Get Reworked Podcast: Rethinking Jobs for the Age of Automation
Jobs are being pulled apart into tasks and projects. Degrees and credentials are being boiled down to their underlying skills and capabilities. The result is a reinvention of the way we think about work.
In this episode of Get Reworked, professor John Boudreau and futurist Ravin Jesuthasan share the highlights of their forthcoming book, "Work Without Jobs." The bottom line: The automation of work is leading not the the destruction of jobs, but rather to their deconstruction.
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"All of those deconstructed elements are now going to live in a way on their own," said John. "They're no longer going to be exclusively bundled into jobs, job holders and degrees. And that requires mindsets, leadership approaches and HR systems that can manage and track and optimize at that deconstructed level."
Highlights of the conversation include:
- Why we need a new operating system for work.
- How internal talent marketplaces can match skills to opportunities.
- How deconstruction can put power into the hands of workers.
- Why and how HR needs to shift from being a steward of employment to a steward of work.
Plus, co-hosts Siobhan Fagan and Mike Prokopeak talk through the far-reaching effects of automation and what that potentially means for individual workers and society at large. Listen in for more.
Have a suggestion, comment or topic for a future episode? Drop us a line at [email protected].
- Website: Dr. John Boudreau
- Website: Ravin Jesuthasan
- Book: "Work Without Jobs"
- MIT Sloan Management Review Article
Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.
Mike Prokopeak: Hello and welcome to Get Reworked, your guide to the revolution of work. My name is Mike Prokopeak and I'm editor in chief at Reworked.co.
Siobhan Fagan: And I'm Siobhan Fagan, managing editor for Reworked. At Reworked.co, we're dedicated to covering the people, the culture, the technology and the infrastructure that makes up our quickly evolving workplaces.
Mike: Get Reworked is our podcast, brought to you by Simpler Media Group, where you'll hear from industry pioneers leading the way into the future of work, reshaping not just how we work, but also why. We're excited to bring you conversations about best practices, workplace trends and key technologies that support the modern distributed workforce.
Siobhan: Bonjour, Mike.
Mike: Bonjour. That's about as far as my high school French will get me.
Siobhan: Yeah, I gotta say, today it is springtime, like it is officially springtime here in Brooklyn. I don't know what it's looking like in Chicago, but I'm pretty excited about it.
Mike: I'm wearing shorts today for the first time in 2021. It's business up top, you know. I've got a collared shirt on but ready for summer down below.
Siobhan: Wow. Podcasts could be shorts every day, couldn't they?
Mike: They could be. That's the world we live in. So speaking of podcasts, who do we have today?
Siobhan: We've got two great guests today, Mike. And I'm super excited to jump into this conversation because I know that between the two of them, they've been working together for over 15 years collaborating on books and articles and then singularly they've each been publishing tons. So first up, we have Ravin Jesuthasan, a recognized futurist global thought leader and author on the future of work and human capital. He's led multiple research efforts on the global workforce, the emerging digital economy, the rise of AI and the transformation of work, and he's been incredibly involved with the World Economic Forum. Currently, he is serving as the global head of Mercer's transformation business.
Mike: And we also have Dr. John Boudreau, John is one of the leading thinkers in management and HR, somebody who I've known for a number of years, although this will be the first time I've had a conversation with him in a few years. So I'm looking forward to getting reconnected with him.
As you mentioned, Siobhan, he and Ravin have been working together for a while, they've written a couple books, "Reinventing Jobs: A 4-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work." And they have a book coming out in spring of 2022, that they are writing about quite often right now, which is called "Work Without Jobs." That's going to be the topic for our conversation today.
Before we jump into that, a little bit more about John, he is professor emeritus of management and organizations, and a senior research scientist with the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. He is one of the pre-eminent thinkers on the future of work in HR, and it's going to be a real pleasure to speak with him and with Ravin. So are you ready?
Siobhan: I am.
Mike: Alright, let's Get Reworked. Welcome to the podcast, John and Ravin.
John Boudreau: Thanks very much, Mike, pleasure to be back.
Ravin Jesuthasan: Yeah, great to be here Mike.
Mike: You both are working on a book that is called "Work Without Jobs" set for release, actually in spring of 2022. And the first question I have is this idea that, you know, traditional jobs and job descriptions are not meeting the needs of modern business. And that's kind of one of the fundamental principles of what you're thinking about when you're writing about work without jobs. I'm wondering if you can lay the landscape for us. And I'll start with you, John, what does this future of work without jobs look like?
John: Thanks, Mike. I think the bottom line is a concept that we've called deconstruction and reconstruction, or deconstruction and reinvention. So in its most straightforward terms, the idea is that the new work operating system requires that we deconstruct jobs. Think of it as an ice cube, called a job, is melted into its components, which might be tasks or we might call them projects. The second part of it is that we do the same kind of deconstruction with these people that work for us that we today call job holders, and their work is identified with the job that they do. And we're going to deconstruct those individuals into what we might call skills or capabilities that actually will range far beyond the things that are needed just for the job that they do.
