Looking at those ‘About’ pages that organisations have on their websites, which I was doing to construct an org design case study, leaves me wondering who they are directed at. They contain useful, perhaps factual, and certainly carefully chosen information that presents aspects people in External Comms Departments want other people to know.  But it’s not clear which people they are targeting – researchers, analysts, investors customers, employees?  Thus, in general, an organisation’s ‘about’ page tells a thin, partial story.

In some aspects the ‘About’ page is like an organisation chart.  It has some information but is significantly incomplete – an organisation chart doesn’t tell you what the organisation is ‘about’ and neither does the ‘About’ page.   As an example, compare two banks’ ‘About’ opening paras:

Triodos Bank is a global pioneer in sustainable banking, using the power of finance to support projects that benefit people and the planet. We believe that banking can be a powerful force for good: serving individuals and communities as well as building a more sustainable society’.

HSBC is ‘one of the world’s largest banking and financial services organisations. We serve around 38 million customers through four global businesses: Retail Banking and Wealth Management, Commercial Banking, Global Banking and Markets, and Global Private Banking’.

Although these paint very different pictures of each organisation and hint at different pre-occupations and organisation designs, they both miss what I think is a key feature of ‘Aboutness’ –  the feelings, behaviours,  experiences and human-ness that includes stories,  anecdotes and conversations illustrating answers to questions like  ‘What does it feel like to work in this place?  How do our customers experience our products and services?  How principled are we in what we do?  How do we relate to each other?  What makes us laugh?  How do we look out for each other’?

Last week when I was pondering ‘About’, I was also acting as a guide to a friend who was visiting the UK for the first time.  I took her to various places to give her a flavour of ‘about UK’. (Read the BBC version here.)  Heaven knows what she now thinks the UK is ‘about’ but we had a good time and she gave up the idea that we all ate buttered crumpets and drank tea from bone china teacups at 4:00 p.m. every day, sitting in Cotswold cottages with Farrow and Ball wallpaper.  (Possibly these ideas were gleaned from some other ‘About Britain’ page?)

In the course of the week, I (we) met four people who were all volunteer workers in their respective organisations.  Philip, an ‘ambassador’ (according to the badge he wore) was very amusing in his telling of Blickling Hall’s history, Margaret, a volunteer encouraged us to participate in Blickling’s ‘The Word Defiant’ participative art installation. Roger educated us, in the most delightful way on Cromer’s RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institute) station and Shelia co-hosted the Freedom from Torture, Write to Life group’s summer party.

They told us the ‘party-line’ story that they were there to tell – for example, Philip talked about the history of Blickling Hall, told us why some of the buildings had chimneys and some didn’t and gave us various other info snippets.   The fun thing was he did so in an uninhibited, involving, humorous way that left us asking each other if in his non-volunteer role he was a comic actor or had been an eccentric history teacher (or both) – he gave people a toffee if they could answer one of his questions correctly.

In telling their ‘required’ story the volunteers also told different story about their organisations – almost as an unconscious variant of that left-hand column right hand column exercise.  Margaret, for example, said that ‘Head Office’ was expecting the volunteers to encourage Blickling House visitors to interact with the Defiant activities ‘Head Office thinks it’s a good thing so we have to do it.’   She expressed amusement tinged with bemusement as visitors, prompted by her in a kind, considerate, way busily redacted words from a copy of a page of Northanger Abbey to create a sentence about their experience of the exhibition from the words they left visible.

Roger was amazing in his knowledge of the RNLI and a passionate supporter of its principles.  He loved the way, as he put it, the organisation is run as efficiently as possible in a pragmatic/common sense way that gets the best from people.  He was a real champion of its value to communities and societies.

And Sheila was adamant that she wasn’t the Write to Life group’s ‘co-ordinator’.  She said she supported and facilitated what the group wanted to do, but it’s ‘their group.’

What I found strking about the four was they didn’t have any of the aura of  ’employees’. They loved what they were doing and that’s why they did it.  (Notice they are also not subject to the same organisationational stuff as employees, which may be what makes a difference).

