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Levanto – Antwerp’s red monkey breeder 24 October 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy, Social enterprise.
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CIMG1156 Levanto is a 'red monkey' (after Jef Staes)Levanto is a social enterprise in Antwerp that helps over 2,000 people each year to find their place in the labour market. It is re-engineering its management processes to tackle increasingly difficult economic conditions.
I’ve just paid a visit to the social enterprise Levanto in Deurne, a suburb of Antwerp, organised on the fringes of the CIRIEC conference. Its HQ is a bit like a Tardis – a 4-storey warehouse on a quiet residential street. Facing you as you enter is a big red gorilla, which symbolises the organisation’s innovative management style. This ‘red monkey’ (rode aap) is a symbol drawn from Jef Staes, a Belgian management thinker who talks among other things of the way the information revolution means we have to switch from ‘2D’ to ‘3D’ management. Learning organisations need to breed red monkeys, not hunt them, according to Staes.
Levanto is big business, as well as being a non-profit. It operates in a score of places in Antwerp and Mechelen, and trains over 2,000 people a year, targeting excluded groups such as migrants, young people and over-50s. It has a staff of 170, and provides permanent jobs for 370 others. It earns about 38% of its revenue of €18.6 million from the private sector, with the rest coming from the Flemish government, through a number of different schemes including the ESF. The two main programmes are:

  • permanent jobs: it operates the logistics for Antwerp’s 1,800 shared ‘yellow bikes’ and ‘red bikes’ which are seen all over the city, runs an energy efficiency service (Energiesnoeiers) and also has contracts cleaning public buildings – including specialist cleaning of the glass in the ornate Centraal Station – and with an increasing number of private firms, including builders Willemen, who built the iconic Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) which opened in 2011. On the way, Levanto has invented a new profession: recycling officer on building sites.
  • Year-long training schemes in trades including construction, logistics, carpentry and tile- and mosaic-making. Training is organised into four three-month blocks, embracing work attitudes, training (skills such as fork-lift driving but also Dutch language, arithmetic and getting a driving licence), practical issues (assignments teaching for example how to follow instructions and take initiatives), and finally external placements. In this last phase help is also given to find a job. Around 45% of trainees do find a job, and probably half of these keep it for longer than a year, while others lapse back into a periodic periods of inactivity.

A map of Levanto’s activities
A map of Levanto's activities
Enterprise architect
Levanto is the first company I’ve been to that employs its own ‘enterprise architect’, and his name is Phil Daenen.
The company’s innovative approach is based on accentuating the positive through ‘appreciative inquiry’. Its watchwords are “everybody is capable of something”, “together we accomplish more” and “innovation is key”. It therefore stresses solutions rather than problems, and works though partnerships.
To make Levanto more responsive, Phil is re-engineering the company to speed up its strategy cycle from its current yearly rhythm. He wants to make jobs at Levanto ‘active jobs’ – that is jobs which are both meaningful and challenging, which are neither stressful nor pointless, and which generate motivation and learning potential. Because at Levanto, every job has two elements: learning as well as production. This relies on all employees being able to give each other feedback, and this is a skill that has to be learnt (and shop floor workers are better at giving feedback, even if they sometimes do it harshly, than management staff!)
Closer to the market
CIMG1160 Levanto HQ, Clara Snellingstraat 27, 2100 DeurneLife is not easy working with a mixture of public and private funding. Contracts with the Flemish government come in four-year tranches, and the priorities for work integration change for each tender. So towards the end of each period, staff have to be put on notice in case their speciality falls out of favour. A further peril has just become apparent. As of January 2014, companies that are more than 50% reliant on public financing must apply public procurement rules to their purchasing, and this is going to massively increase administrative costs. These rules concern not only publishing calls for tender but also sticking to other policies such as environmental standards.
These factors are leading Levanto towards a more market orientation, even while it is getting harder to find private partners in today’s harsh economic climate. Through partnerships with other social enterprises in Ghent and Limburg it already offers a region-wide service.

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