Shall we give up on job design?

Last week I was asked if I’d be interested in giving a conference keynote session on ‘The job design of the future – what will roles look like in 10 years?’  Unfortunately, I can’t make the date that it’s on, but before I realised that I started to think about the topic.  In two ways it’s relevant to me:

First, I have a 13-year-old friend who may be looking for employment in 10 years’ time, I say ‘maybe’ because there may not be roles/jobs as we know them today.  His brother is 9 and I read that ‘By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. (Watch a video that went viral on this in 2008 and read more in an 2018 interview with the maker here).

Second, I know I will not be in the type of job/role as I am today as I’ll be making ‘A proactive transition from one role or situation into the next.’ I will not be wearing the ‘label old or done’.  Instead, I’ll be ‘a free agent who gets to decide what’s next. Do I want to start a new career, go back to school, start a business, join a non-profit?’

In between those age ranges I have friends in each decade and they’re all facing questions like ‘will AI, robotics, etc. be doing all the work?’, ‘How will I be financially viable?’, ‘What skills and experience do I need to keep pace with stuff?’ ‘What’s a career that’s right for me?’ ‘Are there careers anymore?’ etc.

There are countless books, articles, blogs, and opinions on types of jobs that will be required (or not) in the future.  Nesta, in their 2017 report, for example, envisages 6 hypothetical roles that could exist in 2030: restaurant owner, care worker, 100 years counsellor, immersive experience designer, green construction and aerospace engineer. Hmm – these roles exist now – so what is changing?

Futurist Thomas Frey, predicting for 2040 says that ‘common jobs will be framed around common technologies like drones, robots, and blockchain as opposed to professional categorizations like nurse, teacher, or engineer.’ He reminds us to ‘Keep in mind we’re automating tasks out of existence, not entire jobs. As our tasks disappear, new tasks will get created, and jobs, work, and entire industries will be redefined.’

He offers 20 job categories we’ll see in 2040, including:

  • asteroid mining (jobs include asteroid scouts, asteroid surveyors,  asteroid mining ground crews)
  • drone command crews (jobs include drone command centre operators, drone taxi ground crew, drone programmers)
  • CRISPR, biohacking, and programmable healthcare gurus (jobs include algorithmic dietitians, CRISPR biotechnicians, biomanufacturing organ designers).

Similarly, McKinsey in a 2017 report tells us that:

‘Even if there is enough work to ensure full employment by 2030, major transitions lie ahead that could match or even exceed the scale of historical shifts out of agriculture and manufacturing. Our scenarios suggest that by 2030, 75 million to 375 million workers (3 to 14 percent of the global workforce) will need to switch occupational categories. Moreover, all workers will need to adapt, as their occupations evolve alongside increasingly capable machines. Some of that adaptation will require higher educational attainment, or spending more time on activities that require social and emotional skills, creativity, high-level cognitive capabilities and other skills relatively hard to automate.’

The conference question asked ‘The job design of the future – what will roles look like in 10 years?’ From our currently available knowledge we may be able to hazard a guess on what roles will look like, as Frey, McKinsey, and Nesta (among others) have done.  But we can’t be sure that these guesses will be correct.

The challenge for us is how do we design jobs right now that will help people cope with future job roles, many of which may not currently exist.  There are lots of jobs that exist now that didn’t exist 10 years ago – driverless car engineer, cloud computing specialist and YouTube content creator among them, what were the people doing these roles today working as ten years ago?   Did the design of their jobs help them move into these new roles or did they have to retrain, or are they all new entrants to the workforce?  What are the new demands on their skills/experience?   What is it in current job design that has the seeds of future jobs in it?

The UK’s CIPD in answer to the question ‘What is Job Design?’, says ‘Job design is the process of determining what a job comprises, how it is carried out, and how it relates to other relevant jobs. This includes deciding on the duties and responsibilities of the job holder, the methods to be used in carrying out the job, and its fit within the organisational structure.’

To me this description implies someone deciding what someone else is going to do in an environment that is known and stable, it doesn’t imply autonomy, choice, collaboration, human/tech interaction and a VUCA environment.   I wonder if we can afford to take a pedestrian and traditional approach where the ‘purpose of job (re)design is to optimise the work process and improve productivity by reducing repetitive elements within and between jobs, as well as increasing responsibility and challenge through techniques such as job enlargement, job enrichment, job rotation and other non-monetary means.’

In a fast-moving environment is it appropriate to use techniques of ‘careful job analysis – gathering information about the job, including its content, purpose, and required outputs. This analysis should form the basis of a job description and person specification/job profile.’  Alternatives to traditional job design are several:

Take a look at job crafting – an employee driven approach to job re-design.

Think about designing around contributions statements or a capabilities spec rather than a job descriptions .

Consider role charters BCG says ‘Role charters are not job descriptions, even though they may seem similar. … [they] are active, living documents that are meant to imbue corporate strategy and vision into the daily work and purpose of the organization. They describe roles as they should be, as well as the collaboration required among them. Role chartering is generally conducted during the course of a corporate reorganization or transformation and is an integral part of BCG’s approach to organization design.’

Experiment with self-managing teams where roles change in line with employee wishes and agreements and roles are fluid and designed around outcomes.

Focus on designing skills/capabilities/abilities development pathways, not describing tasks or activities, as it is the non-machine possible, human-centred, transferable skills that people need a good stock of in order to be able to cope with changing jobs and job content.

Tim Rayner suggests six human abilities that ‘currently can’t be replicated by machines’:  empathy, ability to make a person feel acknowledged and cared for, ability to think critically about human life and society, ability to establish trust, ability to create art.   On some of these – empathy and art – machines are catching up. I would have ‘curiosity’ on a list of human abilities that are difficult for AI to emulate but even that is being eroded. (Perhaps knowing what human skills are not machine capable is itself an identification skill).

Maybe we could be even more radical and dispense with job design and job descriptions of any type altogether.   Perhaps doing that would let loose the productivity and power of employees and really gain their engagement and motivation.

Our traditional approach to job design needs, at minimum, a radical overhaul and perhaps retirement.   What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Artist quits day job to pursue passion for beautifully quilled paper art.

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