Each gave us a rich and human glimpse of their organisations – a very different take from the sterile and impersonal ‘About’ pages that organisations have on their websites, or many employees give in the course of delivering ‘the customer experience’. All four were hugely enthusiastic, energetic, and involved in their first-hand ‘abouts’ of their organisations and the bit they worked in.  They were upbeat, positive, and dedicated to serving what they saw as the clear purpose of their organisations.

Contrast their attitudes with what Jeffrey Pfeffer would have us believe in his new book ‘Dying for a Paycheck’.  This ‘maps a range of ills in the modern workplace — from the disappearance of good health insurance to the psychological effects of long hours and work-family conflict — and how these are killing people’ or a similar book by David Graebner, Bullshit Jobs which examines the question, ‘Why are employers in the public and private sector alike behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they don’t seem to need?’

Neither book celebrates the joy of working that the volunteers demonstrated.  So now I’m wondering if volunteer work is ‘about’ enjoyment, purpose and contribution while paid employment is about meaningless jobs? It can’t be as clear cut as that.  Surely the people on the payroll of the RNLI, Blickling Hall, or Freedom from Torture don’t feel they are in bullshit jobs.  And what about people who are in paid jobs but are also volunteers in other organisations, or who participate in employer-led volunteer schemes?  How do they feel about working in the different contexts?

What is it about volunteers and their work that makes them about advocating for their organisations in a way that being a paid employee doesn’t?   If we could capitalise on their enthusiasm and commitment would our organisations, and their ‘about’ pages start looking and feeling like great places to work.  What can we learn from the volunteer experience that we could apply to our employed workforce?  Let me know.

Image: Stained glass window, Cromer Lifeboat Station



Designing for aging

It was the headline on the torn-out article, pinned on the notice board, that caught my eye. ‘I did an Ironman at the age of 74’. It set me musing thinking on the several cases of people in their, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s doing counter-stereotypical things that I’ve noticed in the last few weeks. Perhaps these observations are prompted by the release of the film Edie, in which 83 year-old actress Sheila Hancock, climbs a mountain, the 2,398-foot-high Suilven in Lochinver, in Scotland.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m intending to. I’ve been reading about Hancock’s experience of training and climbing it.

I also read about Aleksander Doba aged 70 who’s kayaked solo across the Atlantic 3 times, (among other kayaking feats). And in talking to someone about him I got the book recommendation Age is Just a Number by Charles Eugster. It’s a wonderful and cheering book. He took up weight lifting and athletics in his mid-eighties and became a ‘sprints sensation’ at the age of 95.

These active elders are not all athletes (or actresses). At the Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition is a striking portrait of artist and Royal Academician, Ken Howard, now 85, still painting and with his own paintings also in the Exhibition. The person I went to the exhibition with mentioned Lynn Ruth Miller, a comedienne, aged 85 and going strong.

Sensitised to incredible elders, I spotted a headline ‘Don’t brand over-60s old and doddery, BBC is told’. Age UK, submitting to OFCOM on the BBC’s portrayal of various ethnic and demographic groups is of the view that whereas the sensitivities of ethnic minorities and LBGT people are, in the main, vocally represented, there is a lack of consideration for older citizens in the way they are depicted on television and radio.

This tends to hold true in terms of workplace attitudes to older people. Earlier this year, the UK’s CIPD gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee as part of their inquiry on older people and employment. The session covered the barriers that older people face in the labour market and how both employers and the Government can do more to support them.

In January 2017 the UK Government published a report Older Workers and the Workplace (based on data collected betwee 2004 and 2011 – so somewhat dated now) which found that ‘while on average older employees fare better than employees aged 22-49 in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment, [they] were less likely to receive training. The better average outcomes in terms of job satisfaction, wellbeing and perceptions of fair treatment may reflect the fact that less satisfied employees have left employment by this age.’

Perhaps, combating the ‘old and doddery’ stereotype the researchers found ‘no significant associations between changes in the proportion of older workers employed between 2004 and 2011 and changes in workplace performance over the same period. … this suggests that overall the age composition of private sector workplaces does not have a sizeable role to play in explaining their performance. We do find some evidence that workplace labour productivity falls where the proportion of workers aged 22-49 falls, either due to a rise in the proportion of older or younger workers.’

