«The tragedy of the pandemic? It sounded the alarm for those who had not yet understood that work has changed, and that completely new analytical categories are needed to shape the new context». Not a man who sugar-coats his words, Marco Bentivogli is one of Italy’s leading experts on labor issues and has gone down in union history as the main proponent of the revolutionary program Industry 4.0. EVOLVE met with him to take stock of Covid’s impact on businesses and to identify solutions to retrain human capital in the context of an entrepreneurial culture. What emerged in the interview was that in the wake of the pandemic only a pressing digital transformation will force the manufacturing system to accelerate the adoption of 4.0 technologies and the need for more advanced automation systems.

«The lockdown, the closures, the remote working – explains Bentivogli – have exposed some vulnerabilities previously unknown to businesses. If we look at the management of agile work (common spaces, distancing, smart working) we must understand that we are faced with a great challenge of sustainability to take back our lives, our time, our space and build a better work environment. The relationship between manager and worker must be redesigned around the theme of trust, as it is no longer based on physical presence and the number of hours of service, but on the results obtained. The concepts of autonomy and freedom have begun to replace the traditional culture of “control”, which is still prevalent in most companies today. Let’s face this process of innovation in business and in the organization of work, cities, and life without delay: if everyone joins together in this challenge, we will achieve first a cultural and then an organizational change».

In his book “Indipendenti: guida allo smart working” published in August 2020, the author highlighted the advantages of agile working without, however, overlooking the dangers of its misuse: «Smart working is “smart” work because it values reciprocity and transfers shares
of responsibility and freedom to people, promoting their well-being and productivity. But the Coronavirus emergency is presenting a unique divide, a crossroads of great transformation: the changes that Italy has not yet been able to fully grasp rest especially on the digital innovation front. However, smart working does not only concern workers: it will change business enterprise, mindsets, hierarchies, and organizational practices. From being a mere opportunity, it has now become an urgent necessity».

In the corporate landscape, the watershed effect has made it clear that there was a different level of resilience between those who acted quickly, anticipating the changes taking place (this is the case for the Maire Tecnimont Group, which began talking about smart working in 2016, and was ready with an already tested flexible technological model) and those who always tend to wait for events to unfold before moving and changing. Bentivogli says: «Between ready and not ready, many companies have quickly come around to the idea of setting up new internal control rooms to manage crises. Starting to work on resilience and stability will prevent potential disruptions and roadblocks, both along the supply chain and in the actual production area. In recent months, the pandemic has accelerated the research and development of cloud solutions, artificial intelligence, blockchain, augmented reality, and IoT (the Internet of Things). In Asia, where the second wave had less of an economic impact than in the West, companies made a major technological acceleration to maintain governance of their supply chain and not be overly dependent on that supply chain. Multinationals like Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota realized it was time to stock up for the restart: this has allowed them to not be affected by shortages of raw materials and components (such as microchips), thus avoiding production stoppages. Across the board, acceleration has occurred even in sectors that were far removed from digital technology: I’m thinking of companies still managed according to a Fordist model, based on the paradigm of control. Fortunately, the whole idea of productivity is changing, and people are starting to invest based on what’s known as “cognitive engagement”. We’re seeing a shift in organizational culture as a whole, where hierarchies are being reconstructed according to the changing workplace. By organizing different spaces for smart and co-working, the company becomes the place that generates and nourishes those things that are necessary to appreciate and empower the identity of the worker: specifically, freedom, responsibility, autonomy, trust. If these ingredients are missing, it’s like making pizza without flour...»

It is precisely the Internet of Things that provides great support for remote industrial work, with benefits for both staff members and the technicians on the front line. «In Nokia Italy - says Bentivogli - until a month ago it wasn’t just the majority of employees who were in smart working. 95% of lab technicians working on new 5G equipment could also work through a remote technical workstation. The most sensational case is perhaps the one involving some Chinese mines. Last September we learned that in Henan, located in central China, even miners had started to work without descending into the tunnels, guiding machinery from a distance with a system based on 5G telecommunications. Obviously, everything changes for a miner if he or she can start working from protected and sanitized workstations, maintaining social distancing and being able to replicate the original functions with command levers and control panels, like a joystick... The work has gone from being extremely strenuous to being much more sustainable, even from a physical point of view»

“In recent months, the pandemic has accelerated the research and development of cloud solutions, artificial intelligence, blockchain, augmented reality, and IoT (the Internet of Things)”
- Marco Bentivogli

