Every now again, I do a deep dive into a book. That’s generally only the case when it’s important, and insightful and also when it aligns with a lot of work and thinking I’m already doing (so that it’s not substantially new to me, and therefore, I’m learning and challenging at the same time. ‘Work without Jobs: How to Reboot your Organisation’s Work Operating System‘ is one of those books.
I make this point now because it does mean my reviews tend to read as being quite critical – especially as that’s the way I tend to think as well. It’s not intended to be. This is a good, important, insightful book. You should read it. But read and reflect on my challenges too.
The book is important because of the increasing opportunities provided by automation, AI and robotics, and the platform-based gig economy. It means that in the still developing future of work, we do need to review how work gets done, and how jobs support this, or can be substituted by other things. alongside everything else that is changing too. The book also develops the author’s ideas quite a way beyond Lead the Work and Re-engineering Jobs.
The Organisation’s Work Operating System
But what is a rebooted Work Operating System? In fact, what is a WOS at all? As it’s not something I, or anyone else really, have ever talked about.
We’re used to talking about an Operating Model that describes how a business operates. A WOS is presumably a bit like that. As John Boudreau explained in an earlier webinar (see pic), jobs and ‘work without jobs’ are ways of organising work. So a WOS is part of an Organisation Model.
The book explains that this includes the hardware which I see as the main elements of the organisation model (eg the work, infrastructure, people and their connections). Then the WOS (like a computer OS) runs on top of this, allowing for work engagement and connecting to ‘external programs’ (suppliers of work) enabling them to access the organisation’s work system.
What have we called this thing the book calls a WOS previously? I’d suggest we’ve tended to talk about jobs and WWJs through organisation principles. The old principles were all about jobs and ‘fitting people into those boxes’. The new principles are about getting work done in other ways. In fact the book explains that this meta-principle builds on four more specific principles that I’m going to return to separately.
But then we’ve always used contractors and interims as well as employees in jobs, and consultants without jobs, so this isn’t a totally new idea. The new principle is really just that we need to make more use of re-engineering work, using automation and the various types of contingent workers that the authors have written about before. And the opportunity for people in jobs to contribute in different ways, primarily through talent marketplaces.
In fact, despite suggestions in the book that the new world of work is one ‘beyond employment’, the authors themselves note they aren’t proposing this old WOS disappears, but that jobs exist alongside WWJs. Which is good, as I think businesses still need employees, and not everyone in the labour market wants to work in a contingent capacity.
So, I don’t think it is really a new principle, it’s an extension on the existing one. Or, in WOS terms, it’s about rebooting with a new release, not a new version. #workwithoutjobs or #workwithandwithoutjobs maybe?
Sub-Principle 1: Deconstructing Jobs
The first sub-principle supporting the general one above (the WOS) is deconstructing the elements of jobs, into work (tasks, projects etc) and workers (skills, capabilities, etc).
We do need to focus on work, and workers, but this isn’t really deconstruction. In fact, in organisations that knew what they were doing, jobs have always been Constructed based on work and skill requirements. My blog post on ‘Re-engineering Jobs’ suggested that the approach described there was really just process re-engineering with a modern twist, and the same is the case here.
The need is to start with processes / work, re-engineer this, and then see what it means for jobs. When that’s the case, you don’t need to deconstruct jobs because you’re starting with the work anyway. And even when organisations haven’t previously outlined their processes, they’ll have often done job analysis to understand what work is done within their jobs.
So the unit of work is the task, not the job – and always has been / should have been. I think this is important. It’s good that as a result of this book, more companies will focus on work rather than just their jobs. It’d be even better if they did actually start with the work in the first place.
And I do like this exercise: Each time you see an article, policy-maker, leader, or pundit use the word “jobs,” substitute the word “work,” and ask if that opens up more possibilities. But that’s been good advice for 20 to 30 years now.
