Order or disorder? Stability or flexibility? Control or ‘laissez faire’? Issues linked to the management of long-term collective action have long been presented in a binary logic where choice fell within the scope of exclusivity. Today more than ever, the development of competitive strategies involves a logic suited to economic dynamics whose trends appear contradictory at first glance. At the same time, the evolution of collaborative practices and spaces are playing an important role in the transformation of our ways of working. The company Fab Lab is a manifestation of this which is interesting to analyse.

What is a company Fab Lab?

Recently, a new collaborative workspace dedicated to exploration was born: the Fab Lab. The Fabrication Laboratory [1] – commonly abbreviated to Fab Lab – is a workshop given over to innovation and rapid prototyping. It’s a space where people are free to come and go, swap ideas in a non-formal setting. The Fab Lab was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by professor Neil Gershenfeld in the 2000s. It’s a place that’s open to all, complete with equipment ranging from simple – like a soldering iron – to very sophisticated – like a 3D printer or a laser cutter. Creative and prototyping activities emerge through the interactions of an active community made up of individuals with a range of skills. This all takes place without hierarchies or orders being given.

Originally, Fab Labs were open areas, free and independent facilities located in community settings, whether educational or open to the general public. Up until now, this type of facility existed only in this form. Today, though, big businesses are getting interested in the concept and wish to put it to use in their own organisations in order to stimulate innovation. By opening its exploratory activities to members of production teams, the company Fab Lab poses an interesting challenge: how to reconcile employee production activities and exploratory activities. We worked within the innovation directorate of the French car manufacturer Renault, which has been a pioneer of this process since 2011.

The company Fab Lab, a chance for employees to explore

The Renault Group operates an internal Fab Lab which is a carrier for the upstream phase of the innovation process which is transversal to Renault’s matrix organisation. This process is defined as a regulatory process for all the “vehicle projects,” using precise signposting and a formal distinction in the distribution of functions. However, the people belonging to units of this process dedicated to production activities have complained about poor access to exploration activities.

The Fab Lab was therefore developed within Renault with the aim of bringing new opportunities for employees to get involved in exploratory activities alongside their usual activities. Through its location, its charter, its activities and its digitally-operated machines and tools, the company Fab Lab aspires to be a codified space which is also inclusive and permissive. It was conceived to be directly accessible by employees, so that they can individually carry out exploration activities alongside their production activities, ie, develop their individual ambidexterity.

Practices promoting employee ambidexterity within the company Fab Lab
We have been able to put forward four main practices (table) which characterise the Fab Lab and which explain the emergence of this dynamic: improvisation, innovative design, DIY and rapid prototyping.

Table – practices promoting employee ambidexterity within the company Fab Lab

Practices within the Fab LabPromoting employee ambidexterityEmployee comments
 

Improvisation

Adopting a heuristic process and offering employees the chance to adapt their projects at any time“Ah, but we didn’t have a model.. I tell you, I went in convinced it had to be done, but we took our first steps with enthusiasm”.
Innovative designOffering employees methodological support in their creative and innovative activities“We need people who have time to help us get into this deeply, and that’s where I can see that it’s very complementary. We’re more on the operational side, so there are things that we might miss, with the Fab Lab methods, we can get a wider and deeper perspective, and because of that we come up with different ideas than we would usually.”
 

DIY

 

By manipulating and reorganising what is available, individuals learn to cope with a lack of resources and surmount conceptual obstacles “by doing”

“People who try to explain things with slides when they’ve never even touched the products they’re talking about are fooling themselves! You need to touch things, see them, put them to use. And the Fab Lab helps us with that,  with making little models very quickly, with creating little processes very quickly, and to turn our ideas into reality.”
 

Rapid prototyping

 

Through activities that bring ideas to life and accelerate the development of innovative projects

“And what also happened here is that we have a concept that’s a bit complicated and which we can’t get to ripen, and that’s when Eric went to see someone at the Fab Lab, and they created a scenario and a model with the 3D printer which showed exactly what we wanted to do.”

Our results show that the company Fab Lab constitutes a space conducive to exploration which supports employees wishing to carry out innovative projects alongside their usual production tasks.

It’s a space conducive to social interaction, open to all and all occupations, giving employees the opportunity to organise their time as they wish, between their usual occupation and their exploratory projects. Through this structure, employees get support for their exploratory activities, in the form of the practices we have highlighted – DIY, improvisation, prototyping and innovative design. The Fab Lab acts as an additional support alongside ordinary work, thus rectifying the lack of exploratory activities for employees. It therefore constitutes a facility for the development of employee ambidexterity.

As a physical space lending itself to social interaction, it is open to all and to all types of occupations, offering employees the chance to freely organise their time between their usual production activities and their exploratory projects. This facility allows employees to avail of assistance for their exploratory activities in the form of the practices already highlighted – DIY, improvisation, prototyping and innovative design. So the Fab Lab offers support that complements the workers’ ordinary activity by fulfilling employees’ need for exploratory activities. It therefore constitutes a facility which allows employees to develop ambidexterity.

Conclusion

The in-house Fab Lab offers an opportunity for businesses to use the digital revolution to deal with and adapt to the ever-changing environment of the markets and innovative practice. By offering employees in production units the chance to carry out exploratory activities, we’ve seen that the in-house Fab Lab plays the role of a valuable tool and a support for emerging employee ambidexterity. It takes the form of a safe space for exploratory activities and offers every employee the chance to manage their own work, between production and exploration, and hence to become ambidextrous.

We saw that when offering employees in production roles the opportunity to carry out exploratory activities, the internal Fab Lab is a useful tool and a support to the emergence of employee ambidexterity.

Methodology
Table 1 summarises our collection methodology and the analysis of our research.
Synthesis of the methodological framework of our research

 

Research Design

Our research was qualitative. The case study being the preferred methodological approach for exploring and understanding a complex phenomenon, we carried out a single, illustrative case study as part of this exploratory and descriptive research. Faced with the inherent complexity of our research subject and therefore the difficulty of drawing firm conclusions, we opted for an abductive reasoning process.
Data collection and processing method
We worked with Renault from September 2013 and we stopped gathering in June 2014 – a period of 10 months. However, our collaboration is ongoing. Everyone was aware of our research activities, so we opted for the observer-participator model because the aim was to understand Renault’s innovation processes on three levels: the official version, the employee version, and our own observations. Thus, our empirical work is based on semi-directed interviews carried out with different players in the company (managers, Fab Lab members, innovation specialists and non-specialists). Over 43 days at the site, we carried out 42 semi-directed interviews of an average duration of 1 hour and 26 minutes, all recorded and transcribed in their entirety. We also kept a working journal where we were able to note the context of our observations during the creativity sessions and meetings we attended. Finally, we had access to a number of internal documents which allowed us to get to grips with the way the business is organised. Our data collection therefore adheres to the principal of data triangulation, and is therefore valid as a research framework.

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