Job families

Job families hit my agenda last week. If you're not familiar with the term it means categorising jobs into like types. So you might have a job family of 'Digital' that has a range of roles in it: software developer, user experience designer, web ops, web analyst, content designer, and so on.

In a large organisation knowing what categories of jobs and how many people hold each type and at what level is immensely useful, for various reasons (in no particular order):

  • Enabling skills and experience development to a higher level with the role, for example from 'practitioner' to 'expert'.
  • Facilitating the match of skills to available roles within the organisations
  • Giving a good platform for focused recruitment
  • Aiding with feedback and performance discussions
  • Supporting succession planning
  • Grounding capacity forecasts in some evidence (is what we have likely to meet forecast skills demand requirements?)
  • Matching reward to market rates
  • Help with comparing/evaluating jobs that are in the same family but not in the same business area

I'm quite a fan of the possibilities job families offer both to the individual and the organisation but as with all discussion of families, job or 'real', there are multiple competing views on them and multiple expressions of what a family is or isn't. Just look at the number of books, films, plays, and poems there are about families. I just today read a review of a new book about playwright Tennessee Williams who 'was raised in a supremely dysfunctional family anchored by two parents who loathed each other' and as I continued to mull over families I discovered a list of 25 films about them.

When we started discussing the notion of moving towards 'job families' in the organization I'm working with we didn't have an easy discussion resulting in 'great idea, go ahead'. What unrolled was the spectrum of views on what was supposed to be job families but seemed to come across as perspectives on families in general.

At one end were people who clearly saw families as nurturing units interested in doing the best for each other in a supportive encouraging way. At the other end were those who felt families were systems of abuse and disharmony and not good for anything much, expressed in statements like, 'I never got where I am today by being in a family'. Then there were those at various points between those extremes.

I wondered if there was a bit of role confusion going on – were people talking about the job families or their own families or their roles in a family? Unpicking all this and casting personalities and perspective aside seemed to reduce the discussion to three useful questions:

1. Will categorising all the jobs into families be a huge, time consuming, expensive exercise with little benefit?
2. What's wrong with the system of generalists we've got now (and that's served us well in the past)?
3. Will putting a role in a job family box the job holder into that family so we limit their opportunities rather than extend them?

Question 1 about being a huge expensive exercise is worth exploring. Each of the major HR consulting firms offers a service around job evaluation which seems to involve some kind of categorisation. Mercer, for example, offers the International Position Evaluation System which is a 'battle tested' methodology. And Hay now offers 'Hay Group Spectrum'. Looking at this it is difficult to see if it involves job families as it used to (see one of their presentations) because it doesn't mention the phrase. But it does offer all sorts of rigorous analysis around four aspects of work. Unfortunately they have the word 'rigorous' mis-spelled several times which gives the whole spiel a slightly dubious flavour in my reading. Towers Watson offers job levelling which does include the words 'job family'. Aon Hewitt offers 'Career Link' providing 'clear descriptors for 11 levels in 5 separate career families' and I see from other providers references to career families.

Hmm – now I'm confused. What is the difference between a 'job family' and a 'career family'? Googling the question tells me that in any family with two potential earners and some dependants, one is the main bread winner who has a 'career', and the other has a pin-money 'job' which leaves time for the dependants (and, implied, the washing-up). So now it looks as if we may have two classification systems – one for the career people in organisations and one for the job people in organisations? Can this be fair (or likely)?

To get back to the serious question about categorising jobs into families: yes, it can be costly and time consuming but it doesn't necessarily need to be. As with anything it depends on the level of detail required, the purpose for doing the classification, the use it will be put to, the type of data that already exists that could be pulled from to inform the classification work, and the system that it is going to be pulled into.

In some organisations there is already a platform of job family – many organisations employ 'professionals' who have certifications relevant to their profession – accountants, for example. The UK Civil Service 'is made up of a wide range of professions and includes every kind of professional – from beekeepers and veterinary surgeons, to bomb disposal experts and accountants. There are currently 22 recognised professions, each led by a government head of profession.' Job families by another name, perhaps?

Question 2 'What's wrong with the system of generalists we've got now (and that's served us well in the past)?' is a question that seems to relate to the culture of the organisation in part and the way jobs and positions are perceived. Oracle has a daunting 580 page manual on the topic but you can read a slimmed down few paragraphs which talk about jobs and positions where 'jobs' are the generic instance something e.g. 'Accountant', (in other words a job family) and 'Positions' are specific instances of a position within that job e.g. Payroll Accountant. They go on to describe the need to decide whether to use jobs, positions, or a combination of both, and state that 'Enterprises fall into one of three general categories:

  • Rule based: in this organisation you regulate employment, roles, and compensation according to strict policies and procedures. Fixed roles tend to endure over time, surviving multiple incumbents. You manage roles rather than individuals.
  • Project based: a project-based enterprise, such as a construction or software company, requires the flexibility to assign people to new projects or organizations on a regular basis. You manage people and their skill sets, rather than fixed roles. This requires the flexibility to match competencies to tasks quickly and easily. Project-based organizations, where roles end when individuals complete a project, typically model the enterprise using jobs.
  • Hybrid: If your organization is a hybrid enterprise, you assign some individuals to fixed roles, and others to multiple projects. Hybrid enterprises model the enterprise using both jobs and positions.

What I've noticed in organisations that don't make conscious decisions around jobs, roles and positions is that they can end up with literally thousands of job descriptions with very similar characteristics but with very different grades, pay scales, career possibilities, and so on. Determining and governing the choices made avoids this kind of organisational anarchy that can more limiting than the job family decision. For example, job family classification enables technical progression 'up' a family e.g. to Chief Economist, as well as managerial progression. Many hierarchical organisations lack the parity of technical/managerial progression putting good technical people into managerial routes because it is the only promotion option.

So, it seems that the next round is to carefully consider the topic and make conscious decisions about it. What's your view of job families and what factors inform your thinking? Let me know.

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