Long-term Employment Thinking & Chinese Internet Enterprises’ Responsibility of the Era
Fri, Jun 28, 2019
Liang Jian, Professor of Tongji SEM，Associated Dean of the Management Advanced Institute
At the end of March, a programmer who could not stand the “996” (working mode of 6 days a week from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM) launched a project named “996. ICU” (referring to people who are sent to ICU due to overwork of 996) on an open source website code platform GitHub, calling for the boycott of long-standing unwritten working hours system in internet companies. The seemingly random move has triggered a wave of online activism mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people. It happened exactly 100 years after the eight-hour working week first became an international consensus. In just half a month, the project gained the support of about 222,000 netizens, reigniting the discussion of “8-hour work system” and “workers’ rights”. Following the unequivocal endorsement of the People’s Daily, the Xinhua News Agency also issued a review on April 15th, “Advocating hard working and setting off 996”.Obviously, the merits of this debate are very clear. The “996” phenomenon does not conform to the basic norms of modern industrial civilization, and even violates the protection of the basic rest rights of workers according to our Constitution. Near the end of this incident, a problem that should arouse our profound thinking is the strong “long-term employment thoughts” that the leaders of Internet giants have displayed during this period. Had it not been for this incident, we may not be able to know that these so-called “Internet heroes” are so obstinately clinging to the management thinking based on farming culture and early industrialization.
In the past decade or so, with the expansion of the Internet market and the state’s protection and support for the internet sector, China’s Internet companies have come to the fore and achieved considerable development. Some of today’s hyperactive Internet users have quickly become the leading figures in China’s economic development thanks to the rise of the Internet. They are vaguely called “Daddy” by some netizens to express the complex feeling of envy or even jealous of their achievements. Of course, such success is inseparable from the fighting spirit of these entrepreneurs born in the 1960s and 1970s. , as well as the hard work of countless programmers behind them, which is also the fundamental reason why Xinhua comments emphasize “we should not abandon fighting”. However, the “996” incident let us see the other side of the brilliance of internet companies. The “enlightened” entrepreneurs highly praised by the society regard the knowledge workers who need innovation and thinking as the “permanent workers” of their own enterprises, and ask them to devote themselves to work, not to themselves, not to their families, not to their life with a lofty attitude. The expectation of “long hours” based on the farming culture causes many programmers fall into the dilemma of “the boss doesn’t get off work, neither do I”, and suffer from the mental torture caused by work-family conflict. It is hard to imagine that in this state of mind, programmers are able to bring significant theoretical and technological innovations to the company. It is not difficult to understand why Chinese internets have not formed their unique innovative profit models for many years behind the boom. With the increasing pressure of overall economic downturn, the internet companies that once triumphed seemed to bear the brunt. The Chinese internet giants who once shouted out “no layoffs” began “internal reorganization”, and internet upstarts who have declared to the world “will never fire a brother”began to claim “employees muddling around are not brothers”. The incomplete management thinking and passive management results constitute a negative cyclic causal chain， which reflects the limitations of the historical pattern of Chinese internet leaders and the weakness of their enterprises’ core competitiveness.
On November 17th, 2018, at the APEC CEO Summit, General Secretary Xi Jinping emphasized that the modern world is facing unprecedented changes in the past century. The new technology and industrial revolution are an all-round transformation that will profoundly affects human production patterns, lifestyle and values. If we can’t respond effectively, we risk missing the entire era. Different from the impact of previous technological changes on industrial society, the introduction of Internet technology and artificial intelligence technology will change the nature of current work and personnel organization, redefine corporate competitiveness, and even reshape the current economic structure. Under the new economic model, the introduction of AI technology will not only greatly improve the current work efficiency, but also break the boundaries of organizations. The whole society will turn into a large and loose economic community featuring“One for all and all for one”. Traditional, control-oriented employment model is likely to be a thorough subversion. As a prelude to the change, a large amount of independent knowledge workers (ie. slash youth) began to appear, and the control-based organization model of large enterprises began to be gradually replaced by various micro- intermediary and outsourcing services. As young people growing up in this era, the post-90s’ understanding of life and work is significantly different from the post-70s who have experienced hardship and post-80s who emphasize individual struggle. Thanks to the great success of China’s industrialization process, they have relatively superior living environment, and the convenience and richness of information has shaped their more independent and full personal values. For that reason, the Internet giants’ opinions about 996 highlight their disconnection and obsolescence. The progress of industrial civilization and the tremendous accumulation of social wealth have given people more choices. The new generation of employees has the power and willingness to seek the purpose and meaning of their work. The struggle and success defined by the entrepreneurs born in the 1960s and 1970s can no longer applied to the young people growing up in the Internet age and post-90s. They cannot hold a farmer’s attitude towards “long-term labourers”to demand or even morally kidnap these knowledge creators of the new era. The “996” incident is a concentrated expression of this conflict. In the face of such conflicts, the entrepreneurs have the responsibility and obligation to explore a management mode that matches the Internet era and fully respects and protects individual independence and initiative.
Max Weber (1864-1920), a German sociologist who witnessed the rapid development of enterprises in the industrial era, once suggested that the market competition mechanism con concentrated resources and gave birth to large enterprises, and whether large enterprises controlling resources could operate rationally and healthily was vital to modern society. Therefore, he proposed that once a company become large, it should not be regarded as an individual or family company, but should be regarded as a social enterprise and bear corresponding social responsibilities. This is especially important for the current Chinese Internet giants. The era of Industry 4.0 has opened up a new journey for humans to explore future production modes and personnel organization patterns. The iteration of industrial civilization provides Chinese companies, especially Internet companies, with unprecedented opportunities for strategic development. When the advantage of demographic dividend gradually disappears in the manufacturing industry, it is entirely possible for Chinese companies with a large population base to enjoy the “data advantage” once again brought by the demographic dividend in the era of digital economy, so as to finally achieve curve overtaking and help realizing the great dream of national rejuvenation. Therefore, these internet giants are undertaking the responsibility of exploring and leading China’s economic transformation and organizational reform. Their leaders are ought to stand in the height of the times, strive to get rid of the cognitive limitations brought by personal growth experience, and think more about how to integrate Chinese wisdom and culture into this transformation with a more open and inclusive attitude. They need to find new organization models that fit new business situation, and to inspire and motivate innovation vitality of the employees. Certainly, it is not merely the responsibility of Chinese internet entrepreneurs, many Chinese management scholars and practitioners should play an indispensable role in it.