Learning Work Organizations: Issues and Challenges for France
Jean-Patrick Labouyrie: "Never before has the time been so propitious for reflection on the future of work organization. In a world of perpetual change, companies will have to deal with an increasingly unstable environment and move beyond their existing routines and patterns of action. How can they adapt to manage this growing complexity? What perspectives should be considered? This is what is at stake in work organization models, and more particularly in the so-called "learning organization". Salima Benhamou, an economist at France Stratégie, who specializes in issues related to changes in work, talks about this. So first of all, what is a learning organization and what are its specificities compared to other forms of work organization?"
Salima Benhamou: "If one had to give a generic definition of the learning organization in relation to all those that exist, one could define a learning organization as an organization that seeks to continually increase the learning capacities of its members in order to innovate and to anticipate future transformations.
A learning organization is therefore characterized by specific management modes and Human Resources practices aimed at supporting a strong learning culture through the participation of employees in the definition of objectives, through teamwork and the autonomy of employees in their work, the content of which relies heavily on complex problem solving and experimentation. In short, learning organizations offer more opportunities for each employee to develop and use their own ideas and skills.
The flexibility and adaptability of learning organizations should also be emphasized, especially because they have a high capacity for innovation. Cooperation and information exchanges between employees and between departments are more developed, which gives them a high degree of organizational responsiveness, especially in an unpredictable and complex environment.
These characteristics stand in sharp contrast to other models, in particular to the classical Taylorist model, which was designed towards the end of the nineteenth century for standardized mass production, with a strong division of design and execution tasks, and adapted to a stable and highly predictable environment.
Work in learning organizations also differs from lean production, another model introduced in the 1970s in the factories of the manufacturer Toyota, where the procedural autonomy granted to employees (methods, pace, quality control) is weaker and the learning dynamic is much lower. There is also the simple model of work organization, found especially in personal services, catering and retail trade sectors, which is characterized by limited employee autonomy, high task repetitiveness and low learning in work with less formalized work procedures."
JPL: "Precisely then, in the work that you co-authored with Edward Lorenz of the University of the Côte d'Azur and the CNRS, you compared the different forms of organization, in terms of quality of work and employment, as well as in terms of innovation. What observations did you make, what lessons did you draw?"
SB: "It has been found that learning forms of work organization workers enjoy better working conditions, more stable jobs, greater access to vocational training, and these results remain statistically true independently of the sector of activity, the occupational category and the size of the company.
We also note that more employees engaged in learning forms of work organization report better quality management and more recognition in the workplace.
Our results also show that they are the least exposed to psychosocial risks and a high pace of work. Compared to the different models, employees working according to the Lean forms tends to experience the worst working conditions due to strong organizational constraints such as strict adherence to quantitative production output standards and highly standardized rules: they experience more stress at work and are also are more likely to report being unable to continue doing their job or similar work until the age of 60.
In terms of innovation, there is a positive correlation between the diffusion of learning forms of work organization and the diffusion of new and disruptive innovations in global markets. On the other hand, there are negative correlations between the lean production or Taylorist models and the rate of new innovation.
Of course, a correlation at the national level is not sufficient to demonstrate strict causality, but above all these results suggest that there is a "systemic" link between the opportunities for learning and exploring new knowledge open to employees in their daily work and the ability of companies to develop products and services with a high degree of novelty."
JPL: "And if we now look in more detail at the situation in France: how does it compare with other European countries? How many French employees are involved in learning forms of work organization?"
SB: "43% of French employees in the private sector are engaged in learning forms of work organizations. This is slightly above the European average of the 27 countries, which is 40%, and ahead of certain countries in the South (Greece, Spain and Portugal) as well as most Eastern European countries. However, it lags behind when compared to European countries with a similar level of economic and technological development. This is particularly the case in the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden and Denmark) and continental Europe (the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and Belgium) where the employee participation rate is higher.
In fact, over the last ten years, the trend in France has been towards a decline in learning forms of work organization in favour of a fairly significant increase in the Lean model, even though this model offers fewer opportunities in terms of breakthrough innovations and work sustainability. This organizational dynamic is also observed in the United Kingdom and Ireland but also in some new member countries from Eastern Europe such as Romania."
