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Jobs Disappear When Work Becomes More Important

January 1, 2000
Related Topics: Future Workplace, Featured Article
On the surface, Koch Industries and don’t have much in common.

Koch, based in Wichita, Kansas, employs 14,000 people worldwide and is America’s second largest privately held company. It has a 60-year history in industries as diverse as chemicals, agriculture, financial services, and oil and gas. Koch employs everyone from farmers in Montana to commodities traders in London., based in Seattle, employs 5,000 people and is publicly traded. Six years ago, Amazon led the way as a standard bearer of a whole new industry—e-commerce—and employs Internet savvy business professionals.

But despite their outward differences, Koch Industries and are remarkably similar in one respect: They don’t hire people for traditional job slots. They hire people to work.

Walk into the HR departments of these companies and you won’t find a complex system of job classifications, pay grades, promotional charts and job descriptions. "We don’t have any of that normal HR structure," says Paul Wheeler, vice president of HR for Koch Industries.

Neither does "We focus on what needs to be done," explains Scott Pitasky, director of strategic growth—which is Amazon’s word for HR. "Here, a person might be in the same ‘job,’ but three months later doing completely different work."

As disorganized as it may sound, these companies are actually role models for 21st century human resource practices. Why? Because their HR professionals understand that the traditional way of organizing work in which a person is hired, paid and trained to do a specific job is simply too rigid for today’s ever-changing marketplace.

To succeed, more companies will have to follow Koch and Amazon’s lead and begin to seriously rethink the way they organize and accomplish work. Simply put, jobs as we know them are fast becoming relics of a bygone era. While employers, employees, paychecks and careers will remain, the rigid lines we draw around work itself will be gone.

Employees lead the change.
On the surface, this sea of change in work design can seem overwhelming, especially since we’ve all been conditioned to think of work as a job. But the fact of the matter is that change is already well underway, and ironically, it’s employees who are leading the effort.

After a decade of downsizing, outsourcing, restructuring and stern admonitions about the end of job security, employees appear to have gotten the message that they’re responsible for their own career management. Employees get the idea there’s no such thing as a steady and secure job anymore, and they’re doing something about it by taking ownership of their own work situations.

Unfortunately, even though employers have been the ones telling workers not to rely on their jobs, those same employers aren’t doing as much as they can to accommodate workers who are seeking more flexibility in the employment relationship. Instead, companies appear determined to fill designated job slots just as they always have.

"Clearly, there’s a gap between what people actually do [in the workplace] and how organizations tend to define and organize what they do," explains David Dotlich, a Portland, Oregon-based partner of CDR International. "This isn’t surprising because bureaucratic systems are always outdated and typically unwilling to change."

In fact, you have to wonder if maybe the current labor shortage wouldn’t be so acute if companies were more flexible in how they organized work. For instance, a company that’s having difficulty finding people to fill two full-time jobs might be able to tap into the skill sets of four people seeking part-time work, and still get the same work accomplished.

Organize work without jobs.
Since we aren’t able to predict and organize work as narrowly as used to, how should companies organize the tasks that need to be done? If we don’t have jobs, what do we have?

To begin to understand how to make this shift, you need to start thinking more about work and less about jobs. If you can recondition yourself to think about how to accomplish work—as opposed to how to fill jobs—you’ve already gone a long way toward building more elasticity into your organization.

One widely discussed approach involves using a much smaller core of payroll employees to manage the work of a much greater pool of contingent or "affinity" workers. By bringing in temporary and contract employees as project needs demand, companies can accomplish work without the drag of a bloated, job-based bureaucracy.

One way to think of this model is to think of how the Hollywood economy works. Producers, directors, actors and a huge supporting cast of business professionals come together around specific films, collaborate intensely and then disband. While the production company may oversee the entire project, the number of full-time employees who remain with that company in between films is extremely small.

Another model is the one used by Koch Industries and These companies spend a lot of time hiring people who are the right fit for the company as opposed to the right fit for a job. At, this means recruiting people who have entrepreneurial drive and are extremely customer-centric. "We try not to be rigid around qualifications, but on the kind of people we hire and how they can apply what they know," explains Pitasky.

Beverly Goldberg, vice president of The Century Foundation in New York City, and author of "Age Works" (The Free Press, 2000) is a strong advocate of this approach. "We need to begin to think about where we need what skills and how we put those packages of skills together," she explains. "We can’t just look at hiring people for specific positions. We have to look at what those people bring to the company overall."

Clearly, for this kind of system to work, the organizational structure has to be pretty flexible, employees have to be exposed to different opportunities and managers have to be willing to let employees experiment and move around. "We’ve learned it’s more important to focus on the what employees want to do, what projects are available, and what skills are needed than it is to focus on the structure of the organization," Pitasky says. "Here, individual managers have more responsibility for organizing work than HR does."

Person descriptions instead of job descriptions?
Underriding both of these models is an idea proposed by Ed Lawler of the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Lawler, who agrees that jobs are seriously outdated, believes that the work contract between employers and workers has to become more individualized.

"I believe we’re seeing a fundamental shift toward HR management systems that focus on individuals and their skills and knowledge as opposed to standardized job systems," he says. "Instead of job descriptions, we’re going to start seeing ‘person’ descriptions that allow companies to continually match and rematch employees to specific projects."

Obviously, this is a vast departure from most current organizational models that err on the side of standardization while paying little attention to individual differences. Sure, we encourage individual contributions, but we still hire, manage and compensate employees as if they came from exactly the same mold.

In a de-jobbed world where employees are treated as individuals as opposed to cogs in a giant work machine, how can HR treat employees equitably? Hasn’t the enormous job-based structure developed, in part, in response to the employees’ need for fairness? Yes, but ironically, the need for fairness came about because we proposed to treat everybody the same.

"If employment contracts are negotiated based on business needs and individual capabilities, and everybody acknowledges that there are no standardized job slots to check equity against, then the whole notion of fairness disappears," William Bridges, author of "Jobshift" (Addison Wesley, 1994), says.

In fact, a de-jobbed world would operate very much like the world of high-profile sports and entertainment where individuals negotiate contracts based on their individual talents and contributions. "Nobody in these industries suggests there ought to be standardization," he adds.

How does HR make the shift?
Reorganizing work affects virtually everything HR does. People have to be hired based on their actual abilities and not on some subjective educational requirements. Compensation should be based on a person’s individual contributions, not on arbitrary job classifications. Job descriptions should focus on results and outcomes, not on tasks—and on and on.

Granted, these are gross generalizations about how HR needs to reinvent itself. But for HR professionals to prevent their own jobs from being outsourced, they must understand what work is required for their company to be successful, and then determine the most efficient way to accomplish that work—and jobs just don’t cut it anymore.

As Roger Herman, management consultant and president of The Herman Group in Greensboro, North Carolina, explains: "We’re moving into a much different world and we cannot survive tomorrow using the same approaches we used yesterday, let alone today." As we enter the 21st century, we’ve got to once and for all get rid of 19th century management practices. Today’s workers aren’t simply interchangeable parts in a machine, and we shouldn’t treat them as such.

Workforce, January 2000, Vol. 79, No. 1, pp. 30-32.

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