1 October 2001
The relationship between large firms and the individuals who work in them has exercised the minds of management writers for decades. In the 1980s, the accepted wisdom of the supremacy of organisation over individual was turned on its head as the 'me-first' culture took hold. In the parlance of the day, the excellent firms would be those who could change the organisation to suit the needs of the key individuals. Rather than forcing these individuals to bend to the will of a rigid organisation, the firm itself would have to loosen up and allow some risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit. And thus was born one of the sillier bits of management-speak as firms fell over one another to encourage their 'intrapreneurs'. At a time when all things 1980s are in vogue, it's no surprise that the intrapreneur is making a boardroom comeback. It's all the fault of the internet, as more and more large firms recognise the need to bring back some of the talent that abandoned them at the height of the dotcom boom.
Not all of these failed entrepreneurs are happy to rejoin the old firms and fit in, even as a so-called intrapreneur. Having tasted the sweet juices of freedom, not many are happy to return to drinking the cheap coffee from the corporate drinks machine. But as the global economy continues to stumble towards recession, the indications are that time and economics are against those thinking of cutting loose from the comparative safety of a large organisation. But management writers and economists are having a difficult time predicting the way that organisations and the individuals within them are going to behave.
One of the more confident predictions comes from business writer and social thinker Charles Handy. Author of such insightful books as The Age of Unreason and The Empty Raincoat, Handy has a knack for spotting a social trend and accurately assessing what it means for business. His latest work, The Elephant and the Flea, concerns itself with the rapidly changing relationship between organisations and the people working within them. Handy argues that the knowledge economy depends on intellectual capital. It is gradually dawning on more of the individuals holding this intellectual capital that the exchange requiring them to commit themselves to a single organisation doesn't represent the best deal.
While professional partnerships operate in a different way, the biggest firms still require thousands of juniors to sell their assets for a fixed wage. Handy's proposition is that the Fleas (all those talented, creative individuals that firms once courted as intrapreneurs) will leave the Elephants (the large firms) for the freedom of new types of flexible contracts. And as pressures for a higher standard of living and a better balance between work and home life continue, law firms along with other organisations are going to have to accept greater flexibility in the structure of their relationships with individuals. It's not that the entire legal profession will decide overnight to up sticks and set up their own practice, but more and more associates and junior staff, as well as senior partners, will begin to demand a relationship and a set of rewards that suit their needs. Whether this means working three days a week, or six months of the year (with the other time spent pursuing outside interests), the Elephants will have little choice but to contract Fleas using a range of different approaches.
Of course, the threat of recession looms larger than ever, but it is set to be a recession like no other. Far from job insecurity giving employers the upper hand once more, demographic blips mean that the labour market in the legal sector will remain tight. If Handy's predictions are as accurate as they intuitively feel, organisations both big and small could be in for an interesting, if bumpy, ride over the next few years.