Workers do need to be ‘deconstructed’ (though that’s a poor word for this) into skills and capabilities. Our increasing abilities to do this are the key enabler behind talent opportunity marketplaces and fluid work (see sub-principle 4). But there are limits to this too. I’m not just my skills and capabilities and neither are you. And even if we have the same skills, we may do thing in very different ways, using different insights and perspectives to do our work.
Therefore, this is an existing sub-principle that is really about matching different types of worker to different tasks, after looking at the use of technology and before or alongside pulling some of these together into jobs. This is something I’ve been recommending in the Job Design and Digital Transformation courses I’ve been running for at least five years now.
There are some additional opportunities in doing this that the book misses out too:
1. Improving the Value of Work
Before we do anything else – before we look at the use of technology, or the use of different types of worker, we should just look at the work. Does it make sense?, and is there a better way of doing it? Can we improve the value it provides meaning that we better meet customers’ needs and can afford to pay people more?
This may not be part of the Work Operating System, ie organisations would need another principle referring to this. But it’s a shame that a book on work didn’t mention it. Especially as the potential value is much greater than anything to do with using different types of worker.
(I was going to write technology too, but actually many of the opportunities will be presented through the use of technology. It’s just that here, we’re looking at improving the work, not just doing it by technology rather than job holders.)
2. Top-Down Design
This is about cascading focus from high level work / mega processes to more detailed work / tasks.
We should look at end to end processes / transformations as well as tasks. Work doesn’t always need to considered in terms of granular tasks and skills, but this matching can often be done at higher level processes and broader capabilities, particularly for less modular and more creative work that is not so easily atomised, analysed and automated.
Work automation solutions may often only be visible at task and skill level but value improvement solutions tend to be the reverse. Organisations would do well to cascade their focus down the organisation, looking at higher level work first, before moving on to lower level, and often lower value opportunities.
3. Future-State Design
Some of the most transformational opportunities, particularly as businesses and organisations change ever more quickly and extensively is to focus on what work will be needed and how this will be done in in the future-state organisation, rather than incrementally updating the current-state organisation. Again, this means organisations need to start with the work not the current jobs.
This opportunity does diminish if, as the book suggests, deconstruction (or just constructing jobs and other opportunities from the work) happens perpetually in real-time, and in some places, maybe it will. However, even in project based organisations, that need to take an ongoing look at constructing project roles using jobs and other opportunities from the work that needs doing, you wouldn’t normally want to keep prodding this once its done – unless it’s a really long project, or you’ve previously identified that the proportions of jobs and WWJs will have to change during the life of the project.
And even if businesses need hyper agility, people still have longer-term horizons and need stability as well as progression. So despite what the authors see as unavoidable parallels with ongoing iphone upgrades, organisations aren’t really much like iphones, and even here, people aren’t upgrading so often now.
Eg MIT and CultureX have found that ongoing reorganisations are one of the main factors behind the great resignation Or as a personal example, I’m really interested in organisation, but ultimately I just want not to get on with my job, not spend time organising and re-organising the way I work.
I do agree with the authors that the new principle means that work systems (eg planning, sourcing, choosing, assigning, developing, engaging and rewarding) must all evolve to reflect the new approach. And that we need to be able to optimise combinations of contractors and employees. These are the most interesting consequences of the new principle, and are addressed to an extent within the book (not that I agree on all of the suggestions here either) but I’d have still liked to have seen more on these areas in the book.
Sub-Principle 2: Combining Humans and Automation
We’ve done this for decades. For example, the moto when I was at Andersen Consulting in the early 1990s was Simplify – Automate – Integrate. That’s pretty much these first two principles.
The authors have also already explained both these principles (including the dreamt up need for deconstruction) in Reinventing Jobs. The technology is advancing rapidly, but the basic principles are the same.
Sub-Principle 3: Consider the Full Array of Human Work Engagements
This includes employment, gig, freelance, alliances, projects, other alterative work arrangements. Once again, the authors have written about these opportunities previously, this time in Leading Work.
