The End Of Jobs

Can we coordinate the work of companies with an increasingly contingent workforce?

In several recent essays, I’ve come across an emerging thread of management thought, one that harkens back to a time of piecework, where workers were paid based on the completion of tasks — such as making the slats for a chair back — rather than being employed as chairmakers and paid an hourly or monthly wage.

In Work Without Jobs, Ravin Jesuthasan and John Boudreau seem to accept the dissolution of the employee-employer relationship — and its attendant commitments on both sides — as an inevitability. Note that this is an appeal to the ‘leaders’ of businesses — management and ownership — and not to employees:

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.

The argument is that management needs more agility and flexibility to contend with a hotted up economy and increasingly competitive markets. They don’t say what workers need. What they recommend is a new ‘work operating system’ — a term that is being used in many contexts for very different things. In this case, the authors define it this way:

Principles of the New Work Operating System

The new work operating system is based on four design principles:

  1. Start with the work (current and future tasks) and not the existing jobs.

  2. Combine humans and automation.

  3. Consider the full array of human work engagements (such as employment, gig, freelance, alliances, projects, or other alternative work arrangements).

  4. Allow talent to “flow to work” versus being dedicated to fixed, permanent jobs.

Basically, this is a process of deconstruction of jobs into tasks, applying automation to the extent that is possible, downscaling full-time employment to the degree possible by turning to gig economy models, and creating, more or less, an internal work market that directs workers to tasks they are capable of performing.

Strangely enough the authors never actually discuss the use of work ecosystems, like Haier’s Rendanheyi work marketplaces, or the platforms that they run on (for more about Haier see On Haier’s Ecosystem Micro-Communities and Hamel and Zanini on The End of Bureaucracy), or even work markets like WorkMarket or Upwork. Instead they allude to management principles and not how to put such ‘work operating systems’ into effect.

Share

A similar sleight of hand takes place in The Future of Work Is Through Workforce Ecosystems, where Elizabeth Altman and colleagues appropriate the term ecosystem as a allusion to using non-employees to get things done. However, their approach to ‘ecosystems’ is still a largely top-down concept, which is not how ecosystems actually work.

The authors identify various ‘shifts’ or trends, ones that are fairly unsurprising:

Shift 1: More non-employees are doing more work for business.

By which they mean companies are using more non-employees.

Shift 2: The nature of work is evolving.

This is fairly nebulous until they spell it out as ‘a shift toward more short-term, skills-focused, team-based work engagements in which automation and technology free up people’s capacity’. Leaving aside the vague ‘freeing up of capacity’ the authors do explicly refer to internal ‘talent marketplaces’, which allow people to seek out work opportunities that suit them.

Shift 3: There is growing recognition that a diverse and inclusive workforce can deliver more value.

And in this case, they allude to the use of collaboration technologies — but not platforms, explicitly — as a means to open up to a wider and broader range of workers:

Research supporting the view that a more diverse and inclusive workforce leads to better outcomes continues to grow.5 By adopting a workforce ecosystem structure, especially one enabled by digital collaboration technologies, organizations can attract candidates they have never seen before. Opening opportunities to workers of all types, including those who can engage in short-term projects and who may be geographically dispersed, connects companies with people of varied backgrounds, races, ethnicities, gender orientations, and abilities.

Sounds good, and may resolve some of the barriers to diversity and inclusion, since these workers may not be full-time employees, unlike the management cadre who might otherwise resist.

The authors illuminate the barrier that HR may pose to increasing the range of non-employees brought into the company:

Shift 4: Workforce management is becoming more complex.

[…]

Organizations typically have separate, unintegrated approaches to managing internal versus external workers. Responsibility for internal employees rests with HR, while procurement and other departments orchestrate external workers. Few companies manage or can see their entire workforce in an integrated way.

Yes, HR is a check on shifting to contingent workers, since their role is defined as managing recruitment, retention, training, and evaluation of employees. The authors spell out an alternative to conventional human resources, one that actually starts to sound like a platform ecosystem approach (emphasis mine):

A workforce ecosystem approach can address this issue by raising governance of the entire workforce to a higher organizational level, such as the board of directors and the C-suite. In addition to helping ensure that critical management processes are deployed in a coordinated fashion, adopting a workforce ecosystem allows leaders to consistently take measures so that organizational values and norms are considered and applied across worker types. The most forward-thinking companies are adopting workforce ecosystems that implement cross-functional systems, including HR, supply chain/procurement, business unit leaders, finance, and others. For example, some organizations offer development opportunities not only to their own employees but also to those in their greater ecosystem community. Others recently extended pay continuity to external contributors. Additionally, we see opportunities for businesses to create strategic partnerships with labor platforms, enabling a more integrated and accelerated process for managing their overall workforces.

In neither of these essays do we hear much of the voice or views of the workers in the machine. If forward-thinking companies include contingent workers in development opportunities and allow their participation in pay continuity during the pandemic, for example, those workers might feel a sense of belonging and shared purpose with the ‘ecosystem’, despite not being official full-time employees, at least to a degree.

Can contingent workers get bonuses for outstanding contributions? Will contingent workers occupy the roles of managers, heads of lines of business, or intrapreneurs that propose and develop new products and services? Or are they relegated to the role of underlings?

In true ecosystems, the boundary of the business becomes more porous, and deeper interrelationships between the enterprise and apparently independent agents — contingent workers, contractors, and partners — become not only possible but central to the company achieving its goals and meeting its market.

However, we need to steer clear of a mechanistic, top-down mindset that sees the relationships between the players as gears meshing or command-and-control structures. We have to reconsider how bottom-up ecosystems actually work, where all benefit from the participation of others, and where fluidity and flexibility set the ground rules for all, and not just for the strategists making the plans.



Don’t miss a panel session on 3 February 2021 with Simone Cicero of Boundaryless and Sangeet Choudary of Platformation Labs:

Moderated by Work Futures editor Stowe Boyd, this unmissable conversation will feature Boundaryless CEO and Platform Design Toolkit creator Simone Cicero and the Platformation Labs founder Sangeet Choudary, who recently released The State of the Platform Revolution, recapping what the peculiar year of 2020 meant for platforms. Together Simone and Sangeet will explore what it means to zoom out from a micro- to macro perspective on the platform revolution, including what governments have to keep in mind when dealing with tech giants as they start to shape our geopolitical landscape.