Size matters – this is true for new work too
From 5 to more than 3,000 colleagues . The social media expert Michiel van Dam has personally experienced rapid company growth and several changes in company ownership. We speak with him in Amsterdam about the opportunities and challenges of daily work in growing enterprises.
We meet with Michiel in a hip café near the main train station in Amsterdam. Although he is just 32 years old, he has experienced a great deal already: he has completed a degree in political sciences, worked in a small start-up, engaged as in-house consultant for companies like Heineken and Phillips, ran his own radio program in Business News Radio, currently volunteers as Social Media Manager for the Dutch Democratic Party and, today, he is a strategic consultant for VALTECH, one of the largest digital agencys in the Netherlands.
His experiences in the working world have proven: “Large businesses can learn how to meet the demands of new work from smaller companies.” What challenges come up on a day-to-day Level?
1. How can processes that do not stifle creativity be established?
Michiel is as familiar with agile work methods, sprints and scrum-sessions as he is with classical, linear project management. He feels the strength of all these processes lies in the structured accomplishment of defined tasks and, of course, they are also suitable for coordinating large teams. However, he feels that “true creative solutions and something really new cannot be developed this way. Creativity requires freedom.” This freedom can come in many shapes and forms: flexible work models are only a building block. Real freedom in terms of recording the amount of time worked, seems much more important. “In start-ups, I can use down times to experiment and develop ideas, without having to book the time to a particular client or even having to sit at my desk. Great ideas are not going to come if one is required to fill out an application first.”
And, thus, we have quickly come to a key point we encountered in many previous interviews as well: the importance of trust instead of control. Relationships based on trust, as are found in smaller businesses, must also be present in large companies. Michiel is convinced that “this motivates employees and leads to better and more creative results.”
2. How does one develop a strong sense of identity that is still open for the new?
The lifeblood of small businesses is usually a strong leader who influences both the identity and character of the company. Based on his own experience, Michiel knows that “when businesses grow very rapidly, or a change in ownership is looming, there is a danger of losing orientation!” When there are constantly new and changing colleagues it is difficult to define, communicate and maintain a unique corporate identity.
Michiel sees two very different dangers here. On the one hand, an overly rigid corporate culture often cannot adapt to the dynamics of an ever-changing business and faces the danger of becoming outdated within a short time. Or, it can seem daunting to new employees, who feel they cannot participate meaningfully and bring in their own ideas and thus it acts to stem development. On the other hand, a weak corporate culture bears the risk of being interchangeable. “Especially in Amsterdam or in Holland generally, the experts within an industry know one another very well. Therefore, one can easily switch from one company to another. If there isn’t a strong sense of corporate identity, and a corresponding sense of identification with the company by employees, where to work ends up coming down to wage alone.”
3. How can expertise be strengthened without the knowledge ending up in silos?
The communications expert remembers that “in a small team, it’s normal just to meet up over a cup of coffee and talk about the project!” However, the greater the number of colleagues working together, the more structure is required. “Many large companies do not make use of this strength. They have experts – sometimes even in very different countries and with a vast amount of experience. But this knowledge is not used.” The division of tasks into ever smaller specialized disciplines and a lack of cross-functional engagement and exchange prevent any real development. Really, the knowledge already present in the organisation is an undiscovered treasure. Some businesses provide appropriate intranet solutions and tools for utilizing this knowledge. “Nowadays, there are probably rather too many tools and processes than too little. What is really missing is the time and freedom for personal exchange.” – Without having to track the time, of course.
To equip for the future
At the end of our conversation Michiel tells us: “Although I can see that there are areas which would benefit from improvement. I feel lucky to be able to work in Amsterdam. Openness, honesty, flat hierarchies and a focus on accomplishments rather than status have long been typical traits in the Netherlands. They have prepared us quite well for the working world of the future.”
Michiels question for our next interview:
How can we still be really creative in this new agil way of working?