P&O’s recent actions must have knocked the UK public’s perception of contingent working back a couple of decades. However, the business case is still there, and the trend hasn’t gone away. (Though much of the work that can be performed without jobs can be algorithmised and automated (think taxi drivers to Uber to driverless cars).
Sub-Principle 4: Flowing to Liquid / Fluid / Melted vs ‘Fixed’ Jobs
The fourth sub-principle is the one not previously covered in the author’s other books. and for me is the most important. It focuses on allowing talent to flow to work versus being limited to ‘fixed’, traditional jobs which put people in ‘boxes’ bounded by ‘strict’ job descriptions.
I think it would have been useful to explain the difference between jobs in vertically oriented specialisms eg functions and departments, and those in horizontally oriented teams.
Vertically oriented work does tend to be quite structured and jobs will be bounded (I wouldn’t say boxed, if designed appropriately) by others around them. These aren’t necessarily that fixed and increasingly already give people a lot of the flexibility found in work without jobs within these jobs.
But horizontally focused work is naturally a lot more flexible than that which is vertically oriented. Yes, there are some opportunities to add on to people’s functional jobs (eg the accountant who also provides voice-over narration for a film trailer), but most potential exists in teams. So, to me, re-organising horizontally, eg through the projectisation of work, is a much greater enabler for non-traditional work opportunities than internal talent marketplaces, although these do definitely help as well. I also think it’s important that most of the people in horizontally oriented organisations are still working in a job, it’s just that this job (or role) is a lot broader than in the past.
The book contains a couple of examples that might help:
Eg: “Flowing often requires that workers look beyond their strict job descriptions to apply their capabilities where they are most pivotal, such as when business analysts, data scientists, and software developers flow to a project to develop new functionality for a customer-facing application.” – This isn’t really about changing jobs, it’s about shifting the organisation from a vertical to a horizontal organisation.
And there’s another rather bizarre example of a major consumer goods organization that had implemented Agile, “but despite its thoughtful approach to redesigning its processes, and even upskilling its employees, the company faced major difficulty in getting its employees to flow to work and actively engage with challenges that spanned job titles or departments. Much of the pivotal value of the Agile process design was squandered because the workers were trapped in a system of jobs that offered no mechanism to flow to the goal of product improvement.” – Well, it hadn’t really implemented Agile then had it? And again, the opportunity here isn’t just about changing jobs, it’s about becoming more horizontally focused.
These cross-functional and horizontally oriented jobs aren’t new but date back maybe 50 years in professional services and project management firms, and at least 20 years in many others (eg see Frank Ostroff’s Horizontal Organization). The form of these jobs has changed over that time of course, moving from assigned processes to flow to projects and agile sprints, but we’ve known that jobs don’t need to be limited to vertically oriented organisations for a long time. Therefore, we shouldn’t just see the choice limited to just fixed jobs and work without jobs, but can choose between vertically structured jobs and flexible, horizontal roles, as well as other work opportunities potentially.
I think all of this matters. Jesuthasan and Boudreau aren’t suggesting it’s only jobs that need to change, so I suppose there’s not that much difference between focusing on jobs and then the rest of the organisation, compared to the organisation including jobs. But what I’ve tried to show in the notes above is that jobs aren’t the big thing. I think we should start with the high level organisation, eg the organisation form, and deal with jobs from there. This means that, before we get into the ‘work operating system’, we need to ensure we’ve got the right ‘hardware’, ie broader organisational arrangements, in place.
I posted last week on Jesuthasan and Boudreau’s new book, #WorkWithoutJobs, and in particular the suggestion of a need for an updated principle focused on making more use of contingent workers and automation as well as the opportunity for people in jobs to contribute in different ways, primarily through talent marketplaces (the ‘Work Operating System’).
Although I recognise this book only deals with the WOS not the whole organisation model, it still misses a few other important areas related to the work and jobs agenda:
1. The Increasing Importance of Core Employees
Without this focus, it’s very easy for organisations to lose the essence of what they are.