And if you want to take it even one more level, you can look to the world of qualifications and you can think of deconstructing something like a college degree into its component, credentials or qualifications. And the idea of the new work operating system is that all of those deconstructed elements are now going to live in a way on their own, they're no longer going to be exclusively bundled into jobs, job holders and degrees. And that requires mindsets, leadership approaches and perhaps most importantly, HR systems that can manage and track and optimize at that deconstructed level.
Mike: We've been talking about the future of jobs for a while now, and that we have these legacy approaches coming from the industrial era about how we approach jobs and how we approach work and that that needs to change. Why is this moment any different from say, 5, 10 years ago, setting aside COVID-19, and the pandemic, is this a trend that is unique to this moment or is this sort of a culmination of steps along the way?
John: I would say a culmination. And maybe the best way, Mike, for me to express it would be through my own work. I'll sort of go from here backwards. So certainly today we've seen COVID accelerate the need for organizations and for workers to kind of recreate and recraft their work in response to these challenges. And in many cases, that has involved looking at the components of work, and very creatively finding a way to recraft those.
One of the most interesting examples happens in healthcare, where you suddenly have the job of nurses or the work of nurses being a very massive constraint in hospitals, with life or death consequences. And organizations like Providence Health have looked at that nurse job and realize that its components contain some things that are top of license, where you really need a nurse with a license to do them, such as intubating individuals.
But there are other things that nurses had done in their jobs, things like paperwork, and maybe even checking on patients or taking temperatures. And that was fine in a world where we didn't have massive demand. When you take the job apart, you realize that there were others in the hospital whose jobs don't include taking temperatures or checking on patients but who can do that work, not in any way compromising the health of patients, but taking some of the load off nurses.
OK. So that's today. One book ago, Ravin and I wrote about automation. And one of the things that we wrote about in that book is that you can optimize work automation. At the job level, it is virtually never the case that automation replaces an entire worker in a job with a robot or with AI. Rather, what happens is, automation replaces some portion of the work in a job. And then you're left with something like 70% of the work that was done previously, is still done by the human, 30% of the work is done by automation. And the work has changed a great deal.
So in order to optimize and see these patterns, you really need to allow the job to be deconstructed so that you can see which parts are being done by automation and which parts are being done by humans. You very rarely get to lift and shift a bunch of people out of the work. Rather, you still need all those people. But the work they do is very different.
One book before that Ravin and our good colleague, David Creelman, wrote a book called "Lead the Work," that had to do with the evolution of what some call the gig economy. I don't particularly like that description, but a much broader set of work that goes beyond employment. And again, what we found was, if you want to optimize combinations of employed workers, and workers who are engaged as contractors, or volunteers or borrowed from other organizations, the way to see that, the way to optimize it, requires that you look inside the job, that you deconstruct the job. Because again, it's extraordinarily rare that contractors or freelancers or volunteers or others will just simply replace the work in a job. Rather, what you end up with is combinations of employed workers and workers engaged in other ways, each doing parts of the job.
And then if we go back now, almost 20 years, maybe 30 years, to my work with Pete Ramstead, some people on the call will be kind enough to remember our book "Beyond HR." In that book, we talked about the Disney sweeper. And in order to understand the strategic contribution of a job called the sweeper, you had to understand the components of that job. Some of them have to do with cleaning. Some of them have to do with creating great experiences for guests in the park and the payoff function, so to speak. The payoff relationship to performance on each of those two components is very, very different.
So you could say, Mike, that even going back to the late 1990s when Pete Ramstead and I started working on this concept of strategic talent, we were finding that we had to deconstruct, and that theme has come through, all the way through, these books that Ravin and I have done together culminating in this book that's coming out in 2022, where we develop this deconstruction idea more fully.
Siobhan: So Ravin, at this point I'd like to bring you in because we're discussing the deconstruction of jobs. But part of this whole picture is how you see automation fundamentally impacting how we work in the future. So would you say that we, along with deconstructing jobs, we also have to sort of deconstruct how we look at automation? Or how a lot of businesses are currently approaching automation? And if so, how should they be looking at it?
Ravin: Yeah, that's a really good question. And I'll just pick up on where John left off, the third book. To John's point, we looked at how automation comes into organizations and, essentially, there are two ways you could lead with technology. And what we saw in the book, with its over 130 examples and case studies and the like, was that inevitably ended up in a really bad place. But it's also the easiest way in which technology can come into an organization, a business leader gets enamored by a new piece of IT out, could be AI, it could be robotic process automation, or RPA, and looks to bring that technology into the organization. And what we found was that the thing that often got in the way was the job, because that automation almost never affects an entire job, to John's point, it affects component tasks.
