A friend who works at a big multinational sent me this. I’m rewriting it here, changing only the names. Let’s call the company where he works Babel…
“At the start of my leave and with the end of the year approaching, I requested €18k for plane tickets for my staff that had not yet been invoiced, so that it would be charged to my 2015 budget.
Only a year ago, I would simply have had to email my local accountant in Paris, who knew the context of the request. But now that the company’s accounting has been outsourced to India and Eastern Europe, the email must go to Babel’s worldwide management control provider based in Pondicherry. It must contain all of the accounting details, including the account numbers, otherwise “travel” can be confused for “salary” or “external services”. All this information is entered into an Excel file which is sent to our provider in Brno, who then sends it on by post.
At the end of all this I received the “travel” money – great – but the sum was €2 million! That’s a lot of trips around the world… A provision of €2 million just for the month of December when my annual budget is €120 k, but nobody was shocked at this! What is clear is that their mission was not to question; they were there to execute tasks within the deadlines imposed by the Service Level Agreement (SLA). It seemed to me that as long as this was done, the content of the request was secondary.
Fortunately, a nice Canadian, who’d already had his fingers burnt by a problem of this kind in the past, and who knew that I was off until January, looked at my account and spotted the mistake in time to have it corrected again… within the deadline specified by the SLAs. So everything worked out – the performance criteria are under control at Babel!”
Big multinationals like Babel have become globalized bureaucracies. The real work is so split up that it is invisible and even irrelevant to the employees spread out around the world. Everyone can accomplish their task based on their own aims and the criteria imposed on them. The control systems are supposed to unify the Tower of Babel, yet they simply add more complexity by introducing their own languages and performance targets.
In theory, we know that these systems sooner or later become chaotic, and that a small mistake that slips through the cracks can have disproportionate effects. Fortunately, there are still some committed, attentive people, in this case the “nice Canadian”, to throw together makeshift solutions and fix things for a while.
What is most troubling is the bitter irony that seeps through my friend’s message – and this is someone who is passionate about his job. If we no longer even try to understand each other, if observing formal rules is the only thing that counts in these huge economic machines, then how can we possibly feel that our work has meaning for others? In this sort of organized indifference, how can we still feel personally recognized as taking part in a shared project?
Faced with such absurd situations and a general loss of meaning, the first step is to get some ironic perspective. The next is to become detached in order to protect your mental health. The system reacts by once again strengthening the checks and SLAs, mistaking the problem for the solution. The third step is to look for a job at a smaller company where people actually know their colleagues and what they do. A number of brilliant fortysomethings have come to this: fleeing Babel.
I am a teacher and a researcher. I work on questions of economic beliefs, the theory of conventions and René Girard’s model. I analyse the place and responsibility of enterprise in society. I dissect anthropological hypotheses underlying management principles. Since 2010, I have been studying living labour as an anchor in the ‘real life’ of ‘real people’ in companies and more widely across cities. A subject that, in the end, unifies what I have been trying to decipher all these years: the material experience of work that is unique to each individual and at the same time shared by all; it is established by society; it is a shared fate engineered by companies, it is often unconscious but always efficient.
I am also the founder and director of the IFGE, a major European research center on corporate governance.
Le travail invisible, par Pierre-Yves Gomez aux éditions François Bourin, 2013.