The End of a Job as we Know It

The concept of a job, as we know it, is starting to go away.

Over the last few years I’ve been speaking with many corporate business and human resource leaders and hearing a common theme: we need our organizations to be more agile. We need to redesign organizations so we can learn faster, communicate better, and respond more rapidly to change. This quest for the agile organization has changed the nature of what we call a job.

A few examples. Pfizer, has set “increase business agility” as one of its four goals for the coming year. The company created an internal labor marketplace called PfizerWorks that lets employees bid on work from each other. Executives at Siemens told me that one of their biggest challenges today is moving engineers into new roles so they can focus on new business areas. InBev (Anheuser Busch), Scotiabank, and MetLife have all launched global talent mobility programs to force people to gain global awareness and expand business opportunities.

Something very profound is happening. Jobs are getting more specialized, people work in teams and cross functional boundaries, and success is being redefined by expertise, not span of control.

And people without specialized skills are finding it harder to find work. Seth Godin calls it “the end of the average worker.” In this article I would like to talk a little bit about a theme which I call “the end of a job as we know it.”

The History of a Job

Many decades ago organizational development experts came up with the concept of “a job” – a functional role which was defined by a set of responsibilities, functional competencies (skills needed to succeed), a job title, level, and career path. These functional roles are institutionalized around the world. We write “job descriptions” when we hire people; we create organization charts which show functional roles in a hierarchy; we have billions of dollars of HR software which manage job competencies, compensation levels, and skills; and we have millions of workers and managers who have been trained to hire, manage, and organize their teams around these pre-defined jobs.

For you as an employee or worker looking for work, you read the job description, “take one of these jobs,” try to do it well, and expect regular rewards and upward promotion. And if you work for a well run organization, there are training tools, assessments, feedback, and recognition programs to help you succeed.

Well, the world has changed. It’s all about expertise, not just experience.

Today, thanks to widespread communications technology, people can do their “jobs” everywhere and anywhere.  They can collaborate across the globe just as easily as they can in the same room. People don’t necessarily progress “upward,” but often “sideways” or “deeper” in expertise. If you let your skills atrophy, you’re dead.  Your employer can likely find those skills elsewhere by hiring a contractor, bidding out work, or finding another internal expert. We have entered a workforce where deep skills are the currency, not just experience.

We call this “the borderless workplace,” a concept which explains how today’s workers work seamlessly with people inside and outside their organization on a regular basis. And this shift has redefined what a “job” actually is.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Customer service agents work in some type of support center. But today this may be virtual, taking place at home or in a remote location. Service agents can instantly access experts in engineering, sales, or product design through knowledge portals, online video, and email. So today if you are a customer service agent that specializes in the support of one particular product, are you a “customer support agent” or are you a “product specialist?” If your company is smart, they will redefine your job as “product specialist” and put you into a role which lets you share your expertise with other service agents. You will make more money and serve others in the organization.

Look at IT and engineering. In the 1980’s companies hired “computer programmers.” These were people with general programming skills and they came to your company with to learn your systems. Today there are dozens of highly specialized IT skills (UI specialists, Ruby-on-Rails experts, data scientists, systems architects, IOS experts,etc). If you don’t have deep expertise in one of these areas, you’re going to find it hard to find a “programming” job. And IT executives use borderlessness more than ever:  if your company needs a programming skill, they will find it in India, China, or eastern Europe.

Your value as an employee has become “how much demand is there for my skills.”

This is the process of “increasing specialization,” a process which naturally takes place in high-performing organizations. Much research has been done over the years and it all shows that “specialists out perform generalists” by up to 10:1. Specialized software engineers produce 10X more productivity than generalists. Specialized sales people can sell 5-10 times as much as generalized sales people, and on and on. Malcolm Galdwell’s best-selling book Outliers is explains how all experts develop their special skills over long periods of time, and ultimately become world-class at narrower and narrower skills.

Roles not Jobs:  Tasks and Projects, not Functions.

What this all means is that in today’s high performing companies, people now take on “roles” not “jobs.” They are responsible for “tasks” and “projects” and not simply “functions.”

While a company may still need to hire a “customer service agent” or a “director of customer service,” what they really want to do is find a person who has a highly refined set of skills which they need for their company. So if the company is Southwest Airlines, they’re going to look for someone with great sense of humor, a high degree of emotional intelligence, and the willingness to do what it takes to solve a customer’s problems. They aren’t looking for people who “have had that job” but rather people who “have these skills.”

And leadership, by the way, is just a “role” like any other – with its own particular set of skills.  (Grundfos, one of the world’s most successful global manufacturers, defines its leadership as “innovators,” “executers,” and “managers” – all peers with each other.)