And the companies that were consistently successful in bringing automation in started with the component tasks. They deconstructed the job or the workflow. They specifically identify what they were trying to solve. Were they looking to eliminate errors? Were they looking to minimize variance? Whether you're looking to improve performance incrementally, or were they looking for an exponential breakthrough?
And then step back and ask the question of what we're trying to accomplish with the work. What's the relevant type of automation for this particular problem? And what's the role of the automation? And in that particular book, we ended up with a playbook of sorts that basically allowed business leaders to understand with, the various types of automation, how the analysis of the work and the knowledge of the automations specifically guided them to one of three outcomes. Where did the automation specifically substitute highly repetitive rules-based work where you were looking to eliminate errors and minimize variance? Whether automation augments the human capability that was there, making the human almost super productive, giving them the capacity to almost see around corners and allowing them to deliver levels of output that without the automation may not be possible. And then where did automation actually transform the world? Creating demand for new human skills. Creating new human work, if you will.
I do think when you think of automation, a., it's really important to start with a word. But b., you know, to come back to a question about what what has COVID done. I think Satya Nadella is really famous for saying that a two-year trend in digitalization has been accomplished in two months, all of John's and my work would suggest that the impact on the future of work has been far more profound.
Because it's not just digitalization or automation or technology that's driving the future of work. It's also this thing, which we have experienced in spades, that we call the democratization of work. Our ability to take work out of the traditional confines of the organization and have it done anywhere all the time, by anyone by any means. And certainly I think we can all relate to the fact that, at least in COVID, work has certainly been able to be done everywhere and all the time. And I think those two forces have really let the genie out of the bottle on the future of work.
Mike: So that idea of democratization of work, it really kind of makes me think about the idea of jobs and how it's kind of fundamental to how we identify ourselves. And so when we're taking away that idea of a job, which is fundamental to the way many of us think about how we approach our days or weeks, how we structure our lives, this sort of breaks all that apart. But there's still that legacy there that people have around jobs and what a job means. So you're using the word work. Are there other words that we should be using instead of jobs to talk about this future? What are some other terms that maybe need to become a bigger part of our vocabulary if we're going to be able to change our thinking around how we approach what we've called jobs, but is perhaps a little bit different than it has been in the past?
John: Well, let me take that one Mike, just to give it a start, and then Ravin may want to chime in. I absolutely agree that you're right. And probably one of the things that we should say at the outset, is that the new work operating system that Ravin and I are describing is going to show up in different places at different speeds. So one famous quote is, "The future is unevenly distributed," and that's going to be certainly true even with the acceleration of COVID. So there's going to be a large part of the work world where jobs are going to be sufficient to manage the work, and being a job holder is going to be a sufficient identity for a person to have a relationship with the organization, and perhaps even credentials housed in degrees may still remain a reasonable way to optimize the work.
What Ravin and I are seeing is that it's kind of at the edges, and those edges are increasingly edges that include increasing automation, edges that include the need to source talent in ways that go beyond just employment edges, that include the need to better match credentials to work needs in the education or in the development system. What we recommend in the book is that HR leaders and other leaders look for those edges. And it's those edges where this is happening. And that means you don't have to boil the ocean.
For example, lots of organizations are beginning this process with something they call an internal talent marketplace. In a nutshell, that looks like a kind of freelance platform but it's open just to their employees. So they still have the employment relationship. But now they've made these projects available to people that hold a certain kind of job, but they can take on a project. And what we're beginning to see is some very interesting evolutions of things, like the way people think about their work, the way that leaders interact with workers, the way that work is defined as these projects become more available, and as workers and leaders and the HR system begin to deal with them.
So I think you're right. We may be using words more like projects when we talk about work. We may be using words more like tasks. We may be using words to describe workers that are more like skills. Skills, for example, has become ubiquitous in the world of work. I think most organizations are pretty comfortable thinking about a skill-based economy, a skill-based work system. They may not have implemented it but the concept of skills and skill building and skill-based has been there. That's one example of deconstruction. To be honest, I prefer the concept of capabilities rather than just skills to get a little closer to what people can do.
In the world of education, we are seeing a shift in many areas, particularly the community college area, particularly education pathways for underrepresented groups, where people want to talk about the credentials and the matching of the credentials to the elements of the work. So there the word degree still exists, but it's being defined more as its component parts in terms of credentials, and those are being matched to things like capabilities on the part of the worker, and tasks or projects on the part of the work.
Siobhan: I'm gonna bring Ravin in here to follow up on something you just said, John. You talked about HR having to look to the edges to see where these opportunities are happening to work this way. But it sounds like this is creating an incredible amount of work for an already overburdened HR function. So I was hoping, Ravin, you could speak a little bit about where HR fits in, in facilitating this kind of talent marketplace approach? And are they in that position to be able to do that now?
