Comments on "Flexibility" and "Agility"

With comments by Anna Elisabeth Keim, Uli Brinkmann, Christian Garland, Donald Bertulfo, Michael Homberg, Kevin Liggieri, Anna Baumann, Lubna Rashid, Lukas Doil, Christopher Neumaier, Martina Heßler, Nora Thorade, Petra Gehring, Sebastian Randerath, Tim Clausnitzer, Vincent August, Henry Finch

Which questions/problems do you consider essential for our conference theme “flexibility/agility”? What do you think are the key challenges associated with the two concepts for theoretical questions, for our empirical work and for the society and economy? Is there anything that concerns you in particular personally/subjectively?

Comment Vincent August, Berlin

Moreover, here are some tentative thoughts on the questions/problems central to the conference theme, as you requested:

1. Firstly, I think we should push away from an all-too-comfortable narrative that links flexibility and agility to neoliberalism. Flexibility and agility are inspired by other traditions as well, I would even argue they are much more inspired by a certain other tradition, that is, cybernetics. We should also look into how these traditions shaped the practices, and how they cooperated, competed, or merged in that process. I think the conference schedule looks very promising in that regard.

2. Secondly, I am interested in the dilemmas und unintended consequences associated with agility and flexibility: While many middle-class people enjoy the flexibility of work (flexible office-hours, new work), they also experience exhaustion, without realizing that they are two side of a medal. At the same time, flexibility for one means precarity for others, which then might also have an impact on cleavages or on the capacity of social security systems. Some even argue that the spread flexibility and agility has already produced counter-movements that focus more on continuity or centralized organiza-tions (“return of the state”, in a different way right-wing populism). So, the long history of present challenges seems interesting to me.

Comment Anna Baumann, Bern

I am particularly interested in how flexibility and agility can be made useful as concepts for historical observation. To do so, the inherent dual nature and the simultaneity of theory and historical phenomenon must be taken into account. It is necessary to alienate the concepts to be able to historicise them and thus go one step further than the many contemporary commentators. As economic and social paradigms, the two concepts dominate our idea of work today and are linked in particular to success and modernity. But they also diffuse beyond the world of work and business into private spheres. For example, they shape our understanding of family or body and the relationship between individuality and societality.

However, the development of the current meaning and hegemonic significance of flexibility and agility was neither predetermined nor without precedent, but rather contingent and open to meaning in the beginning. In my view, approaching the starting points analytically and identifying moments that set the course is necessary for anchoring flexibility and agility both conceptually and empirically in contemporary history.

To illustrate this, I will formulate a set of questions that is important for my research on telework, e.g.: In what context did the idea of “Flexibilisierung” of working time and workspace acquire emancipatory content, as conveyed by the gender equality strategy of “reconciling family and work”? Who was involved in this (re-)interpretation and why and how did it relate to technical development? And was this maxim perceived as emancipatory?

Comment Donald Bertulfo, Delft

1. What is/are the role/s of computation and (computational) infrastructures in enabling agility/flexibility in organizations/enterprises?

2. How does the agile turn shape today's political economy, in particular the making of markets (e.g., in terms of changes in companies' business models and production processes, as well as their relationship with suppliers/customers/the state and the public)?

Comment Uli Brinkmann, Darmstadt

What surprises me most, or even concerns me, is how little distance the (empirical) social sciences have towards the concept of “agility”. There is hardly any critical research of the all-too-typical fashionable character of the approach with all its penetrating, unmistakable advertising praise. We know about the organizational backlashes of many of these former fashions after a few years of practice in enterprises. Those who find my attitude exaggerated should try to find studies that systematically examine not the success but the failure of operational agility approaches – hard to find, and if so the argument is always: There was too little (and not too much) of agility practice.

Comment Tim Clausnitzer, Berlin

Which technologies are currently associated with flexibility promises and why?

Which technologies and organizational principles can actually make production more flexible today than 30 years ago? How have industrial processes changed in terms of flexibility over the last 30 years?

Comment Lukas Doil, Potsdam

For the introductory panel, the following questions/tie-ins occurred to me:

1. for the practical handling of “flexibilization” in history, I would argue for an inte-grative approach that historicizes discourses on the ground of facts and not (exclu-sively) in academia and high-altitude debates. For me, this ground would be first and foremost the world of work and life in a workplace and everyday micro-perspective.

Comment Christian Garland, London

“Flexibility/agility” remain two core twin concepts of neoliberalism, for the last 40 years in which these two terms first began to be widely used. These twin terms are frequently if not always used together, and as core concepts of neoliberalism, it should also be noted that both of these are core ideological concepts.

