When we look at the future of work, the loss of current jobs, and the effects of automation, we should use a compass to guide us, not a list of what the skills of the future may look like. That compass is self-determination theory which states that there are three universal human drivers — autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We need some control over our lives, we want to be good at something, and we want to feel that we belong with other people. These three drivers are what make us do what we do. Skills are just one aspect of being engaged at work. Even highly competent skilled workers can be disengaged or aimless.
Engaged people need what are commonly referred to as ‘soft skills’ to work together, be creative, and innovate. Soft skills separate humans from machines. They are permanent skills. For the past several centuries we have used human labour to do what machines cannot. First the machines caught up with us, and surpassed humans, with their brute force. Now they are surpassing us with their brute intelligence. There is not much more need for machine-like human work which is routine, standardized, or brute. These permanent skills help us connect with our fellow humans — curiosity, empathy, passion, humour, imagination.
While working with a client focused on promoting a fully engaged workforce, we first looked at our foundational principles. We co-created a credo with the Performance & Innovation Team, to which we all adhered. These shared beliefs reflected the innate human need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
- We are open and transparent
- We narrate our work.
- We value the need to share.
- We are focused on continuous learning, not events.
- We value conversation as a learning vehicle.
- We make our work accessible.
- We are a vanguard of change within the company.
- Business success is our bottom line.
- Work is learning and learning is the work.
- Our target is performance.
- We are not a training organization.
- We value time for self-development and reflection.
- We recognize that reflection is a key to learning.
- We will establish business metrics for every engagement and report back publicly on outcomes
Leadership in such an organization with these shared beliefs is not telling people what to do, or managing how they get things done, especially where much of the work is unique and non-routine. Those doing the work are often the only ones who really understand the context. Leadership is helping build the structure and then protecting the space to do meaningful work.
The historical role of management is to reduce transaction costs in getting work done. A networked organization based on the compass of self-determination theory needs minimal management. It has the capability of sharing power between people and working together as the situation requires. This reflects the wirearchy organizing principle developed 20 years ago — “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”.
This kind of organization can be designed for constant small-scale reorganizations, getting rid of the need for periodic massive and disruptive reorganization. It should be based on the principle of temporary, negotiated hierarchies, which is better-suited to deal with complex problems. Such an organization would be able to hack uncertainty, hedge risks, and learn continuously. Isn’t that what any organization should be able to do in these times? The conversation about work today must focus on improving humanity, not developing skills.
Focusing only on workplace skills and optimizing organizations for efficiency is a dehumanizing approach in the long run. What is currently called ‘digital transformation’ will not result in net societal benefits. It will only enable companies to continue to downsize and invest more in software and machines. Automation plus capitalism will not create better workplaces or a better society. The organizational design innovation we need today is connected people doing human work in organizational structures that promote self-determination.
This post reflects several posts on work written here in 2018.