Ravin: It does call for a fundamental rethink of the role of HR and its work. We are seeing progressive HR functions define their mandate from being traditionally a steward of employment, and being responsible for all things that quote unquote, touch an employee, to increasingly think about how do we become more of a steward of work, and redefine our mandate to actually work with business leaders to essentially do all of the things that John and I have just talked about in terms of implementing this new work operating system, understanding the work and figuring out where should it be done by humans versus machines versus combination? What's the best human engagement approach? Should it be an employee in a job? Should it be an employee on a marketplace? Should it be gate talent, etc? And ultimately, then how do we ensure that we are connecting talent to work in an agile, and is fit for purpose, in a way that's possible. So this requires HR to rethink many of its core processes.
I think what we've seen certainly gives me some hope. You know, having seen some of the organizations that we have worked with over the years, HR leaders who are incredibly thoughtful, who have pushed the envelope, who have redefined work, and taken on this broader remit of being a steward of work, who have led the reinvention of work at their organizations, but it does require you to step back and think about what is pay look like, right? When you move from a traditional job to someone on a marketplace. What is development look like? What is this thing called career pathway now, that people may not be in jobs? And I do think the really progressive HR functions are recognizing that they have to move because, for the reasons I talked about a second ago, that we've seen this massive acceleration in the future of work and attempting to preserve that legacy is really not an option.
So it's that overused adage of change or die. But also, I think, recognizing that the core disciplines of HR, of all of the things that are about engaging the workforce and keeping them productive, are still relevant. It's just denominated differently, what in the past might have been denominated by jobs. Today, as John said, they're increasingly denominated by things like capabilities and skills and just a couple of markets. We've seen massive growth in interest among many organizations in this notion of skills-based compensation, and companies looking at compensation that is more tuned to skills and capabilities than previously being more aligned to the job, this notion of rescaling pathways as an alternative to maybe the legacy notion of traditional careers where you either moved sideways or moved up vertically.
Mike: I want to come back to that question of what this means for the employee point of view. And in many ways, we're talking about what it means for the organization, how do they better manage people, and we've sort of ignored what it means for the individual who's kind of at the pointy end of this. But before we do that, Ravin, I'm wondering can you give an example of a company that you think has been particularly successful approaching this problem in this way? Are there examples out there that, you know, maybe they're not perfect but they're starting to see some real progress, or they're thinking about it in the right way?
Ravin: Let me give you a couple of examples. I think the organization that I've personally been really sort of enamored with, Mike, is Unilever. They are often, and rightly so, held out as a bit of the gold standard of the future of work. And it's, I think, the result of a number of things. Certainly progressive leadership at all levels of the organization, progressive leadership within HR, I think, is one thing. The second is they really do embody many of the principles in the spirit of Agile as they think about the way work is done, and as they think about the role of HR. And with that, I think this mindset of perpetual experimentation and reinvention that John alluded to, I've been really impressed with how across the board an organization of some 265,000 people, they are just continuously experimenting and pushing the envelope.
Just about a month ago, their CEO came out with a letter to employees and shareholders talking about the leverage they had gotten from their internal marketplace. I think it was something like 29,000 or 30,000 people in the last year had used the marketplace as ways of connecting to work. I think there was something like 4,000 or 5,000 different bodies of work that were performed on it. And it's fascinating that, as they've experimented with many of the aspects of this new work operating system, some of the win-wins that they have realized.
I'll just give you a couple to make this concrete — one was when the pandemic first started they had this urgent need, as every company, to figure out what does this mean for our product portfolio? How is this pandemic going to affect demand for soap vs. diapers vs. ice cream? In the past they would have commissioned a team. They might have opened a requisition for the team to sort of develop the algorithm and market-sensing mechanisms that might be used to generate the data to be able to make an informed set of strategic decisions about products and infrastructure and factories.
Instead, what they did was they used their marketplace, posted the bodies of work to that and in something like three or four hours, I think, we're able to get talent from around the world with all the right skills flowing to that particular challenge, and in something like a week, had developed an algorithm that was able to accurately predict what was going to get dialed down versus what was going to get dialed up and start the process of refitting some of their facilities and addressing their distribution channels and the like to meet some of these emerging demands.
So that was one business oriented example. The other, I think, really is a personal one. And it's equally compelling. There was a woman in accounting, I believe, who had a deep passion for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). And so while she had her day job in accounting in one particular part of the world, as HR posted the need for champions for diversity, equity and inclusion around the world, individuals who could manage projects in that space, she started to take up these projects in her spare time, in the time that her manager had given her to take on projects beyond a day job, and demonstrated her capabilities so exceptionally that in the space of a year was able to turn what had been a passion and a point of interest into real experience and demonstrable expertise, such that she was then put into a full-time role leading a bunch of DEI work or the organization. And so to me, it's a great example of meeting the needs of the workforce and meeting the needs of the business.