JPL: "How can this French position, which could almost be described as "lagging behind", be explained, particularly in relation to Northern European countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden?"
SB: "By conducting an empirical analysis, it can already be shown that traditional structural factors such as the size of the firm, its sector of activity or the socio-professional category cannot explain the differences between countries in the organization of work. There are other factors, including institutional, social and cultural factors, which profoundly influence the choices to adopt work organization.
For example, education systems that place greater "value" on the traditional academic stream, which is devoted to the acquisition of theoretical and scientific knowledge, than on the vocational stream, which is aimed at providing practical skills and technical know-how specific to an occupation or sector, are more likely to adopt hierarchical forms of work organizations. This is particularly the case in France. On the other hand, national systems that place a more balanced value on the two streams are more likely to adopt organizational forms where knowledge and skills management focus on practical problem solving, teamwork and employee autonomy.
This is particularly the case in Scandinavian and Northern European countries, which value practical experience in the workplace as a source of skills and qualifications, and which encourage investment in continuing vocational training from secondary school onwards and through work-linked training, making it accessible to as many people as possible (skilled and low-skilled). Another explanation lies in the characteristics of vocational training practices in France. Employees who have access to continuing training, financed by the employer, mostly attend training courses or internships outside the company. On-the-job training actions, which aim to increase technical, organizational and cognitive skills in a more operational manner, are less developed than in Northern European and Scandinavian countries. France is an emblematic country in terms of classical training because its continuing education system has been built on the school and academic model, giving more value to courses and internships based on theoretical and formal knowledge than to workplace training actions.
Finally, there are other factors, more historical and cultural, which favour a very top-down management that leaves little room for individual and collective initiative and risk-taking."
JPL: "So if we look at the perspectives of learning organizations, what are your recommendations, what are the levers to promote their dissemination?"
SB: "We believe that the development of learning organizations must be placed on the reform agenda, in France as in Europe, in view of the economic and social opportunities and above all in view of the challenges of unprecedented scale that are looming on the horizon for 2030: such as the advent of the era of big data and artificial intelligence, increased global competition, and a slowdown in the growth of productivity gains. Almost all advanced countries will be subject to a continuous learning imperative to adapt to an increasingly complex and unpredictable environment. Business performance will therefore require flexible work organizations capable of rapidly optimising the management of knowledge and know-how and of anticipating even sudden changes. These changes will require workers to be highly adaptable, highly autonomous and able to solve complex problems and to think critically. These cognitive, organizational and social skills will also be increasingly in demand on the labour market. Yet France is one of the European countries where these skills are most lacking.
Therefore, in concrete terms, we propose the implementation of a national programme in favour of organizational and managerial innovations through several financial and non-financial mechanisms to help organizations, both private and public, that wish to undertake organizational transformations inspired by the learning model. This programme would also aim to foster the creation of cooperation networks in organizational innovation within regional ecosystems, between business networks, universities and post-secondary education and research institutions, and local authorities.
The programme would also aim to improve support for managers in leading organizational change and to give them greater responsibility for developing skills in the workplace. The role of the manager is crucial to the successful implementation of learning organizations.
More fundamentally, organizational choices also stem from an organization's strategic objectives. The clear definition of a strategic objective also depends on a leader's skills and his or her ability to bring new visions to the fore and to generate buy-in from the members of an organization. While the in-depth case studies have shown that companies that have become true learners have all taken different paths, they nevertheless share one thing in common: the important role of the leader's vision and his or her ability to rely on all stakeholders, employees, of course, and their representatives. Other skills are important for the implementation of a learning organization, such as the ability to go outside one's comfort zone, to get out of what one is used to doing or hearing, and to know how to capitalize on good experiences as well as failures. And finally, the leader must also show humility in the face of knowledge and learning, and recognize each other's skills in order to value the productive complementarity between people and technology. It is this complementarity that also makes it possible to learn new ways of doing and producing."