Little is known about how digital transformation can foster a renewed approach to empowering employees. Patrick Gilbert and Ann-Charlotte Teglborg conducted a (quasi-)ethnographical study of a tyre plant in China that shed light on the symbiotic interactions between human workers and machines.
While the term ethnographic study tends to conjure images of academics in safari suits crouching in the dirt scribbling notes on the ritual body-scarification customs of some tribe in a remote African valley, we recently conducted a (quasi-)ethnographical enquiry of a more modern sort. We immersed ourselves in tyre giant Michelin’s Shenyang 2 factory in North-East China, where 3,000 employees produce tens of millions of tyres per year. There, we observed processes on the shop floor, analysed internal documents and led individual and group interviews on the topic of digital transformation and employee empowerment, two domains in which Michelin enjoys a strong reputation.
The questions we wished to answer were the following: How do the interactions between digital transformation and empowerment manifest themselves in professional situations? In what ways is empowerment renewed in the context of industrial process digitalisation? And, last but not least, what are the implications of all this for human resources management?
Indeed, while digital transformation has swept through industry as a whole, to the point that it is being trumpeted as a “digital revolution”, with 4.0 factories no longer a thing of the future, very little is known about how digital transformation can foster a renewed approach to empowerment. After all, empowerment – a concept originally used in the literature on gender and minorities – is at the core of key definitions in management literature. It is broadly defined as “[enabling] individuals or teams to make responsible decisions about the jobs they do; it involves management sharing relevant information about and control over factors that impinge upon effective job performance.”
Not only does empowerment appear as a central condition for managing the complexity of production, but more recently it has been intimately linked with digital transformation. But how to understand the relationship between technical and social change?
Beyond social and technological determinism: the symbiotic approach
We chose to break away from the archetypal opposition between technological determinism (which postulates that technology has a determining influence over the social) and social determinism (briefly put, the impact of technology depends entirely on human actions). Instead, we opted for an anthropotechnical approach, which focuses on the interactions between both types of systems.
Digital technology is thus framed as an organism which exists in a symbiotic relationship with humans (man-computer symbiosis). The term symbiosis, borrowed from biology, evokes a very close partnership – not The Matrix, of course, but mutually beneficial actions. For example, humans enjoying higher capacities thanks to digital tools, which in turn are improved by the successive upgrades they receive.
The symbiotic relationship is defined by four main mechanisms:
- Co-extension, whereby humans transfer to their symbionts tasks to which they are suited;
- Co-evolution, whereby humans and technology benefit from continuous adaptation;
- Co-action, whereby humans and technology work together, with constant feedback loops;
- Co-dependency, whereby both parties are mutually dependent.
Digital dashboards and QR codes to better manage rubber
During our immersion at Michelin’s plant, we identified seven relevant working situations involving new interactions between employee involvement and the digital solutions developed, thus enriching the conceptual techno-symbiosis framework of HTSRs (human-technology symbiosis relationships). We also related them to the four foundations of Michelin’s approach to empowerment: shared objectives, decision-making, problem-solving and serving the team.
For example, an e-kanban (digital workflow board) was developed for operators to be able to visualise the stock levels of the different tyre models. Instead of relying on orders from the planning department as was the case in the past, operators at their workstations are now able to decide which products to prioritise based on the information displayed in real-time. The new HTSR could be described as a co-extension, but co-dependence is also at play since decisions are based on the information displayed, while the decisions also impact the figures on display.
Also in the area of decision-making, a collective internal recruitment process was set up that can be described as co-action, with human beings and technology acting together. Vacancies are posted in the form of a QR code on a shared WeChat; the QR code is not only used for applicants to find out details of the position but also for team members to vote for applicants. Since the project was improved with several iterations of learning, it can also be described as a bottom-up co-evolution project.
Another example of HTSR is a digital solution called an extruder dancer, which monitors the position of the tool measuring the thickness of the layer of rubber on a tyre and helps operators identify potential quality issues rapidly. Again, technicians and digital teams working hand-in-hand developed this specific solution (a co-extension).
HR as a co-conductor of symbiotic change
At the organisational level, the digital transformation alongside the development of empowerment took place in a context of strong collaboration between the digital team and the HR team animated by the will of fostering organisational learning. Our results also show that at the team level, the process reshuffled the cards of the empowerment of production teams, and likewise at the individual level.
Another major lesson is thus that the classical HR functions can be renewed, since HR — alongside the digital team — is a co-conductor of symbiotic change. HR and the digital team act as strategic partners and drivers of change, playing complementary roles and expertise in the learning dynamic within the plant as a whole and, at the local level, thanks to tailor-made coaching.
Digitalisation may renew forms of empowerment. However, it also means managers can more easily control their employees, so particular care should be taken when implementing new solutions.
- This blog post is based on The symbiotic relationship between digital transformation and renewed employee empowerment in the industrial sector: a case study, in Revue de Gestion des Ressources Humaines
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Assemblaggio Robotizzato Pneumatici, under a CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence
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