They also found that ‘many employers value older workers, recognising their experience, loyalty and reliability. Furthermore, while we find no association between change in age diversity and change in workplace performance, age diversity may bring other benefits in the workplace; we find that job satisfaction was higher among young workers in workplaces which employed higher proportions of older workers.’

All that sounds promising. Summarising – older people who are in work are not old and doddery, they are good contributors to the workplace, enjoy what they do, and do not seem to have a negative impact on workplace productivity. (Although, this last needs more research).

But there are some caveats: ‘Existing evidence has suggested that while employers often recognise the benefits of retaining their existing older workers, they can be less willing to recruit ‘new’ older workers.’ Additionally, ‘Generating better outcomes for older workers may therefore require greater focus on other employer practices, such as provision of flexible working or job design.’

Echoing this view is the finding from researchers at the IES. In their report What do older workers value about work and why? They note that ‘There are very few differences between the preferences of older and young workers. However, there are a few factors that become more important with age. Health has the biggest effect on older workers’ decisions about continuing to work, more so than job satisfaction or job quality. Some older workers will therefore place greater value on flexibility at work, adjustments or part-time working hours to accommodate health needs or caring.’

With this in mind they offer 14 steps that employers can take to promote fulfilling work and create age-friendly workplaces. They’re worth a look as several are immediately relevant to organisation and job design, for example: ‘Ensure that older workers have variety and autonomy in their work’ and ‘Design roles for older people that maximise social contact and interaction’.

Looking in more detail at designing work for the mature worker, is the Centre for Transformative Work Design. They have a research stream aimed at understanding the role of work in successful aging – not only because the proportion of older workers is increasingly globally, but also because there is an imperative to minimize health costs by encouraging healthier aging. The health of nations, ‘will be served through creating work that preserves the wellbeing and social, psychological, and mental capital of older workers.’

They are specifically looking at ‘what types of work designs … and organisational supports promote healthy work for older people. … We will further investigate how cognitive, social, and psychological functioning is preserved or maintained through good work. The idea that work can be designed to facilitate such outcomes is part of an emerging perspective that mental and psychological capital can be enhanced across the lifespan.’

Tellingly, none of the extraordinary older people I mention at the start of this piece are in organisational work. They are all self-employed, pursuing their own interests and making a living at it. I wonder how organisational performance could be improved if we were able to design work that encouraged more older people to enter or stay in the workforce and fostered the drive and energy shown in those people? It seems likely to be for the benefit not just of older workers, but all workers.

What’s your view of designing work with the older working in mind? Let me know.

Image: Ken Howard, painted by Tim Hall

Job design

Do you have any insights and thoughts on the future of job design and the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, etc?  That’s a question I was asked twice in the past week, once in an email from someone and once at the conference I was speaking at in Shanghai on trends in organisation design.

The question has an inherent assumption in it that jobs can be designed. Subject that assumption to the riskiest assumptions test.  High risk assumptions have two traits: a high probability of being wrong and significant impact when they are.  I’m of the view that assuming jobs can be designed through traditional methods, at least for humans, is highly risky.

Traditional models of job design focus on analysing the task structures of jobs, such as task identity, variety, and feedback (See, for example: Hackman & Oldham, 1976). In these models, jobs are collections of tasks designed to be performed by one employee, and tasks as the assigned pieces of work that employees complete.

In a research article on job analysis and design the authors note that traditional job analysis ‘focuses on the procedure for determining the tasks and responsibilities that comprise particular jobs as well as the required human attributes.  There are numerous methods used to examine the levels of functioning of organisational units, workplaces, and employees.  They include the processes functions method, and the well-known functional job analysis that uses scales to represent the tasks performed by employees, and the percentage of time spent on each task during job execution that involve things, data, people etc.‘ Some of the large consultancies offer job design services based, predominantly, on this approach. See, for example, Mercer and WillisTowersWatson

Adam Grant, in a 2007 research paper, challenges this approach saying that the traditional models are incomplete as they don’t recognise the relational and social aspects of work and the jobs people do.   The goal of Grant’s research was to ‘revitalize research on job design and work motivation by accentuating the relational architecture of jobs and examining its influence on the motivation to make a prosocial difference.’ (Prosocial means behaviour which is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship).  Since his paper, the relational and social aspects of work have become much more visible through technologies such as social network analysis (SNA).