I know, we wanted to segue to the issue of what it means for the employer. I'll say, Mike, that in the good old days, right, when we could count on a job for life, it was great to have the job as that currency. But today, that currency has with it, you know, a much lower premium on control, at least from an individual perspective. The control largely rests with the enterprise in determining how long that job lasts, you know, how it changes, how different factors come in, like automation. And to me, the thing that individuals really control are skills and capabilities. And so I think, while there may be a sense that we're moving to a world with more unknowns, I would argue that it's a world with a lot more control for the individual.
Siobhan: I love that you're pitching this as an area of opportunity for employees and the story of the woman in accounting, getting to actually do work in her passion, and then translate that passion into a role is profound. But going back to the not necessarily the job for life, but sort of the people who just go into work to do their tasks every day, and accomplish them and then go home. Are they suited to this approach to work? Is this work for everybody? And, John, I want to hear your thoughts here.
John: I think undoubtedly it's going to require that workers think carefully about the relationship they want with the organization. And one of the things that's fascinating to me, Pete Ramstead and I did a blog about this about two or three weeks ago, is the idea of thinking of work as experimentation more than as something that's fixed.
And what struck us was that organizations have lots of tools to experiment with things like product design, or manufacturing, or R&D, or thinking about experimentation that was done super fast to develop a COVID vaccine. Those experiments are not chaotic. They're guided by a set of principles. They're guided by a set of processes, people will be familiar with Six Sigma, with agile thinking, agile software development, scrums, sprints, all those kinds of things. So I think there is a certain amount of invitation to experiment with the work, Siobhan, and I think organizations have an opportunity to invite the workers to be a part of that experimentation, to invite them in. In the social sciences, it's often called work, crafting to craft their own work.
Now, I think at the end of that there will be opportunities for workers to say what I want looks more like a traditional job. And I think, as Ravin said, the length of time, the half life on that kind of a traditional set of tasks that are embedded in a job, the half life of that, I think will generally be shorter. But that doesn't mean that the half life won't be long enough for a particular worker to say, that's good enough for me. I think the deal will now be something more like we can't guarantee that this job will last, certainly not forever, but maybe not even very long. But during the time that it does, if this is the relationship that you want to have with us, then we have this work for you.
I also believe that as these systems become more transparent as they become more user friendly, we're just beginning into this world of internal talent marketplaces. There's been decades and decades of freelance platforms that proceeded it. I think we're going to find that behaving this way becomes easier, that the interface and the mindset is more natural for workers to think, in terms of the capabilities they'd like to build, and what projects might contribute to those the work that might be available at another organization, and ultimately, how that work might be combined with the work that they have in this job. We've already seen that with COVID, where multiple organizations had to get together and literally borrow and loan workers during the period of the pandemic.
So I think, yes, there will be something that looks like a job. The half life will be shorter. And I think over time, as workers begin to get a taste for this, as they begin to understand how powerful it is, if they have the opportunity to craft their own work, and they live in an organization that sees work design as experimentation, I think we may well see a shift in the mindset not just on the part of workers, but part of leaders, managers, and the systems that support them.
Mike: I'm glad you brought up that manager role, because I think that's a key point to explore for a few minutes here. We're long past the idea of job for life, where you signed up for a job, the company took care of you and you could expect to be there for your career. But there is still some sort of legacy idea that companies have a responsibility beyond the immediate task work that somebody is doing — to help them figure out what's next. And I think there is a danger in taking this marketplace approach, of sort of disaggregating that and pushing all of the onus upon the employee to figure it out.
What do managers need to do a little bit differently to work in this sort of environment, where it may be that these are tasks, projects that happen for a limited amount of time, but that they're helping the person who is working on that project go beyond that and see what's next for them, even though it might not be with that manager, may not even be with that company?
John: It's a great question, Mike. And the reason I sort of jumped in is that it's sort of right on the front of my mind. There's actually an online article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, coming out on April 8, in the time that we're recording this, by a good colleague of mine, Jonathan Donner, who used to be the head of global leadership development, coincidentally, at Unilever. When Jonathan read the book, his first reaction was, this is an extraordinarily algorithmic, almost sterile system. And it can certainly go there, just like all management systems. It can become very algorithmic, every few minutes, let's say every half hour, Mike, the algorithm has found something more useful for you to do. And so it assigns you a new task, and you do that task for a half hour, and then the algorithm, watching all these transactions has a new task for you. Right now, that's not a particularly fun way to work, you know, very draconian, etc.
Jonathan and I began to talk about this and as we talked about it, Jonathan said, this is actually going to need to be a more human system than the one that we have, that the human element is going to become more important. And in this blog, we sort of lay out a number of what we might call leadership competencies, or leadership capabilities that will rest right at that front line, where the leaders are sharing talent.
