ssepari [at] (Sabine Sépari)

The digital invasion in the workplace

At a recent conference, the ENS Alumni association and its guest participants questioned the impacts of digital technology in the workplace, taking into account the technological, industrial and human aspects.

Drawing on examples from the work programmes set up at Peugeot SA and the SCNF, a representative from each of these organizations shared their analysis of digital technology, defined as a “set of numerical data with which a project can be represented”.

Along with Jean-Philippe Denis from Université Paris-Sud, the participants focused on people as the crux of organizations and addressed the digital issues these individuals have to deal with (use, management, security, autonomy, etc.).

Digital innovations as “technology building blocks”

Peugeot SA (U. Socher) is addressing the challenges raised by digital technology through two work programmes, “The Factory of the Future” and “Factory Booster”.

The first programme aims to identify the digital tools capable of responding effectively to the challenges of the future. From this perspective, “The Factory of the future” will need to offer two things: flexibility and attractiveness. Or in other words, a flexible production process that can adapt to the customer’s needs, and the ability to attract the right skills and candidates to the company.

The second programme involved the set up of an interdisciplinary platform (factory booster) that gives the various functional teams the chance to work together. The platform enables engineers from every field and diverse companies to collaborate on experimental subjects. It also allows startups to test their prototypes in PSA factories—a clever response to the fact that startups often have innovative ideas and projects but no testing ground, while PSA has the testing ground but fewer ideas.

These two programmes have allowed PSA to move forward on a number of innovative digital subjects that represent “technology building blocks”: the design of automatic guided vehicles for internal logistics, secure robotization (Corobot), and digital assistance for operators (virtual continuity, big data memory expertise, simulation of workstations and visual assistance).

“Digital technology for all”: connections and knowledge

The SNCF has also embraced the shift to digital. Over the last three years, the company has made new technologies a priority with its “Digital for All” programme. As a result, staff have really taken ownership of the new tools.

Throughout the company, employees of all categories received a smartphone. Initially, the effect this would have was uncertain. Three years down the track, the most obvious result is the collaboration that has sprung up on a daily basis: 30,000 exchanges occur each day, creating effective knowledge sharing within what has traditionally been a vertical structure. Digital technology has made it possible to create links between the work all employees are doing and has accelerated knowledge transmission and sharing.

These digital tools primarily concern collective intelligence. By allowing information to be transmitted through the network, they stimulate collaboration and knowledge sharing within and between companies. Yet this gives rise to a new problem: is knowledge sharing compatible with security?

In this context, there is an obvious transformation of the manager’s role: from “knowing” leader to more of a “facilitator” of knowledge within their team. Managers become above all the “guarantors” of efficient knowledge sharing.

“Can we still manage work?”

Technological changes call into question an important aspect of work management: authority. Authority is disrupted by the porous, blurred boundaries of work that the use of information and communication technologies entails. This can be seen, for example, with the development of telecommuting or work in cross-functional teams.

For the manager, digital technology makes information freely accessible in the company. Here, too, “knowledge no longer respects the boundaries of the organization”, whether internal nor external.

In terms of organizational theory more broadly, this calls for the respective place of the market and the organization to be reconsidered. Is it better to rely on the former or the latter (despite its cumbersomeness)? In the case of activities that are outsourced to other companies, for example, the market is used instead of the firm. Generally speaking, the greater flow of information enabled by the digital invasion favours the former.

Hence these general questions: Are we not likely to see the firm as we know it disappear? Will there not be a return to pre-capitalist forms of exchange?

Nonetheless, the manager remains a vector of trust, so vital for the company, with a distinction between the “cost efficiency” that has been the touchstone of companies since the Industrial Revolution due to the demands of competition, and “value efficiency”, which has become a priority today.

ENS Alumni conference

This meeting was moderated by Sabine Sépari, secretary of the association, senior lecturer in management and coordinator of the preparation for the agrégation in economics and management.

With her at the table were Ulrich Socher, head of Human Resources of the Industrial Division of Peugeot SA (PSA), Henri Pidault, director of Digital Performance at SNCF and president of the AAEE - ENS Alumni, and Jean-Philippe Denis, professor of management at Université Paris-Sud-Saclay and editor-in-chief of the Revue française de Gestion.


To find out more, the ENS Alumni website