“Flexibility” remains an ever-shifting catchall for employers to impose the logic of capital on employees, this logic involving insecurity, uncertainty and of course lower wages, but employees accepting this as “flexibility”. In the early-Twenty-First Century, this is perhaps best embodied in zero-hours contracts and bogus ‘’self-employment’’ in which contracts guarantee working hours of zero, and all employer obligations are circumvented by individualising them as the responsibility of the ‘‘independent contractor’’.

It remains the task of any critical theory to recognise that “flexibility” is used to describe such conditions of work that exist under neoliberalism as these conditions undergo what is also called “flexibilization”, or the wholesale and macro-level imposition of “flexibility”.

“Flexibility’s” twin concept “Agility” similarly remains a popular term for describing the “lean” organisation and company. In practice, “agility” also means the organisation seeking to ‘be agile’ at all costs, management seeking to find ways of doing this by increasing working time – or as with zero-hours contracts, compressing it into a smaller and shorter timeframe – whilst lowering or not increasing pay.

“Agility” like “flexibility” can be said to typify neoliberal work relations in which everything operates according to its own instrumental reason of ‘competing’ in ‘the market’ at all costs.

The problems of recognising the present social reality from ‘where’ “flexibility” and “agility” emerge, and exactly what they describe or veil, and indeed what they bring about, are all essential questions for us to ask and analyse; this conference being one such contribution toward doing so.

Comment Petra Gehring, Darmstadt

With some justification, one can distrust flexibilization and agility as guiding concepts of modern work. Both terms are suspicious of an ideology to demand from employees not only task fulfillment, but also to be self-exploitative in terms of time, content and working circumstances. The material work becomes plasticiable – just as flexible is first and foremost a material property (as soon as system states of technical plants are concerned, it is no longer the simple deformability but the design for a more or less instant activation of alternatives that makes up the capability for adaptation). Sennett has described the reification and alienation of a new class of flexible service workers along this line.

Nevertheless, flexibility also corresponds to freedom. Women, for example, and later trade unions, have fought for flexible working hours. For flexibility to bring children to the workplace. For flexibly chosen vacations. And it is no coincidence that after the pandemic – which forced a new kind of flexibility, especially on the part of employers, in the question of the place of work – there was rather little complaint about home office experiments. At least as a flexible alternative, home office was (and is) quite authentically welcomed.

Comment Henry Finch, Darmstadt

I have no argument to make here, and I am going to try very hard to convince you of that. I will likely fail.

My life is language, both work and play, both serious and not.

To this conference and its theme of flexibility and agility, I offer my perspective as a purveyor of language. As a language teacher at TU Darmstadt, I work in several departments, each with their own unique set(s) of needs. Thus, I am privy to a multitude of values placed on language and language styles. When I say language here, I refer to English. And when I say style, I refer to how a thing is used to its best effect.

I am flexible. I currently support students and staff in nine university departments. And since one might likely agree that there are a finite number of hours in the workweek, to my modest attributes I will add agile. I shift quickly, and often. And my flexibility supports me in doing so.

In briefly describing my professional life, it is neither my intention to celebrate or disparage the quantity and variety of my work. In so doing, I am providing a setting to talk about flexibility, agility, and knowledge transfer.

One of the greatest challenges I have faced since I began teaching English at TU Darmstadt is developing autonomy among myself and learners. Autonomy depends upon flexibility. Autonomy is corrosive. Specifically, exclusive learner autonomy is corrosive. And more to the point and my most reliable association, language learner autonomy is corrosive. To character? Yes and no. Jein. Vielleicht. Every utterance has an auditor. Even monologues are said to someone. Learner autonomy depends upon teacher autonomy, too.

To maintain agency over one’s own learning of a language is a significant feat, increasingly aided by computer applications and machine translations. At TU Darmstadt (I hesitate to generalize here beyond my immediate surroundings) technology is ubiquitous in learning and use of foreign languages, especially English. Language learners have a sense of autonomy, yet it is dependent upon ubiquitous—dare I say corrosive— resources. The ubiquity of technology produces an expectation that we use it. But whether we use it or not, to paraphrase Günther Anders, is pointless.

It is here, at an intersection of language learning, philosophy of technology, and sociology, where Richard Sennett’s criticism resonates with me.

