The way we work today originated in the Second Industrial Revolution, when work was organised around the assembly line and the entire social construct of the workplace revolved around a one-to-one relationship between a job and the person holding it. But in the year 2022, we have already moved past the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Work today revolves around a many-to-many relationship between skills and different types of work.
"This new world of work requires an operating system that looks fundamentally different, one in which talent can flow seamlessly to work without the frictional costs of a job, where that talent and the work operating system can reinvent itself, in which automation and humans combined transform the way in which talent is connected to work,” says Ravin Jesuthesan, Futurist and Global Leader of Transformation at Mercer.
Speaking at People Matters Futurist Forum SEA 2022, he explained why organisations need to start deconstructing jobs in order to meet the needs of the future, and how that might work in practice.
An answer to the pain points and pivotal challenges of our time
Deconstructing jobs, in short, is breaking down a job role into the specific activities it comprises and the skills or capabilities required for those activities. This approach is particularly pertinent to today's environment, because of three major constraints or pain points that organisations face today. These pain points are the talent shortage, especially for new and specialised roles in fields such as data science; an increasing cost of work related in part to the talent shortage; and a tendency for business leaders to jump on the bandwagon of exciting new technology.
By deconstructing the jobs that are affected, organisations give themselves additional options to redeploy certain activities, potentially reducing the need to hire or the cost of hiring and training. This also provides a clearer picture of how new technology might affect workflow, especially in terms of cost-benefit analysis.
From a broader perspective, deconstructing jobs also helps organisations to tackle the larger pivotal challenges around the future of work: firstly, how can work be redesigned to enable talent to flow to it as seamlessly as possible, while enabling and giving it the space to enable its perpetual reinvention? And secondly, how can the talent experience be orchestrated and re-envisioned such that employers can increasingly meet talent on their terms, instead of forcing them to fit into sweeping and rigid solutions that have not changed for a century and a half?
“The way we answer these two questions will define how successful we are in navigating the future of work,” Ravin said.
“We need a work operating system that is much more fit for purpose, no longer grounded in this traditional notion of only jobs. A system that is much more agile to respond to the challenges and opportunities that we see.”
The new work operating system
Such a new system, according to Ravin, starts with the work itself – the specific tasks and activities. When those have been separated out and identified, it becomes possible to find optimal ways of allocating them – moving across the boundaries of jobs and roles, to focus on the best combinations of human and technology, the best work arrangements, and the best ways of coordinating individuals and teams.
Ravin also pointed out that this is possible because business leaders today have a far wider range of options for getting work done than they did several decades ago. It is no longer a binary between hiring new employees and developing existing ones; business leaders can now also choose to move the work outside of the organisation's boundaries, whether by outsourcing to other organisations entirely, by bringing in independent contractors to work under the company's own remit, or by partnering up with another company.
And on top of these, technology has enabled additional ways of getting the work done: by putting it up on talent marketplaces, by converting customers into 'volunteers' who can promote brands on social media, and of course by automating it, leveraging the advance of robotics and artificial intelligence.
“One of the most critical skills for leaders is going to be their ability to orchestrate all of these different means of getting work done, and understanding when to move from one option to another,” he observed.
The relationship between skills and work
As the workplace transits from a job-based environment to a skill-based environment, organisations increasingly need to recognise that each employee possesses a unique combination of skills – more unique than the employees themselves may realise – and that those skills are becoming the currency of work.
“When you ask the average employee to tell you about his or her skills, they identify about seven. But when an algorithm infers skills from someone's work history, it gives an average number of 22. That's a differential of three times between what an algorithm can infer about our talent versus what our talent themselves are going to tell us,” Ravin noted.
As organisations acknowledge this wealth of capabilities available to them, they are increasingly using technology and tools to increase the visibility of these skills and match them to different types of work. That creates a 'uniquely modular, completely bespoke set of reskilling pathways', according to Ravin, as opposed to the traditional career lattice.
The flip side of this is that the half-life of skills is shortening, particularly technical skills, and the onus falls on both companies and individuals to keep themselves up to date.
“We need to think of the worker as a whole person with an array of deconstructed capabilities and skills, not just the headline of what degree they have or what school they went to,” Ravin said. “Having worked with some of the largest companies in the world and helped them transform for the ability to perpetually reinvent work, and ensure that they are keeping the skills of their workforce relevant for how work is changing, I can say that it's going to be one of the most significant challenges for companies.”
“But it's one that, if we don't address it, will result in us falling back on legacy and continuously being passed up by emerging competitors, particularly as the speed and the intensity of work accelerates with Web 3.0.”