A while back I wrote on the age of dissonance and how our way of structuring work, particularly the job, was inadequate for the networked, creative economy:
New design principles, from instructional development to job descriptions, are needed for our inter-networked society. I’ve started looking at a new design for the training department but redesign is needed everywhere. I think that more people are looking for new designs and are willing to try them out, if they can. The economic crisis may actually help bring about some needed change. So here’s a new job description to insert into all those talent management systems: work redesigner.
I’ve been thinking about jobs a bit more recently as I’ve taken a term position at a university and my job is knowledge transfer or more specifically, the commercialization of research. I’m responsible for certain projects; communications on research issues; partnership opportunities with industry; commercialization of research; patents; intellectual property protection; and technology disclosures. But, like most people, I am more than my job description. As most readers know, I am fairly well-versed in organizational development, knowledge management and educational technologies, which should be areas of interest in a university. However, I can’t get involved in activities related to these areas because that’s not my job.
Here’s the organizational common wisdom: I’m not faculty, therefore I can’t be involved in teaching. I don’t work in computing services therefore I can’t touch IT. I’m not in HR so I can’t help with organizational development. Stick to your knitting, is the implied message of departmental responsibilities and hierarchies. If I see an opportunity outside my job description there are few things I can do about it. I can initiate some collegial conversations, if I have the opportunity, but I’m not invited to the table.
This is not a “woe is me” story. I accepted this contract already knowing the organization and what I would be able to do. I have learned something of course. My ongoing recommendations on how the workplace must change, as written on this blog, have just been augmented by another, more personal, question: What happens to a person’s entrepreneurial and creative spirit after they repeatedly see that they can’t do anything with it? If you’re told often enough that it’s not your job, you will start saying, sorry, but that’s not my job.
I think that the construct of the job, with its defined skills, effort, responsibilities and working conditions, is a key limiting organizational factor for the creative economy, including Enterprise 2.0. Jon Husband has written extensively on work redesign and how the Taylorist assumptions of division of labour and packaging of tasks are just plain wrong:
Just as important is the underlying assumption of these methods about the fundamental nature of knowledge. It assumes knowledge and its acquisition, development and use proceeds slowly and carefully and is based on the official taxonomy of knowledge, a vertical arrangement of information and skills that are derived from the official institutions of our society (Jane Jacobs has a fair bit to say about this in Chapter 3 titled Credentialing vs. Educating in her last book Dark Age Ahead, as do others like John Taylor Gatto and Alfie Kohn, and as does David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous – the power of digital disorder).
I can relate to Jon’s description of a typical organization here:
Any of us familiar with medium to large sized organizations can begin to see, I believe, that the fundamental Taylorist assumption that knowledge is structured vertically and put to use in siloed pyramidic structures and cascaded down to the execution level must be straining at the seams in the increasingly highly-connected social networks in which many people work today.
Our article on the evolving social organization addresses some methods to promote creativity through social learning and my post on organizational change, unpacked gives more details. However, the core assumption of the job, that can be “filled” [just like the minds of learners], is what needs to change. This is the constraining concept. It presumes common skills and the mechanistic view that workers can be replaced without disruption. But who could replace Van Gogh, Picasso or even Steve Jobs? As complex work requires more creativity, confining our complex individual creativity within the bounds of a mere job description is debilitating. Structured jobs can suck individual creativity and create an organizational framework that discourages entrepreneurial zeal. It’s time for a serious redesign of how we structure work.