Everything but the workHas anyone noticed that when organizations deal with work, they focus on everything but the work itself? What it takes to get it done? [Jobs to be Done] Even as jobs are increasingly scarce in a world where work marketplaces promise to get work done more cheaply and in a more timely fashion, a focus on the work is just not there. Workplaces are undergoing change too as they embrace open plan, but no sign of a focus on work there either. Skills have become the currency of the day, as knowledge work is increasingly in the background. The labor market is categorized in terms hardly recognizable to people seeking work. Those familiar with workflow management know that it gets closer to the actual work as it integrates into a single process, business processes, information processes and people processes. All that and little focus on work itself.

Why do I think we need to focus on work, all of a sudden?

Society in the second decade of the 21st century is is racing willy-nilly into something called digital transformation. Digital is cool again. But this round (starting around 2010) is not like the first one(starting in the 1950’s). This time, digitization is having the effect of decoupling work from how we manage it. Management schemes are being dismantled — workplace management, workforce management, workflow management, work management, work/life management. Governance and compliance are likewise in need of reconstruction. All these management tools were what let us get work done in reliable, repeatable and reproducible ways, or so we thought. Now, it seems, we are going to rely on big data, machine learning, automation and and finance for managing.

But people are still around, and so is the planet, at least for now. Last time I looked we did work in service of us, us people and our planet. So, too, there seems to be plenty of work that needs to be done, even if there are not enough jobs to cover it.

To lead this digital transformation, I suggest that we step back and have a fresh look at what we think work is. What is needed is a set of conversations, real dialog among those responsible for taking us through the transformation. Below is a list of newish ideas that should be taken into account while we race ahead.

The New Basics of Work

1. Work is social. Not as in getting together over pizza, but as in the social configurations in which work is facilitated and gets done, both formal and informal: teams, communities of practice, reporting relationships, networks.
2. Work is a big part of people’s identity, and when someone loses work, they lose part of themselves. Sometimes a really big part.
3. Work is service, where service, not goods, is the underlying concept.
4. Work is enacted in practice which is richer by far than any process can describe it. Yet practice can be made visible which provides an excellent platform for learning.
5. Work is always done in a context where aspects of that context are essential to its getting done. Change anything about the context, changes how people do their work. And not always in ways intended.

To some, these will seem self-evident. To others vague, or worse, academic. It is, however, a place to start, a place to start thinking and managing work in this, mostly technology-led, digital transformation.