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From fordism to corporate culture

6 September, 2022

As Bob Dylan said, ‘The times they are a-changing’. It is true that times are changing; they have been doing so for as long as the world exists.

In a globalized, hyper-connected society with a frenetic pace of life, economic levers are affected, for better and for worse, constituting new realities to which our predecessors are not accustomed.

The concept of ‘company culture’ for a worker at the beginning of the 19th century would be utopian, but today it has become an incentive to fill the vacancy, in addition to the classic salary or vacation periods.

How a Detroit mechanic changed our lives

Henry Ford had an intuition. In 1903 he initiated an ambitious project, founding the Ford Company and initiating a historic change. What was a priori a business decision, became a new way of producing worldwide.

The assembly line used to mass-produce cars reduced the costs to the minimum, making their acquisition available for the middle classes, thus becoming one of the pillars of capitalism. Ford, probably without being aware of it, changed the lives of millions of people at that time, but also of the future forward, to the point that his legacy lives on today.

Anyone who has seen Charles Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ can get an idea of how it was like to work for one of  Ford’s factories. Like cogs in a wheel, the employees were a workforce performing a very specific and repetitive task, but with one of the latest car models parked outside the door. Their brand new car was waiting for them to take them home and rest, with the prospect of a new day, exactly the same as the previous one.

More than a century later, we could say that the context has changed. The social, political and economic reality is very different, but the germ of the system remains the same. So, what has really changed?

Collective learning

There are many factors that have brought us to the present moment. Great social advances have been achieved, driven by greater access to information or the perception of other realities among others. The Internet and global interconnection have opened our eyes and doors to other worlds, and we are not talking about science fiction.

The perception of reality of a person in Senegal changes, when he can work remotely with someone in Canada. In the same way that a microprocessor manufacturer in China, who is in contact with a customer in Germany, receives new inputs that become part of his critical thinking. We see how everyday things are a driver of change today.

We have learned that what we took for granted can have a counterpart and now, more than ever, we are more critical and demanding. All this leads us to demand more, overcoming the translation from living to work to working to live. We are at a new point, “working and living”, being our job one more branch of our vital tree instead of a simple mean.

From the abstract to the concrete

Applying theory to practice is not always easy. The search for life satisfaction is an eternal goal imposed by our most human instinct. The finishing flag always moves when it seems that we are about to reach it, because once we have covered our immediate needs, new ones appear on the horizon.

On a pragmatic level and focusing on the workplace, achieving synergy between company and employee is complex. It requires a lot of empathy on both sides, development, trial-error and active listening.

Surely Ford hadn’t thought about the concept of corporate culture – it wasn’t in his plans! He wanted to make more profit as a company and for his employees, through a simple economic cycle – the more increased purchasing power, the more sales – in his equation, the lack of personal fulfillment or career path was directly not contemplated.

Living and defending the company

The current concept of corporate culture is born from the search between personal desire and corporate interest.

Many companies have detected the need to generate a brand not only outwardly, but also inwardly. What Google has been exemplifying for years, as the idealization of a ‘cool’ company adapted to the most immediate current situation, is already in the focus of many managers, as an irremediable solution to the problem of attracting and retaining talent.

The business equation contains new variables, yet to be exploited: career planning, quality of life and personal fulfillment are just a few examples.

“We are at a new point, “working and living”, being our job one more branch of our vital tree instead of a simple mean”

What does a good adaptation to the current situation mean?

If an employee feels valued in his company, it will have a direct impact on his performance and affinity with the team, the philosophy and even with customers. There is no better brand prescriber than someone who spends eight hours a day living it..

We must not forget that behind every job there is a different person, with his or her own particularities, whom we must take care of without patterns. Everyone chooses their own path and lives their daily lives based on various factors, which must be taken into account in any business decision.

A career plan requires a good framework that includes values, projection, conciliation and adaptation to change, among other things. We often focus on setting a vertical growth path, where we assume that the person wants to gradually stop executing and move on to coordinating and directing. We transfer personal ambitions or stereotypes to very different realities.

This does not mean that someone who does not want to grow vertically will stagnate. Horizontal growth, professional refreshment or complementation are also very interesting ways of achievement, which we will have to take into account if we want to approach the progression of certain people in the right way.

Drawing up a personalized career plan requires constant analysis, a daily conversation that will allow us to get to know our teammates and know what they need at any moment.

The need for reciprocity

As in any relationship, the key to success lies in equitable contributions. We talk about generating a good environment, an ideal context for a given team and personalized future plans; but we cannot forget that the ecosystem is made up of many parts, where each one of us must build.

We must be aware, as workers, that each one of us has a role to play in the project and the team. We are, indeed, pieces of a gear, but leaving the idea of “fixed routine machinery” behind; we are a living system in constant evolution, in need of new ideas, proposals and constructive criticism.

To paraphrase Chaplin: “Don’t wait for your turn to speak; listen and you will be different”.

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