JOB is a four-letter word

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 corMucha-job-cigarette papers-1898e 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.


19 Responses to “JOB is a four-letter word”

  1. Chris Bailey

    Harold, you’re addressing a topic that dwells very close to my heart and mind. Your last paragraph is something that every single organizational manager and exec needs to contemplate. It’s one reason why I enjoy my work within a very small company…the idea of wearing many hats is something that large enterprises should encourage rather than resist. Terrific read for labor day.

  2. chris saeger

    Harold, Your comments are to the point. I share your concern about not being able to bring people to a new sense of what is possible with work and learning. I look for ways to be a more persuasive teacher .

    I admit that I struggle with it as well. I started in the addie world and find that I have a hard time letting the learning go to the people doing the work. (just the way HR and IT are in your post) My struggle is with my perception of design vs the good enough approach of the SME (and who relish comic sans, and badly done sharepoint sites to “share best practices”.)

    I find your blog always thought provoking and a place I can go for help or at least the company of like minded people.

    sigue la huelga ( I enjoyed your labor day protest song tweet)

  3. Andrew Hill

    I am reminded of two quotes that spring to mind as I (again) enter the domain of academia.

    “Knowledge is not power. Power is power. Ability to act on knowledge is power” Michael Schrage on Gurteen Knowledge

    and from TED’s LinkedIn group, the motivational quotes topic

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win” Mahatma Gandhi

    It’s an uphill battle at a University. Talk about corridors of power, ontological silo’s divided by invisible colleges! A riddle wrapped in a paradox. I actually found the Change Management academics the most resistant to new ideas!

    Yet the tide is inexorable, the message unrelenting. We owe our new students the value of information literacy, the skills of online collaboration and the power of reflective practices.

    Fight the good fight, Harold. After all, your name does mean ruler of armies.

  4. dianne

    I think so much training is needed on ways to optimize innovation capture, commercialization of tech and IP that you can play a really important role there (with innovation workshops, IP 101 workshops/brown bag lunches, and with forming a patient committee or keeping an existing one on a rationale track, etc.). That doesn’t have to be formally called “teaching” and I suspect the University will welcome that kind of outreach since it will impact their bottom line. I very much feel your pain about the silo issue though. It’s problem that plagues learning in Universities and corporations. Renaissance people have a hard time in this world :).

  5. Holly MacDonald

    Harold – I still think that jobs and work are part of the master-servant relationship that “modern” employment law defines and HR is scared to challenge that. I wrote a post on Fireside HR about it:

    Organizational/work design and HR are sometimes not even in the same department, which is one reason why the system is broken. Defining how orgs can design work and grow through their various life cycles would be a very cool thing, but if they are too divorced from other HR functions it becomes disjointed. I would love to see a compendium of ways that work can be designed to capitalize on the networked econ and worker, but still be palatable to organizations who need people to do work. Any recommendations?

    • Harold Jarche

      My next post may provide a starting point. I’d strongly recommend reading the referenced article and then digging back into Deming, Senge et al.
      Not all the answers are there, which is why I believe we need frameworks like Wirearchy to inform us as well. Bringing together support functions (OD, HR, IT, KM, Trg) is one part of the solution. Getting managers to think of systems is another. Gary Hamel and Thomas Malone have written a bit on this. However, there’s a lot of work to do on practical implementation of new work models, but I think there’s a growing, though still small, demand for it.

  6. Niels Pflaeging

    Great blog post. I fully agree that we must start redesigning work, large scale. Getting from functional divisoin and single position per person to functional integration and multiple roles per person.
    But there´s a “but”. And that is about the idea of the “job redesigner” you pitch at the beginning of the post.
    One thing we all understand is that Taylor´s premise of “liberating” work from the thinking is problematic, but also that his concept of “letting the thinkers redesign the work for the doers” is a dead end these days. So the notion of “job redesigner” even if used only metaphorically is pretty much Taylorism reloaded. We must build organizations in which teams redesign the work themselves, or with the whole system in the room, or in large-group settings. They HAVE to do it themselves, consultants or “experts” should only be the stage managers. Let´s not fall into the Taylor trap!

  7. Jon Husband

    We must build organizations in which teams redesign the work themselves, or with the whole system in the room, or in large-group settings. They HAVE to do it themselves,

    Check out the principles and ‘methods’ of Participative Work Design (originated in the 60’s, developed by Fred & Merrilyn Emery (Aus.) and Eric Trist (Canada).

    Here’s a fairly recent (2005) brief paper on getting ‘everyone’ involved in the re-design of work, by Marvin Weisbord, one of the great thinkers and doers regarding the development and evolution of meaning, dignity and enhanced effectiveness with respect to organizations’ and peoples’ work.

    • Harold Jarche

      There’s a great line in that paper, Jon:
      “Nobody has yet figured out how to commit people to organizational designs, even very good ones, over which they have no influence.”

  8. Jon Husband

    You know, the whole ‘social business’ crowd keeps going on about engagement as if it’s just another component, an element of the recipe. I do think that the odd time there’s some decent alignment and that a fair amount of engagement is realised (as Dan P. would tell us .. and indeed they went about Organization development by connecting the ‘social learning’ and collaboration inititatives to the values and behaviours associated with the Telus Leadership Philosophy, which I think was smart).

    But by and large, I submit that one of the key reasons that many or most organizations still struggle with engagement is that they use, almost by rote, the methodologies of job evaluation, competency models and performance management that still ‘reek’ of industrial era compliance. Employess have no or virtually no input into those systes, and are given their pay grades, their objectives, the guidelines for getting things done. They have very little or no real ownership of the work that they do.

    It’s a pity, really. The way forward is not murky, it’s pretty clear. It’s just a fair bit different than what ‘everyone’ believes is the proper way.

    I believe OD principles and practices offer a pretty clear and effective framework for what leading and managing in the networked era needs to be and do.

    Marv Weisbord’s book Productive Workplaces is one of the most inspiring (and clearly written books on org effectiveness I have ever read. And I’ve even had the wonderful opportunity to talk with him at length, twice, about 15 years ago.

  9. Heidi De Wolf

    This is so familiar.

    I have found that often resistance to working with those who have a broader knowledge base is based on feeling threatened. When I however approach people and ask how I can complement the existing efforts, it partly nips the feeling of ‘feeling threatened’ in the bud. It is important to make clear that you are not interested in doing their ‘job’.


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