MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Is this the way we want work to be done?

John Hagel, Big Think by Jim Meredith

John Hagel raises some interesting considerations in this short video commentary on the excellent book, The Race Against the Machine. I've pulled this quote –

I think that the real reason that we have such an issue in terms of unemployment and job loss through automation is that we’ve crafted these jobs exactly so that they would be vulnerable to automation.  We’ve put kind of a bull’s eye target on workers around the United States and around the world and said, “Come after me.  Shoot me.  I’m the target for automation.”  Technology’s not the root cause.  Technology is simply going after the target that’s been put on the screen.

The root cause is how we’ve defined work in companies and that the opportunity now is to step back and say, “Is that the way we need work to be done?”  One of the issues is this formula for how work is conducted was developed in the last century, and it was based on a set of infrastructures and assumption of a stable environment that made it easy to define standardized highly-scripted work.

Now we’re in a world that’s more rapidly changing, more uncertainty, more of those extreme events that Taleb calls the "black swans" that make it really critical for us as individuals in the workplace to take much more initiative, to be constantly exercising creativity and imagination to respond to the unexpected events.  That’s a very different model of work.  It requires a very different way of organizing our institutions and a different set of work practices that are much harder to automate.

We find relatively easy success in shifting to a new kind of workspace in organizations where technology has been implemented to enable a work anywhere/anytime culture. In many of these cases, however, not much of the nature of the work has changed even as the places of work have. The business or institutional mission has not been reframed, only the tools that are used to do its work. People have overlooked organizational vulnerability while embracing technology that enables them to perform "standardized highly-scripted work" in different or more attractive locations than the conventional workplace.

In our work on the technical workplace, however, we find young engineers eager to find and develop a larger purpose in their work. Even in industries whose products have been considered "commodities" we find expressions of societal purpose, sensitivities to local context in global footprints, well-formed sustainability objectives that inform the content and character of their products, and a drive for leadership through transforming innovations. And, with the shock of the Great Recession still in mind, the anticipation of other "black swans" seems to inform a sharper focus on organizational purpose and a search for some form of enhanced agility. In these companies, the greater barrier to workplace transformation is a management resistant to risk, unexposed to new concepts, and still measured and measuring by increasingly irrelevant metrics of space, presence, and process.

Hagel's challenge seems to be a better place for us all to start from, now. Rather than defining the character of the workplace through the metrics of an earlier century, and rather than redesigning the workplace based simply on the enabling characteristics of technology, our initial reframing question should be, "Is this the way we want work to be done?"