I, too, am concerned with the growing increase technology, capitalism, and multinational corporations have in shaping, steering, establishing, or otherwise altering cultural norms. It is known that socio-technical relationships rely on our interaction with technology. Yet, in the pursuit of self-improvement, we knowingly or unknowingly overlook the invisible hand(s) behind these critical infrastructures. How does critical infrastructure condition us to become flexible? And more to the urgent point: What happens if/when we are inflexible? Is stability a derived need of our constant flexibility and agility?

This frustration is generative, even if the current endgame looks bleak. Though our current means of production is one-sided, these are the tools we inherited. It brings to mind William Butler Yeats’ short poem, “The Balloon of the Mind”:

“Hands, do what you're bid:

Bring the balloon of the mind

That bellies and drags in the wind

Into its narrow shed.”

Our ideas and ideals, our dreams and schemes, however lofty or pragmatic they may be, must eventually succumb to the system they exist within. Maybe not completely, but perhaps mutually. The balloon may waft freely, but even it must negotiate its flexibility for the narrow shed of tangibility and clarity. Then again, even the shed has its capacity. What of its flexibility? Mustn’t language also remain flexible, yet stable, to evolve? And capitalism? What of the mythology of infinite growth? What would Robert Hooke say about social flexibility? How elastic are we, after all?

Comment Martina Heßler, Darmstadt

The Question of Flexibility: What about Technology?

Martina Heßler, TU Darmstadt,

As a historian of technology, I am interested in the relationship between flexibilization and technology. This relationship is less obvious than it seems at first glance. Computers and digitization are considered the “infrastructure” of a flexible world of work. Undoubtedly, digitalization is part of the material condition of flexibilization. It is the medium of a flexible world of work. The free programmability of computers as well as digital networks enable flexibility: They accelerate processes, allow rapid changes and adjustments, and enable new forms of cooperation and communication. The social consequences of these computer-based flexibilization have already been described and criticized many times, especially in the context of criticism of neoliberal capitalism.

However, technology not only enables flexibility, it is supposed to be flexible itself. It is remarkable that since the 1970s and 1980s at the latest, both humans and machines are supposed to be flexible, even though cybernetics already envisioned an ideal of permanent adaptation to changing conditions.

However, the flexibilization of technology has historically proven to be an enormous technological challenge, for example in industrial production. I would like to claim that the (in)flexibility of technology should be considered closely. Thus, the limits and the shaping of flexibilization by technology would come under scrutiny. That means to raise the question of how technology a) enables flexibilization, b) limits it, c) shapes it, and d) how it changes the tasks of humans and machines as well as the interpretations of what it means to be human or what a machine is.

Efforts to achieve flexible automation in industrial production, to stay with this example, had two central, closely intertwined consequences: First, the number of technical errors increased enormously. The importance of maintenance and repair increased. Second, and paradoxically, trying to make the machine more flexible, led to a renewed appreciation of human labor. Flexible technology was dependent on human intervention, on human care and support in a new dimension.

Flexibilization of the world of work is therefore not only ambivalent regarding the tension between freedom, autonomy and often precarious working conditions, lack of plannability, short-termism and the need for human adaptability. At the same time, it brings with it a more complex, often non-understandable and error-prone technology, which creates a new “caste” of workers, the maintainers and repairers. The world of work – the workers, technology, power relations etc – is systemically affected, which Richard Sennett, for example, described in chapter 4 of his book The Corrosion of Character" using the example of a bakery.

Finally, technological flexibilization in general means greater vulnerability in society, since flexible technology becomes more complex and prone to error. Living in a flexible society means living in a technologically vulnerable society.

Comment Michael Homberg, Potsdam

Both concepts are deeply ambiguous, potentially oscillating between more autonomy and more control. In a longer, historical perspective, they certainly need to be historicized with regard to their semantical connotations (and especially their “neoliberal” rhetoric). Even more, however, it seems essential and challenging to go beyond deconstructing concepts as contemporaneous dis-course artefacts – by investigating the actual practice of working in “flexible” and “agile” work arrangements. Here, the question is how corporate policies and legal contexts shaped new arrangements and how people experienced the changing working worlds. Did the concepts remain rather stable both in theory and practice – or were they adapted (with “Eigensinn”) and trans-formed over the years (and how and why did this happen)? Are concepts like “flexibility”, which have become buzzwords to explain an increasingly globalized working culture, actually truly global? How does 'agile' working in MNCs, e.g. in the Global South, look like? Are there diverging national pathways to 'agility' and to which extent are change processes culture-bound? In order to overcome linear, teleological, and/or deterministic narratives, we may investigate whether the much-vaunted trends toward more “flexibility” are reversible, and where we can even observe delaying/inverse developments.

