Is The Job Description An Endangered Species?

Several leading business journals have recently declared the job itself, as a vehicle for packaging work, to be on the endangered species list[i]. Commenting on the same phenomenon, Savage describes “the rigor mortis of the industrial era” where the division of work and managerial supervision represented “structured distrust.” As the industrial era is replaced by the knowledge era, he predicts, both jobs and managers will be gone[ii]. Thus, making the need for the position description redundant.

While, this is, admittedly, a fairly radical stance, the Academy of Management Executive concurs:’ The practice of organizing work into fixed sets of tasks that are assigned to specific people or groups of people on a more or less permanent basis, that is jobs, is now being transformed and replaced by the practice of organizing work into clusters of functions or general fields without specific, defined tasks or fixed duties’[iii].

In light of these fast moving changes, the mantra of current career management and Organization Development specialists is ‘think agile’[iv].

Employees need to expand their thinking to define their concept of the employee position description in a manner that goes beyond limiting categories of transferable skills abilities and knowledge, and even expands beyond the narrow notion of particular roles they have filled.  Just as marketing gurus recommend business to define their mission in the most abstract terms possible in order to adapt more nimbly to changing technologies and markets, so too it is with our careers[v].

In order to survive this career evolution, employees must learn to let go of narrow self-limiting concepts in which they define themselves by a particular job role, a fixed notch along a stable overarching corporate ladder.

Those who still think of getting ahead in terms of moving up, and those who feel commitment to a particular function or type of work, must get in tune with the times and learn to adapt and to let go[vi]“. (add name/s here in brackets)

Dr Debra France, L & D specialist at Gore-Tex – a famously leader-less organization, describes how in their business people think in terms of skills and contributions and move between project groups with specific tasks that are boundary-less and where the currency is your competencies, your expertise, your relationship and influencing skills (HCI Summit, April 2014)

In this new way of working, employees need to stop clinging to narrowly defined job-roles and expand their concepts of work-related self-identity. Likewise, employers must stop thinking about their workforce as static and shift their focus towards building a broadly skilled and agile workforce capable of rising to unforeseen challenges. New approaches such as the ‘work shaping’ strategies , which we advocate here at Fuel50, view the job description as a ‘blank sheet’, a starting point that will be subject to ongoing tweaks in response to the changing needs of both parties and that fully leverages the talents each person brings on offer to the organization.

Dave Neirkirk of Amazon describes the agility required of their people where everyone in the corporate support office has to spend time in the fulfilment centre and where hundreds of people line up each week, are handed their laptops, phones, are given a rallying pep talk and then are expected to quickly find their way to contribute to the organizations effectiveness regardless of the role they have been hired into. Dave says if people are not “signing up” every day then they have the option of taking the money and running with their counter-intuitive “Pay to Quit” scheme.  They want people who are committed every day to making a difference and who align with the business vision of everyone having an opportunity to do “meaningful work” (HRMI Conference, Newport Beach July 2014).

However, some of us may need a little help to adapt to this new way of working.  One principle advantage of the so-called ‘job description’ is that it offers some semblance of security and order amidst what might otherwise dissolve into career chaos.  Things can get scary in the face of uncertainty: So, I’m more than a job role – but what am I then?

Next time you are at a dinner party  or networking drinks and somebody asks you what you do, give an elusive answer and watch the barely perceptible unease that inevitably crosses their face.  People like set categories to organize a world in which chaos is king.

It is possible to make sense of career pandemonium, but this requires a little homework in terms of self-reflection. Employees need to start thinking about their career identity at a deeper level, basing their ideas about who they are and what they do in the solid bedrock of talents, skills, abilities, character and values. Using career software can really help to do this, because it guides reflective processes to arrive at a deeper understanding.

Think of defining yourself because of the difference you make in your work and the contributions you are making. This allows employees to define their unique personal brand in a way that transcends current job descriptions and to chart a path that will take them towards exciting new frontiers of career actualization and value-added contributions to their organizations.

From the business perspective, the Position Description is redundant but needs to be replaced by the Talent Bank of the collective workforce, with contributors who trade their skills, expertise and competencies for meaningful, interesting and challenging work (project?)  assignments.  Work becomes more purpose and goal oriented, agile and responsive with skills and capabilities being called upon and contributed with an immediacy that responds to changing business demands.   The work experience is transformed to the benefit of all parties.

[i] Brousseau, K. R., Driver, M. J., Eneroth, K., & Larson, R. (1996). Career pandemonium: Realigning organizations and individuals. The Academy of Management Executive10(4), 52-66.

[ii] C.M. Savage, “The Dawn of the Knowledge Era,” OR/MS Today, 1994, December, 18-23.

[iii] Brousseau, K. R., Driver, M. J., Eneroth, K., & Larson, R. (1996). Career pandemonium: Realigning organizations and individuals. The Academy of Management Executive10(4), 52-66.

[iv] Bopp, M. A., Bing, D., & Forte-Trammell, S. (2009). Agile Career Development: Lessons and Approaches from IBM. Pearson Education.

[v] Hooley, G. J., Cox, A. J., & Adams, A. (1992). Our five year mission—to boldly go where no man has been before…. Journal of Marketing Management8(1), 35-48.

[vi] Idem.


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