Ben Waber, Alex Pentland, et al put SNA to good effect – boosting the productivity of call centre agents, not by changing their job design but by measuring the conversational interactions between workers using sociometric badges.  By using this data to change the coffee break times of the workers, giving group members breaks at the same time, they increased the strength of an individual’s social interactions, and proved related productivity gains.  They conclude, ‘we have shown that strong social groups are beneficial to productivity and can be supported without extensive management interventions. … This result is all the more interesting since it had previously been hypothesized that interaction between call center employees reduces productivity.’

Social network analysis and similar technology uses are showing that, for humans at least, work gets done through social networks, leading to challenges on the value of traditional job analysis for human work.   KPMG Partner, Tim Nice, is another of the challengers. ‘Companies traditionally have a structured approach to role descriptions and pay alignment, but the work people do and the way they engage with organisations is dramatically shifting. Organisations need to embrace a more fluid way of forming jobs, hiring talent and rewarding people, to fit new demands. … The structure of traditional jobs is no longer a reality, and this will be amplified in the future.  Most people are in a much more fluid state concerning how work gets done.”

Dan Cable, in his book Alive at Work, explores the notion that ‘organizations, in an effort to routinize work and establish clear-cut performance metrics, are suppressing what neuroscientists call our ‘seeking systems’. Organizations are shutting off the part of our brain that craves exploration and learning.’  In his talk The Emotions of Competitive Advantage, he goes a step further, saying that ‘employees should have the freedom to explore, experiment and play with ideas, and not be bound by job titles, job descriptions and the trappings of traditional job design’.

Overall, it seems researchers are marshalling evidence suggesting that the relational aspects of work are more important to role success than task and activity definition and suggesting that we look at work and job design in a different way from previously.

On this basis, the future of job design is looking different from traditional models but my questioners also asked about the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, etc. on job design.   PWC describes three types of AI:  assisted, augmented and autonomous.  They ask ‘What types of tasks in your organization can you automate by having Assisted Intelligence? Have you thought about how to rethink your business using Augmented Intelligence? Do you think that your company will ever get to a stage of completely handing over the job to the machine?’   (Autonomous intelligence).

These questions are partially answered by Michael Gibbs in his article ‘How is new technology changing job design? He finds that ‘new technologies complement non-routine, cognitive, and social tasks, making work in such tasks more productive.’ And ‘Greater access to data, analysis tools, and telecommunications allows many workers to focus more on social interactions, collaboration, continuous improvement, and innovation.’ (See also his paper ‘Why are jobs designed the way they are?’ )

Making another assumption – that AI is not relational or prosocial, (though some argue that this is coming), there is a case for saying that some of the tools of traditional job design, rather than being retired, could be applied to make decisions about how much to go down all or any of the AI routes.   Because where AI is strong is on performing routine and specific tasks, and/or sifting through big data.  AI is mostly useful, as one writer says, for the ‘non-creative and non-personal tasks that can be broken down into relatively predictable parts.’ Traditional job design methodologies are much more suited to identifying these routine and standardized tasks that are the domain of AI capability.

 Look at a ‘how to’ guide on job design it could work to aid decisions on whether all or part of the work process/activity is ripe for AI or whether/where/how it needs human/relational involvement.

If we use traditional job design methods to determine what tasks and activities could be done by AI, then what methods can we use to design relational, pro-social human work, at this time when, as Mercer says, ‘the nature of “a worker’” is experiencing its own revolution’?

Perhaps we could give up on the idea of ‘job design’ in favour of agreeing goals and outcomes and then enabling workers to design their own work in response to the shifting context.  At ‘Hello Alfred’, for example,responsibilities evolve every few weeks or quarters, along with the goals and teams tasked with achieving them. As pods reconfigure, different people come together bringing different strengths and expertise, making for a more collaborative, dynamic workplace.’   

How do you think the future of job design is changing and what impact the different types of AI will have on it?  Let me know.

Image:  Job description IT