The bottom line of it is that leadership and management are going to happen faster, and they're going to happen more perpetually, because as you said, Mike, your leadership is going to be during the time of a project with someone who may be assigned to another leader. And those projects are going to happen fast. And you're not going to have sort of the legacy of a job description to say, to an employee, you know, how you contribute, you understand your place in this organization, because you have this job. And that's what defines your place. And these lines running from the job tell you who you work for, well, those lines start to dissolve, and the boxes start to dissolve. And maybe paradoxically, it's that human element of leaders working as a team sharing talent together in a perpetual way, that is really going to make the difference in terms of organizations that win with this system, versus those where it kind of collapses of its own weight. So a common vision becomes much more important.
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Now, as workers move from leader to leader, a leadership brand that's embedded in things like values, in things like ethics, etc, are going to be vitally important. The advancement of things like diversity, equity, social justice — you know, environmental, social, and governance — those things can happen much quicker. In a world where leaders have a common vision and touch workers quickly. On the other hand, if there are biases in leadership those biases will also be expressed more quickly and more often because this isn't a once a year thing, or when you hire someone anymore, it's perpetual.
So what's interesting to me is that the system, if it's to succeed, actually relies more on the humanity and on things like the values and the brand of leadership because this happens quicker. And we don't have the traditional kind of boxes of jobs and supervisory lines that have always been used as kind of a shorthand for the things that now will become much more central.
Mike: Do you have faith that leaders are ready for that? I mean, maybe I haven't had enough coffee this morning, and like the pessimism is coming out of me. But do you think they're ready?
Ravin: So you know, it's a great question. I do think there are a number of things that make it more likely, right. I think the question of readiness and willingness to change is a different one. But I do think that everything is, as John and I talked about, the combination of human capacity and empathy, with the power of technology, I think, make it possible and make it more likely.
Let me tell you why, today I think in all the work we've done with the companies we've written about in our research, etc, what you see are many managers sort of being consumed by the mundane, the repetitive, the administrative, right? And so the work of leadership often gets short shrift in favor of the work of supervision or coordination or management. And so I do think when we see these marketplaces, and I'll give you a specific example in a second, what you start to see is more space for leadership starting to emerge.
One of the companies we write about in the book is a very large European insurer. This is a client of mine. The thing they were finding was many different parts of business were looking for the same type of talent — digital talent, Python developers, data scientists, etc. Now that talent was, when they were hired, were picking the areas that they found the most intriguing. You know, things like work with the customer analytics group, because the work is cool and sexy, work with the claims group because it was operational, etc. and functions like underwriting and HR was struggling to get the talent.
And they basically said, there has to be a better way of leveraging a really pivotal skill for the benefit of the entire business. So they blew up this function and said, everyone with these skills is now going to be part of a virtual organization. You are also employees but you don't have your traditional jobs. Instead, you are unique bundles of skills and capabilities.
And now Mr. or Ms. Manager or Leader, instead of you opening a requisition, as would be your typical reaction when you needed a body of work, or delegating John's point, you now are going to work with this new center of expertise established by HR, we're going to teach you how to design projects, assignments and gigs. They're going to teach you this and build within you this capability to essentially design projects and different ways in which now can be connected to work, you're then going to post that project on the marketplace and the algorithm, the marketplace is going to identify four things on the part of people. Does the person have the skills to do the work? Do they have the core skills? Do they have the adjacent skills where maybe they haven't done this thing specifically, but all of our research and data would suggest that they have the adjacent capabilities to take on this work and be successful at it? So they have the interest, is this aligned with where they want to take their careers? And then the fourth thing is, do they have the capacity? Do they have the time and availability to take on this project?
So the algorithm then flows the talent to the work, getting rid of much of the things that consume managers in terms of looking for resources and opening reqs and all of that, once the work is done. Now, what the algorithm does is it says, you know, "John, you've applied your Python skills in addressing this problem in an HR domain. I am going to now document that in the system of record." So a manager doesn't have to bother with updating and trying to figure out what a person has recently done because an employee doesn't want to put stuff about themselves in the company's system of record. The algorithm keeps updating it with every assignment, with every project, with every new expression of skill sets and their adjacencies.
And the beauty of these marketplaces, the more work that goes on to the marketplace now, you've got quite a volume and velocity and variability of data. Now John is getting signals that say, hey, John, great Python developer who has applied his skills in finance and HR and marketing. Did you know the work that is trending upwards is in Julia AI. And oh, by the way, you're two courses away from being fully certified in Julia and here's the link to those courses.
And so instead of a manager now having to oversee John's development and identifying courses and approving them, the algorithm has handled all of this in a single integrated platform. And to me, that's where I think we have the opportunity for leaders to truly express leadership, as opposed to potentially sort of have management get in the way.