Humanistic work and community enterprise

The words of the former general secretary of metalworkers suggest that the most important game in the arena of international capitalism of the last few decades is being played out. The pandemic has forced everyone to reflect on a radical change in the culture of business, aware that the façade of operations no longer stands up to the real and urgent need to improve production realities. «It’s like it is with sustainability - says Bentivogli - superficial makeovers or normal updates are too often mistaken for “process innovations”, and they are not enough. As Jared Diamond wrote in his “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” I think that there can be no innovation without discontinuity, because effective innovation processes are very “disruptive”, and with a gradual approach there is no real change. And as I often say, in a job with “increased humanity” you need an “industrial humanism” to accommodate this kind of professionalism. What do I mean by that? Treating people as adults, allowing them to be in an environment that is conducive to meeting challenges, doing in-depth work in a productive context of responsibility and autonomy, and on that building social relationships within the community. After all, what is it that sets us apart from robots, machines and algorithms? Our human component, of strategic, critical, lateral thinking: all those very human and innovative abilities that enable us to break out of the usual patterns».

The topic is guided by the rediscovery of the “Community Enterprise” as an element of productivity: the company that knows how to rediscover itself as a community, knows how to connect the dots, to coordinate its own internal energies without wasting them, and protect its human assets better than others by enhancing their roles and increasing the quality of distributed tasks. «Workers’ participation in company strategies - adds Bentivogli - is an issue that can no longer be put off. Just look at Northern Europe, where management not only listens to shareholders, but also records and analyzes the voices of organized labor: in the end, everyone understands that it is a win-win game, where both managers and employees grow in their sense of entrepreneurial belonging to the organization that welcomes them. There is research, such as that carried out by the Max Planck Institute, that attests to the importance of shared participation: where top managers and internal unions work together, growth and quality of work increases. It is obvious: the union is less demanding because it is informed, it is not forced to learn from the newspapers what is happening in their own company. The meeting point between business and organized labor is higher. Employees and managers feel as responsible as shareholders, not only in terms of sustainability, but also on financial and industrial issues to keep the company competitive and therefore profitable in the marketplace».

In Italy, the idea of community enterprise had already started to take shape in the 1950s with the ideas of Adriano Olivetti. «Can industry give itself goals? Are these goals to be found merely in the profit index? Isn’t there something more inspiring than the apparent rhythm of factory life, like a mission or a calling?». These are the words Olivetti affirmed in his speech to the workers at the inauguration of the new plant in Pozzuoli in 1955. Words that can be traced back to an ideal of enterprise capable of addressing the problems of man and society differently from capitalism and socialism. A company that was able to create a unique relationship with the territory and with the workers through the substantial sharing of the aims of the factory’s work and by fully trusting in the contribution of every woman and man, nourished by the same spiritual and cultural values. In Olivetti’s perspective, it is about the central role of the person and the community. Bentivogli adds: «Our entrepreneurs and managers should reread what Olivetti wrote, drawing inspiration from the French philosopher Jacques Maritain or other thinkers such as Emmanuel Mounier and Denis de Rougemont. On those pages is the full extent of the “meaning” we give to work, of the motivation that drives us to go to the factory or office each morning, to do our job to achieve team goals. Even then, it was understood that a serious company cannot create a true sense of corporate community if it continues to focus only on economic incentives. It is the company climate that makes the difference, the attention to relationships and solidarity, the possibility of giving young people and the talented, of all ages, new dynamic opportunities rather than closed and constrained paths. I have clear evidence that the younger generations are accruing a new approach to work: they value commitment and merit, feeling like a personal brand playing within a larger team, with a unique vision and mission that gives meaning to everyday life. This is another reason why the individualistic community perspective is still the most advanced».

“Only if we “empower” human beings, even with large, effective re-training projects, can we help people avoid ending up among the “cast-offs” of progress, and instead become the center of their own transformation»
- Marco Bentivogli

Turning the old training models upside down

A final facet uncovered by the pandemic is the backwardness of both the school system and most models of vocational training. Amid an increasingly rapid process of change, Marco Bentivogli’s key concept is one of the most useful recipes for ensuring that innovation does not leave any victims behind: the subjective right to training. «Sometimes, to get the debate going, I argue that ignorance should be taxed. It is just to emphasize how the subjective right to training should be included in all employment contracts, even the shortest ones, as a true right of the people. Let’s put aside, once and for all, the old systems of professional classification with outdated tasks that are no longer applicable to the workers of the third millennium. We are incorporating elements and opportunities to instill greater cooperation, where people understand that within a team there is a clear path for their own growth. Where moving from tasks to profiles serves little purpose, you must set aside job descriptions and profiles, and instead build three-dimensional models that reach out to each person. Not only that, but is it cost-effective to push workers toward internal competition? These are outdated dynamics which do not generate passion but, on the contrary, depress energy. Only if we “empower” human beings, even with large, effective re-training projects, can we help people avoid ending up among the “cast-offs” of progress, and instead become the center of their own transformation».

