Isaac Getz: “As a customer, I feel more comfortable entrusting my data to a freedom form company”
Isaac Getz is Professor of Leadership and Innovation at ESCP Europe business school. He is the co-author of the 2009 book , which has popularised the concept of “freedom form” (or f-form) companies around the world. Published last year in French, his book La liberté, ça marche ! deals with issues around leadership. In mid-June, Isaac Getz gave a talk at the OVH head office on the philosophy and benefits of a freedom form company, before answering questions from employees intrigued by the subject. In truth, OVH has always been a relatively non-hierarchical company. Octave Klaba, founder and CEO, now intends to free it up completely. The approach resonates strongly with OVH’s core values: respect for individual rights and freedom.
In what way is corporate liberation an innovation?
Isaac Getz: The freedom form company is, above all, common sense. It is basically a question of implementing what social psychology has been teaching us for several decades about what motivates people, but which traditional managers continue to ignore.
Before the concept of the freedom form company emerged, companies were already experimenting with ways to give employees more freedom and responsibility. Very early on, some understood the advantage of trusting employees more – of trusting in their intelligence and their ability to make the best decisions by themselves.
Liberating a company is not a revolution, in the sense of being a new model that will sweep away the past. It is a structural evolution. Each company will implement it in its own way, depending on its existing workforce and cultural background. This is why there is no formula that a consultant can hand you on a silver platter, but rather a philosophy that helps bosses and employees come together to create a freedom form structure that’s tailored to their company.
It could be described as a social innovation. Just like all major innovations, the concept of the freedom form company has gone through three well-known stages: rejection, opposition and finally acceptance. I remember the first reactions in 2007, when I started talking about this type of structure. People would say: “It can’t be true. There’s no such thing. How can you trust your employees unconditionally? Trust doesn’t mean giving up control!” Then came the opposition stage. Critics argued that it was a dangerous idea, a sham. Theoretical arguments were often bandied about by people who had never even set foot in a freedom form company. These days, liberating companies is becoming more and more obvious. Too obvious, perhaps. I’m hearing more and more companies saying “We’re doing it already!” This is great. But really, the freedom form movement, picking up speed in France and Belgium with hundreds of private and public structures, has only just begun.
Does being a freedom form company in a highly competitive sector represent a risk or an opportunity?
Isaac Getz: Is the situation at OVH fundamentally different from that of millions of other companies? What company today can say that it is protected long-term from both current and future competition, when we don’t know what form that competition will take?
True, a great many companies out there still get the results they want with top-down or command-and-control management, so they do not question their structure.
Other companies – with good or bad results, strong or weak competition – are choosing to focus on the human side of things. The purpose of corporate liberation is for employees to be happy to get up in the morning and give their all at work. These companies believe that having happy and effective employees helps the company perform better than the competition. This does not seem like an unreasonable conclusion when you consider that performance depends heavily on employee engagement and creativity. No employer can enforce this through a contract.
Is it possible to choose a freedom form structure in the context of critical activities, like data hosting?
Isaac Getz: I’m not sure that declaring your company is freedom form is a selling point. Although with ethics becoming increasingly important in consumer choices, some people might be sensitive to the way in which a provider manages employees.
What I do know, however, is that as a customer, I feel much more comfortable entrusting my money or my data to a freedom form company. Do you think that there are no procedures, checks and layers of management in the banks that get caught up in scandals? Do they prevent mistakes and blunders?
Rigid hierarchies and surveillance cameras don’t guarantee security. I think that this guarantee is much stronger when security becomes the shared responsibility of all employees, rather than having a structure with managers in charge of punishing those who do not respect procedures.
By the way, did you know that a Navy nuclear submarine, the Santa Fe, has implemented a freedom form structure? Thanks to this structural change, the submarine went from floundering to being the best in the US army. And it wasn’t just data security at stake here, but human lives.
You have a degree in computer science. If you hadn’t gone into research and teaching, would the geek in you have enjoyed working at a tech company?
Isaac Getz: Some startups claim to be freedom form companies, when in reality they have just put a table football in an open-plan office and filled the fridge with organic yoghurts. We often wrongly assume that techies are immature and just need to be entertained or spoiled to make them stay in a company. But they are not mercenaries either, just looking for the biggest pay packet. I think that on top of being paid fairly, these individuals need to flourish and find deep meaning in their work. And for that to happen, what could be better than a freedom form company?