Academic journal article Management Revue

Patterns of Organizational Flexibility in Knowledge-Intensive Firms - Going beyond Existing Concepts

Academic journal article Management Revue

Patterns of Organizational Flexibility in Knowledge-Intensive Firms - Going beyond Existing Concepts

Article excerpt

We analyze patterns of flexible employment among the highly qualified workforce in knowledge-intensive firms. Our conceptual starting point is the Flexible Firm that can be traced back to Atkinson. On the basis of a qualitative field study in ten organizations, we show different patterns in employment policy and highlight phenomena that go beyond Atkinson's concept. It becomes obvious that flexible contracting with an external workforce is a function of allocating expertise instead of gaining numerical flexibility and is furthermore rather driven by knowledge workers than by firms. For systemizing the results of our explorative field work we propose the model of an Amoebic Organization as an alternative flexibility concept.

Key words: flexible firm, flexible employment, organizational flexibility, strategic management (JEL: D23, M51, M54)

1. Introduction

There has been a continuous increase of flexible employment in terms of part-time work, short-term and independent contracting, and temporary agency or contract company employment among the highly qualified workforce during the last decade. In 2011, 34.3% of employees with tertiary education in the EU, respectively 35.9% in Germany, had a work arrangement with at least one flexibility characteristic (Eurostat, Labour Force Survey, 2012). Moreover, in knowledge-intensive industries, such as IT, media or consultancy, non-standard employment contracts often predominate (e.g. Kaiser et al., 2007; Süß & Kleiner, 2007).

This phenomenon of increasing contract flexibility of the highly qualified workforce has often been mentioned in recent literature (e.g. Storey et al., 2002; Connelly & Gallagher, 2004; Kaiser & Rössing, 2010), but there is still a lack of conceptual framing. Flexible employment as it occurs in knowledge-intensive fields cannot easily be subsumed under existing flexibility concepts. The most popular concept can be traced back to Atkinson (1984). He characterizes groups of employees with respect to their formal work contract and distinguishes between core and peripheral groups and related employment conditions. According to Atkinson (1984), the logic for the segmentation between different groups of employees on a contractual basis is to gain different forms of flexibility: While an internal, mostly highly-skilled core workforce increases functional flexibility, an external peripheral workforce primarily ensures numerical flexibility.

With respect to the group of highly-skilled knowledge workers, a distinction between the categories of functional and numerical flexibility and related contract policies sounds less convincing since all flexible knowledge workers bring functional and numerical elements into the organization (for critical discussion, see also Poliert, 1988; Kalleberg, 2001). Thus, other reasons for internal and external employment seem to be decisive. Atkinson's concept meets the logic of organizations with many low skilled employees. Since the skill level is not a demarcation line in knowledge-intensive fields with flexible contracting, the question arises whether there are alternative reasons and principles of flexible employment. If there are reasons, how can alternative strategies of flexible employment that go beyond the introduced logic of functional and numerical flexibility integrated adequately in a conceptual framework?

It is the aim of our paper to analyze the phenomenon of contract flexibility among the highly qualified workforce thoroughly and to contribute to a concept of flexibility that meets today's situation in knowledge-intensive firms. We assume that the interrelation between functional and numerical flexibility and contract policies changes and that we have to find descriptions going beyond this classification.

In the next section, we introduce Atkinson's concept of the Flexible Firn in order to understand the key variables of this leading approach and how they are related to each other. …

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