Personally, I am interested in whether and how managerial concepts and according work ar-rangements penetrate our everyday lives, e.g. blurring the boundaries between work and private sphere, and how they might affect the way humans behave, also and especially beyond the workplace. Is 'being agile' a way of life already? And how is this eventually connected to larger technological (digital) and societal changes (individualization etc.)? Can we hence imagine an 'agile and flexible society' – and should we?

Comment Anna Elisabeth Keim, Halle

How did the concepts of flexibility and agility emerge historically in various fields of society?

What periods and breaks can be identified and how do they vary regarding the field of society or different national contexts?

Who were the main actors pushing these concepts and which interests went along with it?

Do the concepts of flexibility and agility entail something essentially new on the level of the phenomena or are they just new phrases for old practices? If the latter, why then the new terminology?

According to Thomas Lemke, flexibility has become an “end in itself”, a norm not in need of any justification, a “promise and threat at the same time”. I wonder, why contemporary societies bestow concepts that are so vague and barely tangible with such immense normative importance? Regarding agility, I also wonder, how swift and anticipatory are societies, and therefore individuals, supposed to become in the future? How are we supposed to anticipate events before they even occurred?

Comment Kevin Liggieri, Darmstadt

In most areas of digital work today, the focus is on total “flexibility” and “changeability,” i.e., on individual work arrangements and tasks that are fundamentally dynamic. The new world of work, which is radically economically exploitable, is thus aimed at a dynamic image of humanity that must be characterized by spatial and temporal flexibility. Digital work can supposedly be performed at any place and at any time. Flexibility thus becomes a special human capability as a production factor. Humans and machines differ in their flexibility. At first glance, this seems like a good sign. However, the important epistemological as well as anthropological challenge is: How can flexibility be thought positively and no longer under neoliberal structures?

Comment Christopher Neumaier, Potsdam

My research on industrial relations, management principles, and the organization of work but also family life and social relation indicates that “flexibility” emerged as both an explanatory model for social change and simultaneously was one initiating factor of change at some point between the late 1970s and mid-1980s. Based on these observations, I would like to discuss two questions:

1) Did “flexibility” evolve into a master narrative of its own or was it rather included in other narratives such as individualization, pluralization, singularization, decentralization and value change?

2) While it is probably easier to identify the reasons why “flexibility” became so appealing – the perception to live in an every changing world among contemporaries starting in the 1970s and on top of that the perception that the speed of change accelerated –, it would interesting to trace the actors that promoted “flexibility” in both academics and the working world. Furthermore, did their concepts of “flexibility” differ? And if so, in what respects and how did their concepts shift over time?

Comment Sebastian Randerath, Bonn

For me, the questions of the global and practical entanglements of different agility and flexibility concepts from the 20th century onwards are of particular interest. As also stated in the Agile Manifesto, for the signatories this marks the end and not the beginning of the engagement with agility. Where did the preoccupation with agility take place before? Did the preoccupation with agility emerge exclusively from the European and U.S. software industry, as is often stated, or are “agile practices” not rather also found in global industrial entanglements? Based on this historical setting by the authors of the “Agile Manifesto”, a special problem arises to explore the history of agility not from a purely affirmative perspective, i.e. following the authors of the “Agile Manifesto” themselves, but to develop a critical, but not culturally pessimistic view of agility, which takes into account its mutual makings. I am particularly interested in these questions of global interconnectedness and mutual makings from my perspective of media history. Following this perspective, I think that the critical study of agility can make an important contribution to the history of organizational media.

Comment Lubna Rashid, Berlin

I find it fascinating and important when considering the history and evolution of flexibility to consider our history and evolution as biological and cognitive beings. Flexibility in human behavior, which ultimately leads to flexible and adaptable design of culture and workplaces, is rooted in our nature and further shaped by culture and nurture. For complete theorizing of flexibility and agility, an integration of perspectives from the natural sciences, philosophy, and psychology is needed. Furthermore, the impacts of (the increasing demand for) flexibility on human health and psychology need critical understanding.

Comment Nora Thorade, Berlin

Flexibility and agility have both positive and negative connotations, but are never neutral. What role do context, starting point and goal as well as the different positions of the actors play in the interpretations?

Personally, I would like to learn more at the conference about the factors that have led to flexibility and agility becoming guiding concepts of technical developments as well as personal competencies.