For example, the book often refers to professional services firms. Well, I’ve worked for consultancies that replaced most of their traditional, permanent consultants with contingent associates, and the results weren’t pretty. Firstly, these firms lose the whole point of being an organisation, as all the talent, knowledge and norms disappear. Secondly, they stop providing value for customers, and do this very expensively (eg it’s common practice for consultancy firms to add a mark-up of 60% to what they pay their associates, often without adding any value to the work they are doing. Would you rather pay £1000 to an individual, or £2500 to a practice? I know what I would want to do.) I think that serves a lesson to companies in other areas looking at the opportunities for contingent working too.
One of the case studies notes that regular employees were more diligent and reliable that external short-term gig employees. Well, yes. Most companies will still want the longer-term relationships and extra commitment that permanent employees are likely to provide. So as they increase the proportion of workers who are contingent, so the nature of the relationship with permanent employees change as well. So we do also need to focus more deeply on those who do work with jobs.
2. Good Work
The book notes that the new WOS can seem to diminish the human dimension. And without further considerations added to the approach, I think it will.
We need to ensure that as we re-engineer work, we create good work and good jobs, not just higher productivity for the business. This includes the increasing use of hybrid and flexible working Lynda Gratton and others have been writing about.
The book does discuss how we can ensure those without jobs have good deals, and I think the World Economic Forum’s Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work is great. However, current experience suggests most of the people in work without jobs will have quite a precarious existence and I don’t really see that changing.
Eg in the distribution centre I referred to earlier, gig work is repetitive, physical and independent, and requires low-complexity tasks that are quick to train like following a schedule, following directions, and physically moving products.
There is an example of a retailer extending its benefits to precarious, disengaged gig workers, but they’ll still be doing relatively poor work.
Will gig workers be given the chance for job crafting for example? Contractors and consultants often can (and I’d argue, should), but true gig workers probably not as this opportunity tends to be constrained by the platform they’re working through.
Also, the book largely skirts past how we design good work, and also the creation of good jobs, employee experience and employment value propositions – because these are part of the old approach. But they’re also vitally important, especially as these are the ones used for core employees.
3. Communities for Creating Value
The book assumes organisation is always about bringing people to work that already exists. People (at least those in jobs) might be able decide how they do the work, and they may even play a role in identifying the work, but the work is the work. I don’t think that always has to be true. Also, I accept that fluid work can provide a more human work engagement, but it’s not fully human when it’s still using people as instruments to do work.
Therefore, I think the most exciting and highest value opportunity to reinvent work is bringing people (in jobs and / or without jobs) together to identify work. This includes the use of communities and distributed networks rather than just vertically oriented functions or horizontally oriented cross-functional teams. That’s well beyond the scope of this book unfortunately.
In addition to these additional parts of the WOS, we need to think more broadly about the whole organisation model too. So, for example, although I do quite like the OS vs hardware distinction, I think using digital technology to replace jobs, and developing external ecosystems to provide contingent workers are part of the hardware too. For me, the OS is the deconstruction (if it’s needed!) and the mobility parts of this.
This is important in a few different areas, including when the authors debate who should be accountable for work design. The answer is whoever it is that is accountable for broader organisation design. And yes, this should be HR.
But this isn’t not just accountability for “integrating and translating lessons in targeted experiments for the entire organisation” or developing and constantly improving “frameworks and resources to support a system for agile innovation in work design” – unless you want HR to be a support function of course.
Strategic HR teams should be accountable for ensuring the whole organisation, including the implementation of the WOS principles, are aligned with (inform and support) business and people’s needs. Effective re-engineering and decisions about jobs will continue to become a greater focus of this accountability.
HR and OD Strategist, Trainer, Learning Facilitator at the Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy
See the Academy’s Job Design course: Role and Job Design for Good Work and Higher Productivity – Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy (New study group starts in early May)