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Leaders need a new operating system for work — one that better supports the high degree of organizational agility required to thrive amid increasingly rapid change and disruption, and that better reflects the fluidity of modern work and working arrangements.
In our last two books, we’ve argued that this new system must enable leaders and workers to increasingly — and continually — deconstruct jobs into more granular units such as tasks, and that it must identify and deploy workers based on their skills and capabilities, not their job descriptions.1 Deconstructing work is essential to implementing new options for sourcing, rewarding, and engaging workers, and to understanding and anticipating how automation might replace, augment, or reinvent human work.
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The rapid evolution of work is making it increasingly urgent for leaders, workers, organizations, and society to master deconstructed work. These shifts have been accelerated by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has underscored the critical importance of enabling agility and flexibility.
Deconstructing Jobs and Jobholders
Organizations are held back by the obsolescence and stubborn inertia of a traditional work operating system that was built for the Second Industrial Revolution, with work defined as “jobs” and workers defined as “job-holding employees.” The inadequacy of that legacy system has long been recognized — for example, in the 1994 Fortune article “The End of the Job,” by William Bridges. Its persistence is a primary obstacle to successfully navigating challenges such as digitalization, work automation, alternative work arrangements, global economic and social equity, and the future of education and learning.
Despite decades of research examining the elements of jobs, and despite long-standing systems (such as O*Net) that helped to combine those elements in support of job design, most organizational work systems remain built upon work as a “job” and workers as “jobholders.”
What happens when your organization tries to digitize, automate, or implement alternative work arrangements? If the work is bound up in a job, and the worker is bound up as a jobholder, then your options are limited, and many solutions are obscured. Equally obscured are the specific skills gaps, because trying to match a job to a jobholder obscures the relationship between changing work and the specific skills of those who might perform the work.
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1. R. Jesuthasan and J.W. Boudreau, “Reinventing Jobs” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2018); and J.W. Boudreau, R. Jesuthasan, and D. Creelman, “Lead the Work” (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2015).