Understanding “flexibility” – a close-up view of an organizational platitude
Flexibility is one of those buzzwords that keeps coming up in organizational communiques and discussions. People are continually asked to display flexibility, without ever being told what the term means: flexible workplaces, flexible attitudes, flexible jobs – the word itself has a flexible meaning that depends on the context in which it is used and by whom.
When words are used in this way they become platitudes – empty words that make a lot of noise. In this post, I analyse the platitude, flexibility, as it is used in organisations. My discussion is based on a paper by Thomas Eriksen entitled, Mind the Gap: Flexibility, Epistemology and the Rhetoric of New Work.
Background – a bit about organizational platitudes
One of the things that struck me when I moved from academia to industry is the difference in the way words or phrases are used in the two domains. In academics one has to carefully define the terms one uses (particularly if one is coining a new term) whereas in business it doesn’t seem to matter, words can mean whatever one wants them to mean (OK, this is an exaggeration, but not by too much). Indeed, as Paul Culmsee and I discuss in the first chapter of The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, many terms that are commonly bandied about in organizations are platitudes because they are understood differently by different people.
A good example of a platitude is the word governance. One manager may see governance as being largely about oversight and control whereas another might interpret it as being about providing guidance. Such varying interpretations can result in major differences in the way the two managers implement governance: the first one might enforce it as a compliance-oriented set of processes that leave little room for individual judgement while the other might implement it as a broad set of guidelines that leave many of the decisions in the hands of those who are actually doing the work. Needless to say, the results in the two cases are likely to be different too.
Flexibility – the conventional view
A good place to start our discussion of flexibility is with the dictionary. The online Oxford Dictionary defines at as:
- the ability to be easily modified
- willingness to change or compromise
The term is widely used in both these senses in organizational settings. For example, people speak of flexible designs (i.e. designs that can be easily modified) or flexible people (referring to those who are willing to change or compromise). However, and this is the problem: the term is open to interpretation – what Jack might term a flexible approach may be seen by Jill as a complete lack of method. These differences in interpretation become particularly obvious when the word is used in a broad context – such as in a statement justifying an organizational change. An executive might see a corporate restructure and the resulting changes in jobs/roles as a means to achieve organizational flexibility, but those affected by it may see it as constraining theirs. As Eriksen states:
Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content of jobs can be changed almost overnight, and the boundaries between work and leisure are negotiable and chronically fuzzy.
Indeed, such “flexibility” which requires one to change at short notice results in a fragmentation of individual experience and a resulting loss of a coherent narrative of one’s life. It appears that increased flexibility in one aspect results in a loss of flexibility in another. Any sensible definition of flexibility ought to reflect this.
Consider the following definition of flexibility proposed by Gregory Bateson:
“Flexibility is uncommitted potential for change”
This deceptively simple statement is a good place to start understanding what flexibility really means for projects, organisations …and even software systems.
As Eriksen tells us, Bateson proposed this definition in the context of ecology. In particular, Bateson had in mind the now obvious notion that the increased flexibility we gain through our increasingly energy-hungry lifestyles results in a decrease in the environment’s capacity to cope with the consequences. This is true of flexibility in any context: a gain in flexibility in one dimension will necessarily be accompanied by a loss of flexibility in another.
Another implication of the above definition is that a system that is running at or near the limits of its operating variables cannot be flexible. The following examples should make this clear:
- A project team that is putting in 18 hour workdays in order to finish a project on time.
- A car that’s being driven at top speed.
- A family living beyond their means.
All these systems are operating at or near their limits, they have little or no spare capacity to accommodate change.
A third implication of the definition follows from the preceding one: the key variables of a flexible system should lie in the mid-range of their upper and lower limits. In terms of above examples:
- The project team should be putting in normal hours.
- The car should be driven at or below the posted road speed limits
- The family should be living within its income, with a reasonable amount to spare.
Of course, the whole point of ensuring that systems operate in their comfort zone is that they can be revved up if the need arises. Such revving up, however, should be an exceptional circumstance rather than the norm – a point that those who run projects, organisations (and, yes, even vehicles) often tend to forget. If one operates a system at the limits of its tolerance for too long, not only will it not be flexible, it will break.
Flexibility in the workplace
As mentioned in the introduction, the term flexibility keeps cropping up in organizational settings: corporate communiques exhort employees to be flexible in the face of change. This is typically a coded signal that employees should expect uncertainty and be prepared to adjust to it. A related manifestation of flexibility is the blurring of the distinction between work and personal life. As Eriksen puts it:
The term flexibility is often used to describe this new situation: Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content of jobs can be changed, and the boundaries between work and leisure are poorly defined.
This trend is aided by recent developments in technology that enable employees to be perpetually on call. This is often sold as a work from home initiative but usually ends up being much more. Eriksen has this to say about home offices:
One recent innovation typically associated with flexibility is the home office. In Scandinavia (and some other prosperous, technologically optimistic regions), many companies equipped some of their employees with home computers with online access to the company network in the early 1990s, in order to enhance their flexibility. This was intended to enable employees to work from home part of the time, thereby making the era when office workers were chained to the office desk all day obsolete.
In the early days, there were widespread worries among employers to the effect that a main outcome of this new flexibility would consist in a reduction of productivity. Since there was no legitimate way of checking how the staff actually spent their time out of the office, it was often suspected that they worked less from home than they were supposed to. If this were in fact the case, working from home would have led to a real increase in the flexibility of time budgeting. However, work researchers eventually came up with a different picture. By the late 1990s, hardly anybody spoke of the home office as a convenient way of escaping from work; rather, the concern among unionists as well as researchers was now that increasing numbers of employees were at pains to distinguish between working hours and leisure time, and were suffering symptoms of burnout and depression. The home office made it difficult to distinguish between contexts that were formerly mutually exclusive because of different physical locations.
It is interesting to see this development in the light of Bateson’s definition of flexibility: the employee gains flexibility in space (he or she can work from home or from the office) at the expense of flexibility in time (organization time encroaches on personal time). As Eriksen states:
There seems to be a classic Batesonian flexibility trade-off associated with the new information technologies: increased spatial flexibility entails decreased temporal flexibility. If inaccessibility and ‘empty time’ are understood as scarce resources, the context of ‘new work’ thus seems to be an appropriate context for a new economics as well. In fact, a main environmental challenge of our near future will consist in protecting slow time and gaps from environmental degradation.
In short, it appears that flexibility for the organization necessarily implies a loss of flexibility for the individual.
Flexibility is in the eye of the beholder: an action to increase organisational flexibility by, say, redeploying employees would likely be seen by those affected as a move that constrains their (individual) flexibility. Such a dual meaning is characteristic of many organizational platitudes such as Excellence, Synergy and Governance. It is an interesting exercise to analyse such platitudes and expose the difference between their espoused and actual meanings. So I sign off for 2013, wishing you many hours of platitude-deconstructing fun :-)