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Interview in Management Scope, May 2019

What we can learn from social media-savvy grandmas

INTERVIEW WITH DIRK BUYENS, PROFESSOR HUMAN RESOURCES

Interview with Dirk Buyens, Professor Human Resources

What we can learn from media-savvy grandmas

Business leaders could learn much from elderly grandmothers effortlessly engaging with their grandchildren via social media. We need to better understand what stimulates people to adopt rapidly advancing technology, according to Dirk Buyens, Human Resources Professor, Vlerick Business School, Gent, Belgium. Unlearning is an important skill in this regard: ‘What may have been true yesterday could be an obstacle today.’

Dirk Buyens NL

Dirk Buyens is Mr Human Resources Management. In the Netherlands and far beyond, he is known as an authority on HR issues and has published many dozens of scientific articles on the subject. At home around the kitchen table in Ghent, it’s also all about HR since his wife is HR director of a large Belgian hospital. Two of his three children also work in the sector. Buyens himself is a little bashful when he says, ‘I suppose it must have had something to do with their upbringing after all.’ He now pins his hopes on his third son who is still a student. ‘He has sworn that he will do something different. But as he's studying applied economics, you never know.’ Yet Buyens himself was in no way brought up in an HR environment. ‘My entire family worked at the Agfa film roll factory.’ The Euronext-listed Agfa-Gevaert is the pride of Buyens’ place of birth Mortsel, in the Belgian part of the Campine, just south of Antwerp. That pride can still be discerned whenever he talks about it. ‘Agfa was once the crown jewel of photography in Europe. You had Kodak in the United States, Fuji in Asia and Agfa in Europe. But, as they say in one of the countries across the border, das war einmal.

As of today, Agfa-Gevaert has already been restructuring for 30 years. They missed the point in time with digital photography and could now have been market leader in large copy machines. What is left is a company with a focus on the graphical industry and medical imaging systems. Once employing 30,000 to 40,000 staff, the group has scaled back to a headcount of 7,000 to 8,000. Agfa-Gevaert faced imminent bankruptcy a couple of times, but ceasing operations today would mean being unable to meet your pension commitments tomorrow. It can be that simple.

It is patently obvious that Agfa-Gevaert had difficulty dealing with a changing world. How difficult is it to adapt? 
Far from simple. Just today during a presentation, I said: what Henry Ford was able to do 100 years ago with Ford is not possible for Elon Musk today with Tesla. Musk has not been able to get production up and running efficiently. He is good at creating. He has a company full of innovators, but producing to scale has alluded them. 

In fact, Elon Musk has to call in the help of Carglass to install the Tesla car windows, for example. Tesla itself is unable to install them... 
Interesting that you should say so, because Carglass is precisely an example of a company that has succeeded in getting production running and moving with the times. They have set up a very lean organisation that is highly customer-oriented and which focuses strongly on low costs. Something else Carglass does very well is expanding its activities gradually. The company has made a name for itself in repairing car window damage, but is gradually moving into bodywork repair, which is a very smart move of course. The Carglass group is also setting an example in the area of HR. Carglass believes strongly in customer satisfaction surveys through Net Promoter Scores and works vigorously on its staff satisfaction. The company wants to be the ‘greatest place to work’ and this is reflected in everything it does. Not as some kind of fad, but as a really fundamental part of its corporate culture. In their branding and commercials, they always use actual Carglass employees. It is a credible narrative.

Is that credibility the most important thing for a company's corporate culture? 
I am convinced of it. It isn’t even so much about what you say, just as long as you stand by your words and you are consistent: practice what you preach. In the hospital where my wife works, they say the patient come first. But is that true if the first 50 spaces in the car park are reserved for doctors? Is that being consistent? I know a company (which will remain anonymous) that wants people to think that they are number one in everything. And, of course, they also want to be seen as the best employer. So, the sales managers all got beautiful, expensive, German-made company cars. However, the director demanded that the cars be maintained properly. During a sales meeting, huge stickers were placed on all parked cars that did not come up to scratch: This car is company property. Treat me right. It was the kind of sticker that takes two hours of fiddling to get off. You can laugh about it or you can find it ridiculous, but the message is loud and clear: we consider it important that everything looks first class; we take care of one another and our stuff. Fair enough.

What are important issues for the employee of the future? 
Young people in particular are very much engaged with ‘purpose’, finding meaning, but a word of caution: I have noticed that people are quick to content themselves with flimsy narratives. Job applicants will always ask what Mr Heineken or Ms C&A is doing for the world, other than making profit. If an organisation is unable to answer this question, that organisation has a problem. But if Mr Heineken or Ms C&A answer by saying they are willing to wash cars for charity three times a year, those young people will be satisfied. That is what I call flimsy. What you also always notice about young people is the attraction they have for certain brands. At our business school, I see young people who are obsessed by brands. They love them. They all want to go to the brands active in the fast-moving consumer goods sector. It is almost a profession of faith. The brands have nearly the same appeal as the church did in earlier times. These young people often get fed up with the corporate world after five or ten years and continue on their own as independents. It is one of the greatest challenges facing large companies: how to recruit and retain the next generation. It is not all that obvious. 

