakeholders;

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, enrich the processes of managerial innovation themselves: for example, by promoting, in the training of managers, the fundamentals of organizational analysis (which are tending to disappear from the programs of Masters and Grandes Ecoles); or by relying on one or more entrepreneurial actors.

Article translated from French with


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