Siobhan: So in this more agile approach, where people are coming together, forming new teams performing the task, then moving apart, one of the critical elements that comes up again and again for effective teamwork is this idea of building trust between team members. And I'm curious how either of you see trust being established in this approach to work?
Ravin: So Siobhan, really good question. And one of the parallels John and I drew is with the consulting world, which we're both familiar with. And if you think of the consulting world, teams are being formed and kicked off and sort of basically disbanded in similar fashion, maybe not with the same velocity in some instances, but on a fairly regular basis. And it's also how the marketplaces you know, Upwork and other marketplaces work with potentially teams forming.
I think the way you overcome the issue of trust is potentially in a couple of ways. One is, I think, the privileges of membership, for want of a better phrase, that you are a member of this enterprise, a consulting firm or this virtual cloud-based digital enterprise that I just talked about with the insurer, that basically someone with that sort of credentials, that you are good enough to be a part of this organization. You're good enough to be specifically someone who can do this work because we have vetted you. We know you have the skills and capabilities. We know you have the experiences. We know you have the collaboration and other sort of enabling skills required for you to be successful. So I think that's a key part of it.
I think the other part of it is also that you also have the forum for people to regularly give feedback and assess how people have worked together as you do in consulting projects. And as you do on these marketplaces, where if someone has a developmental opportunity that's called out quickly, you can address that developmental opportunity either directly with the project manager, or in the case that I shared a second ago, with an algorithm that specifically channels resources to that person. So I think both of those two things are really powerful anchors for building trust in a world where the velocity of work is so much greater. John, what would you add to that?
John: Again, it's a really good question. And I think the contrast, Siobhan is, I think it's going to be easy to say, well, in the old system, we could build trust, because we had these long term jobs. And we had these relationships where you saw people every day, you knew from the organization chart who you trusted, because they were part of your function or part of your unit. I would say in a way that has allowed organizations to presume trust without really examining it and building it.
And I think the new work system is going to require a much more explicit consideration of what we mean by trust. Is it trust in someone's abilities? I think that's part of what Ravin was talking about. They've been vetted. I know they can do this work. Is it trust in their motivations? Do they have the same interest as I have? Is it trust in their understanding of things like what we might call culture, things like values, beliefs, the way we do things around here. And I think that organizations often can presume that in a relatively fixed system of jobs and reporting relationships, and in a way social networks that are bound up with this job system, we can assume that there's a trust built up within certain parts of our organization. And since they don't interact that much with other parts, having internal trust is okay, we're gonna see more and more now cross pollination across those boundaries.
And I think one implication is going to be that organizations will find that they need to look more carefully at what they mean by this word, trust, that everyone throws around. What are its components? What is the basis of it? And I think it's going to involve equipping not just leaders and managers but the workers themselves with the tools that they need to create trust quickly, and to make trust discussable in the world of a project.
So, I can foresee a much better world of trust, where trust is better understood. It's more democratic. It's held in the hands of more individuals. On the other hand, and I think, you know, we could also see a downside here, without attention to this need to explicitly consider trust and its meaning and how it's formed, one could easily see that it gets cast by the wayside and we do end up with a lot of very casual relationships in which there's nowhere near the trust that existed before.
I'll just mention what I'm thinking in my head, is the work of a good colleague of mine, Rob Cross, who is an expert on social networks and on the way that individual relationships come together to create lattices and lattices of social relationships and nodes, and that kind of thing. And I think what we're going to see is that that concept of thinking of our workplace as a set of social networks may become much more prominent with trust being one of the ways to measure the connections between those individual nodes that eventually make up this informal organization.
Mike: So on that note of trust, I'd like to wrap up the conversation with a little bit of a change of pace. And so I want to ask you each who has been a very influential figure in the way that you think about work — it could be a family member, could be a colleague, could be a manager, or a boss that you had, at some point, it could be a thinker, scholar — who is somebody who's been really influential to you, and why are they influential? Ravin, would you mind starting on that one?
Ravin: This is going to make John blush. But I have been a huge fan of John's for a long, long time. And I can't think of someone who influenced my thinking about the world of work more than John, and it goes back probably two or three decades. And the thing that to me was most intriguing was I saw him bringing discipline and analytics and rigor to a profession that sorely needed it. You know, I think our collaboration has continued to sort of extend some of John's good work and hopefully take it to a new dimension. So John is kind of my hero.
Mike: Alright, John, that puts you under pressure. Now, Ravin said you, now are you gonna say Ravin?
John: I have a really wonderful job. And that is that I get to work with smart folks like Ravin, and the amazing people I've written with and also the leaders that I work with. And Ravin is certainly foremost among them. And basically, what I get to do is I get to work with these really smart people, I write down what they say, and people come back to me and say, John, "You're really thoughtful and smart and insightful." So Ravin, thank you on behalf of that long, long line of people that have contributed my thinking.