This is particularly true in technical and professional roles. Many of the HR executives I talk with tell me they’re having an increasingly difficult time recruiting. As our research points out, this is not because there aren’t people looking for jobs, it’s because their organization needs specialized roles and the workforce itself has not fully adjusted to this new world. The VP of Talent Acquisition at one major insurance company told me that she is no longer looking for “IT staff” or “computer programmers” but rather “Ruby on Rails Programmers with 5+ years of experience in Agile software development.”

This is the essence of my thesis: “jobs as we know them are changing dramatically.”

Five Ways High-Performing Organizations Manage People

I talk with many companies each year, and have found that high-performing organizations (the “agile” ones) manage people differently. They have embraced the new definition of work:

1.  They reward results and expertise, not position.

Accenture rewards its consultants based on a 7-level capability model, which people are expected to focus on over many years of their career. People are evaluated based on the “internal demand” for their skills, not just their manager’s assessment of performance.

Intel regularly rewards and moves top engineering talent around the company to promote and build their expertise.

2.  They break down functional silos and facilitate work across business functions.

One of Pfizer’s greatest organizational breakthroughs was the company’s focus on “science teams” which collaborate and share information on various body systems, organs, and molecules – across different product teams.

IBM regularly creates global action-teams which take people from functional groups and brings them together to work on large client projects.

3.  They reward continuous learning and “learning agility.”

The Federal Reserve and even the IRS now reward people for contributing knowledge to others becoming better teachers and learners. Some academics call this a push for “serial incompetence,” meaning people are regularly moved into new roles to expand their breadth of experience.

4.  They hire for values, innate skills, and fit, not for experience.

The famous Google hiring tests focus on intellectual ability and fit, not on experience.

Swardovski, one of the world’s leading retailers, looks for integrity and sense of value in its candidates, not retail experience. Even the giant American Express has changed its hiring standards to look for “hospitality personalities” not customer service experience.

5.  They encourage and promote horizontal mobility.

United Health Group posts all major job opportunities internally and has built a whole team dedicated to “facilitated talent mobility.” This team helps people find new jobs internally, develop their own internal careers, and saves the company millions in external hiring.

All these high-performing business focus on people taking on “roles” and “responsibilities” and building deeper levels of skills and cross-functional contribution.

Implications for You, Your Organization, and the HR Marketplace

I’ve been talking with companies about this for the last year, and this shift has many important implications.

Job Seekers:

If you are a job seeker, it means that now, more than ever, it is time to focus on your own skills and abilities. Decide what you are truly good at, and focus on building this set of skills in a deeper and more meaningful way. Read everything you can. Take courses to build fundamental skills. Remember that experience drives mastery: get more experience doing different types of projects in your own job today. This makes you more valuable to your own employer as well as to the external job market.

Business Leaders:

If you are a manager or business executive, think hard about your own organization. Have you created enough flexibility in the organization to empower people to develop expertise and bring it to your customers? Do you encourage continuous learning and learning from mistakes? Do you reward expertise and functional depth? Do you define a “high-potential” as a strong technical or functional leader and not only a strong manager or executive? (Managerial skills are actually “functional skills” also.) For more on this, read about our High-Impact Learning Culture research.

HR Vendors and Suppliers:

Are you delivering the right products and services which reflect this huge shift in the nature of the workforce? Do you have tools and services which help people build expertise, find expertise, and develop and improve internal organizational agility? If not you may find yourself selling products which rapidly become obsolete. (Look at how quickly, “a job-board” is being replaced by LinkedIn “an expertise network.” The company’s earnings just dropped 5% despite a 9% increase in the number of postings.)

HR Executives and Managers:

Are you promoting HR practices which create cross-organizational work and expertise? Is your reward system flexible and open enough to enable people to work on project teams which cross the organization? Is your performance management process agile and flexible and does it force continuous feedback and transparency? Do you hire for skills and capabilities or just experience? Do you promote and facilitate talent mobility? Do you regularly communicate company values, goals, and strategies to encourage people to think of the organization as “one team” and not a set of functional silos?

The world of work is dramatically changing, and this change will continue.


2 Responses

  1. Mike Brooks says:

    Josh, insightful as usual, thanks.

    Interesting that the VP of Talent Acquisition quoted as needing “Ruby on Rails Programmers with 5+ years of experience in Agile software development.”.

    (Clearly violating “4. They hire for values, innate skills, and fit, not for experience.”)

    It always puzzles me, requirement descriptions like that one.

    Why 5+? Why not 6+? Or 5.34+?

    I would think they really want is someone who can:
    Do what they need them to do.

    If a person has mastered those sets of skills in 3 years, great! Or 2, or 7. Whatever it’s taken, just so they have the skills.

    Along these lines, I recently saw an entry level marketing job that insisted the person had a college degree. Okay, so if Richard Branson walks in the door and says he really wants that job, you’re not going to give it to him?

  2. hibob says:

    Really great peace Josh, amazing in a world where we hear more and more about people’s transience and their ability to skim the surface, they actually need to have depth of experience in a role to succeed.