You keep mentioning in your publications and presentations the raplex environment, or a rapidly changing and complex environment. Is that environment now undergoing faster change than ever? Or is change something that has always been with us? 
Change is of all time. We often hear the examples of the steam machine, car or TV. So, change is nothing new in and of itself. The only difference is the speed, plus the unprecedented scale of the variety of changes, which means they are also more complex. We ain’t seen nothing yet. But I am no prophet of doom - I mainly see the positive side, the opportunities. In five years’ time, it will probably be inconceivable that you would invite someone to attend a job interview in person. It will all be online. In fact, as an employer I will soon already know everything about you as a candidate. In ten years’ time, you will only conduct a meeting with someone in person out of politeness. After all, you will want to be able to shake a person’s hand at least once. It will not be the technology that will be the problem. The challenge is getting people to take it up.

And that’s a challenge for leadership... 
You bet. Leadership must search for the right stimulus. How do you get your employees on board? Intrinsic motivation is extremely important. Eighty-year-old grandmothers use social media effortlessly with their grandchildren. It is important to identify and understand the stimulus that causes them to take up and embrace the technology. I think that leaders and companies should mainly seek an answer to the question of what’s in it for them? In other words, they need to think from the employee’s perspective. How can we motivate employees to not only start using the technology, but to start thinking, once they have adopted it, about how they can take it even further? This is a major challenge in a large number of industries.

Aren’t all companies looking for people with the same 21st-century skills? Is there a danger of a run on people with the same profile? 
Yes, but that’s nothing to be afraid of. One hundred years ago, we suddenly all needed literate people. Did we panic then? Yes, we probably did. But, in hindsight, we can conclude that the problem resolved itself. It resulted in all employees being literate. And it will probably be the same today. The alignment will come about naturally. Though I do think that the education system could change somewhat. For how much longer are we going to teach primary school children to write neatly? Wouldn’t it be more rational to teach them to type? Or perhaps go a step further: familiarise them with voice recognition? We must dare to ask those questions. Also, we must not be afraid of change or digitisation. Yes, service employees will soon be replaced by chat bots. That is a good development, because otherwise such an employee will find themselves having to explain to you how your pension is structured for the 34th time. Incidentally, if I ask three people something about my pension, I get four different answers. A chat bot will probably soon be able to tell you exactly what you need to know. I also do not expect resistance to these types of developments. People can see the benefits. Any resistance that emerges will at most concern the division of the new jobs. That is something we must endeavour to do fairly. 

Strategic HRM is increasingly being accorded a more important role on the board of large companies. What is, in your opinion, the most important aspect of organisational structure in 2019? 
The most important thing you can say about an organisation’s structure is that the structure must be a conscious choice. The structure must be aligned with the organisation’s strategy: structure follows strategy, not the other way around. There is no right or wrong structure. However, the structure must be aligned with the strategy. It is pointless to launch a new strategy while retaining the old structure. Of course, that is easy to say, but in practice it is darn difficult to carry out. This is because changing the structure always causes pain since it invariably means taking power away from one person and redistributing it among the others. As there will always be winners and losers, you will have to deal with resistance. It is not easy.

Where does the greatest resistance occur during a change? 
The annoying thing about structural changes is that they are not linear. Changes are always characterised by an oscillatory motion, just like a pendulum that swings back and forth: from radical centralisation to radical decentralisation, from all power to Europe to all power to the Member States. While that is no disaster, you can never swim against the current. What’s more, some employees have already experienced that oscillating pendulum two or three times in their careers. They have all seen it before and say: been there, done that. Do what you like. I won’t be around to see it.

To get organisations more agile, we in the Netherlands are working to create more flexible employment relationships. Is that a solution or a threat? 
That is the advantage of the pendulum: it sometimes swings too far, but it also always swings back. Consequently, I am not worried about it. Today, it may be necessary to outsource IT staff. Fine. If it later turns out that we actually need them in-house, that’s fine too. But, in that case, you will need to buy them back. That is not a disaster. What is important when dealing with changing employment relationships is that both employer and employee benefit from the changes. If only the employer stands to gain, the change is doomed to fail. The reverse is also true. You must try to strike a balance and remain in dialogue with one another. I regularly visit organisations where the senior management feels opposed to the trade union. Then I tell them, imagine you had nothing to do with a trade union, but instead with a kind of gilets jaunes movement among your home staff. How would you then deal with that? So be happy that there is are trade unions you can engage in a dialogue with. 

You also hear people saying that trade unions discourage agility... 

You do. I actually think that we should have done with that kind of trade union. “Once given, always given” is outdated. It is important to be open to new developments and to each other. To observe the pendulum moving and to optimally ride it together. 

People have to continue developing themselves all their lives and therefore keep learning. But you call unlearning an important characteristic. Can you explain that? 
Unlearning is the conscious process that leads to us discarding acquired behaviour, knowledge and convictions. What may have been true yesterday could be an obstacle today. I was born in an era when people had the Winkler Prins encyclopaedia at home, in 24 volumes. I don’t think I ever reached for it 10 times. Imagine that I still relied on that encyclopaedia for my knowledge? We live in a different time, with different skills. Now, we talk about elevator learnings, extremely small modules in which knowledge can be transferred in no more than three minutes. You need to dare to drop things and not romanticise the past.

Personal Profile
Dirk Buyens
Professor of Human Resources

Dirk Buyens is Professor of Human Resources, Director HR Centre and Director Open Executive Education Programmes at Vlerick Business School in Ghent, as well as a professor at Ghent University in Belgium and CEO of Great Place to Work Belgium.