Mike, maybe I'll take a little different take on this. One of the people that I think about and one of the reasons that I'm in this profession is my dad, who worked for a great company, IBM, when I was a youngster in the 50s. And I noticed that at the pointy edge of the spear, the work relationship that my dad had with that company was very much the work that he had with his team, and with his manager and his supervisor. And I later had the privilege to work with the top HR leadership at IBM, and to see it from, in a way, the top down. When I'm doing this work I'm always thinking about those people like my dad, right at the front end, with leaders that want to do a good job for them. And how are we going to equip organizations and the people that I get to work with to make their work better.
The second one is going to be any number of, I guess I'll call it maybe Buddhist might be the word though it's not really religious, but any number of people that have written about work as a concept that goes way beyond the way that you make money, that work is that thing you engage in. It's that thing you find a flow state, and it's the thing that immerses you. And ideally, what you get paid for is also very close to that thing. Where you find today a very popular term is purpose, but where you can kind of lose yourself joyfully in the work. For some people, it's gardening. Other people, it's music.
And I'd like to think, Mike, that we're moving closer to a definition of work that looks more like that. And that some of the things we talked about today may be contributing factors. That we'll all look back and say, we've progressed to a point where lots more people can have an experience of work that is more immersive, that is more joyful, that is more in the flow state, and some of the great work that leaders in HR and leaders generally are doing and that these systems are doing has contributed to that.
So again, Ravin, I am continuing to blush at the kind words that you said, and right back at you. And then perhaps another couple of concepts there about where I hope we're going with all this.
Mike: Now, there's definitely a lot more to this conversation. And certainly we'd love to have you both back at some point to talk more about this as it continues to evolve. It's certainly not a conversation that ends at any particular point. It's ongoing. If folks want to know a little bit more about your work and where to follow you, where would you recommend they go, John, I'll start with you.
John: Probably the place I keep most up to date is my website, drJohnboudreau.com. You can go there and click on the link called Work Without Jobs. And you'll see almost everything that I've referred to today. The other affiliation that I have these days and have had for 15 years is the Center for Effective Organizations, and that's an internal think tank within the business school at the University of Southern California. And if you go there you'll not only find the work that I'm doing on behalf of the university but you're going to find access to a whole bunch of other experts and researchers that are doing significant research and significant work with companies in the future of work, organizational effectiveness, the future of organizations.
Mike: I can vouch for that group. I know Ed Lawler is involved in that group as well. Just a lot of really forward thinking people there.
John: Yep, exactly.
Mike: Ravin, where else would would you recommend people find you?
Ravin: In similar fashion, my website is probably a good starting point, ravinjesuthasan.com. Equally, my employer Mercer does some outstanding work, and there is a lot of ideas on the future of skills and the future of work on mercer.com. And then lastly, I would say I love for folks to follow me on LinkedIn, I certainly post everything that John and I do as well as beyond on LinkedIn.
Mike: Well, great. John, Ravin, thank you for joining us today.
Ravin: Thank you, Mike. And Siobhan. Always a pleasure.
John: Ravin, always a pleasure to be on the microphone with you.
Ravin: Likewise John.
Siobhan: That's a whole lot of change they were discussing on so many different levels. Mike, what did you make of all of that?
Mike: Yeah, there's, I think, a lot of promise in some of what they're talking about when they're talking about the future of work, I think they did a pretty good job of laying out here's the potential that this change that we're going through has. And let's be honest, we are going through this change, whether we like it or not. And we're in the midst of a transformation of work. We don't quite know what that's gonna look like and it's been accelerated over the last year. So there is opportunity that comes out of it.
But I think there's also peril in that. And we touched on that a little bit as well when we talked about are managers ready for this, what's the effect upon the individual who may be looking for more stability versus more agility in their workplace. So there is definitely is some peril ahead that we need to be cognizant of as well. How about you?
Siobhan: I would say that that they definitely have somebody who is going to buy their book here because I do want to read more. I want to find out what the implications are for the individual, for individuals, perhaps who are in smaller organizations that don't necessarily have the same scale to do this kind of talent marketplace.
And I'm also just curious about what happens with, and we didn't bring this up at all, but sort of the social safety nets that exist within organizations to a certain extent particularly here in the US. So what happens if people move to a more gig style economy? I know John didn't like that term, but for lack of a better term at the moment, what happens with the 401k, with healthcare, with all of those kind of just sort of nitty gritty things.
Mike: Yeah, this work without jobs landscape is definitely much more than just about employers. There's a whole piece of it that is societal that needs to be addressed. But here we are. It's that time. So we'll see where it goes. We don't have any choice otherwise.
Mike: Good to talk to you again, as always.
Siobhan: You too, Mike.
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