Bentivogli testifies that the debate is open on how to generate new training and learning models. And hopefully, as Fordist production dynamics are giving way to industry 4.0, ones that are not one-size-fits-all, but tailor-made for individuals. «Our school system is outdated, and our vocational training is still tied to Fordist thinking. When I go to Confindustria I feel like tearing up those training catalogs: it’s not like going to a pizzeria and choosing “digital skills” or “professional welder” from a menu. It is a process that needs to be adapted to people and the method needs to be turned around to start with an assessment of people’s skills: there are digital systems available today that can assess the positioning of a resource up to several times a year. After that, the analysis of training needs will be used to fill the gaps and place people in customized paths. When all of this is put into practice and matched to the business strategy, we will then be able to determine how to offer training in line with our times».

There is still plenty of time to talk about educational re-skilling, a topic as critical as the previous ones. «We cannot ignore the need to be adaptable to people- says Bentivogli - If I take a 64-year-old “young man” and throw him back into the classroom for training he will have a very hard time, even if the training is of good quality, because he hasn’t sat behind a desk for 45 years... In Italy we are struggling to understand that educating people with these methods is ineffective. In order to retain talented people and managers who still have a lot to give, we must not steer them onto a dead-end path, but make them feel they are in a place that will help them grow and acknowledge the skills they have acquired. The proof is in those areas where the generational shift has been traumatic: let’s take the so-called “white” sector of household appliances. After the two generations that built the empire, the third squandered it because it found itself caught between two antiquated fronts: on the one hand there was the old centralized hierarchical model of the family business that was little inclined to delegate; on the other, a business school model that does not fully prepare students to run our medium-to-large enterprises. The final outcome? An organizational short-circuit that adapts neither to the market nor to the competition».

One then wonders if companies with non-linear growth – like the California start-up model, with a Data-Driven approach – will replace the traditional ones altogether. «Not necessarily – Bentivogli concludes – because the challenge is to graft “smart” elements without distorting our corporate heritage. Taking our cue from agile, competitive organizations that know how to handle innovation and are ready for the winds of change, we need to observe and borrow some models of governance and internal hierarchy. At that point we will better understand how the flexibility of managers becomes a real strength for the firm itself. A base from which to diversify business and influence the entire ecosystem in a positive way. Chrysler and Fiat, which belonged to Lee Iacocca and Gianni Agnelli, can now merge partly due to the fact that in a short time they will no longer be just car manufacturers. The main business will be in the services that transform the car into a platform, through data and connectivity, as Tesla has already done - on account of this new experience for car travelers. The industry is evolving, bringing together the mechanical and the digital, with one certainty: the bit will still smell of mineral or synthetic oil for many years to come». So why research and invest only in engines and accessories, when the “pilot” of a green self-driving vehicle will, in the meantime, be able to devote his attention to a thousand other things?

Marco Bentivogli
Marco Bentivogli was General Secretary of the Italian Metalworkers' Federation (FIM CISL) until July 2020. After more than two decades of union activity – in which he followed important industrial disputes (FCA, Alcoa, Ilva, Whirlpool) and the negotiation of the metalworkers' contract – Marco Bentivogli, together with Professor Luciano Floridi, created the Base Italia association in September of last year, a civic start-up for the promotion of community participation and engagement, a laboratory for studies, and research on work, assistance, safety, health, education and training, environment, finance and the economy. With the objective of developing and promoting the diverse potential of the country, his writings are regularly featured in numerous newspapers (Foglio, Repubblica, Fortune, Sole24Ore) and he has written many books, including «Abbiamo rovinato l’Italia? Perché non si può fare a meno del sindacato» (2016), «Contrordine Compagni, manuale di resistenza alla tecnofobia», «Europa, non rimanere da sola!», «Fabbrica Futuro» (all from 2019). The latest publication is from 2020: «Indipendenti: guida allo smart working». He is a member of the Commission for the development of a strategy for Artificial Intelligence and of the Working Group of the Pontifical Academy for Life on the same subject.