Redefining work in the technological era

Everyone is talking about the future of work. But few are asking the most fundamental question: What should that work be? If we fail to challenge the way organizations practice work today, we could miss significant opportunities to create more and more value and, instead, settle for modest, incremental results. Automation, re-skilling, augmentation, gig work, and an array of other future of work topics can be distractions, unless they are rooted in an understanding of the opportunity to redefine work at a much more fundamental level.

But if we focus on redefining work today, we have the potential to create substantial new value for the enterprise by drawing out the untapped capabilities of all workers. (For a more in-depth look, download our full-length article, Redefine work: The untapped opportunity for expanding value.)

First of all, for most companies, the traditional path to value creation-despite years of growth-focused slogans and reorganizations-is simply too narrow, centered on cost-cutting and operating efficiencies. We need to widen that path. Employers can begin to redefine work and create new value by considering these three shifts:

  • Shifting the view of what the objective of work is: from efficiency to expanding value delivered to customers and other participants
  • Fundamentally redefining work: from executing routine tasks to addressing unseen problems and opportunities
  • Cultivating and using our human qualities: from skills to capabilities

With a broader view of value, companies can move beyond growth driven by M&A and market share, and aim to create new forms of customer value. Companies can do this by looking for ways to create additional meaning for the customer. This typically starts by deeply understanding customers’ needs and aspirations, now and in the future. And if we accept that needs and aspirations of the people being served are limitless and rapidly evolving, there is always more value that companies can create for customers.

That’s where redefining work comes in: Its essence is shifting workers’ day-to-day time, effort, and attention from executing routine, tightly defined tasks to identifying and addressing unseen problems and opportunities, for customers, internal participants, and other stakeholders.

If companies redefine work in this way, employees would spend their time engaged in, broadly, four types of activities:

  • Identifying unseen problems and opportunities;
  • Developing approaches to solve problems and address opportunities;
  • Implementing approaches; and
  • Iterating and learning (reflecting) based on the impact achieved.

Redefining work means that all workers at all levels are focused on finding and addressing unseen problems and opportunities. The unseen is a key aspect of redefining work: Addressing a hidden problem or opportunity has potential to create more value because it has been neither considered nor understood; there is room for far more learning, and impact, by trying to better understand a brand-new situation than from making incremental improvements on a well-defined issue. For workers, seeing new problems and approaches requires a very different effort and engagement than executing routine tasks.

Solving nonroutine problems, and seeking fresh opportunities, shouldn’t be a task reserved for an elite group of employees, or one relegated to a small portion of everyone’s normal workweek. It should be a large and expanding portion of their workload, ultimately becoming their full portfolio, working to create more and more meaning and value. If employers get this right, and each worker is adding more and more value, they might benefit from hiring more workers rather than looking to replace people with bots.

We believe that this untapped opportunity is an imperative for every industry, every function, and every type of worker, including and especially on the front line, since frontline operational workers-those who do the tasks and activities rather than planning and directing others to do them-are the ones who typically first encounter unexpected problems and are often best positioned to see and understand others’ unmet needs. This isn’t just for startups or edgy tech companies. Even the most established companies in traditional industries have the potential to redefine work, regardless of where it is done in the organization. It’s happening today in unexpected places, companies, and types of work.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that this is still a white space. In studying and interviewing executives at more than 50 companies, we found many organizations experimenting with new technologies and management approaches in response to rapidly changing technological capabilities and increasingly personalized and evolving expectations. We found no company that had made a full transformation to redefine work in a deliberate way as part of implementing automation technologies.

What we did find were examples-across an array of industries, geographies, and workforces-suggestive of new ways of working that could draw out human capabilities to create more value for companies, and confirming that employees of all levels not only are capable of this new type of work but often prefer it. Organizations are rethinking jobs because they recognize the potential of this type of work-or because they have faced tough problems or challenging environments that have left them no choice but to seek new ways of working. The untapped opportunity is for companies to aggressively deploy automation technologies with the specific intent to free up workers to pursue this new form of work in all parts of the organization and create more and more value for the enterprise.

Employers won’t be able to redefine work overnight. Instead, in this period of transition, as they introduce automation to take on certain routine tasks, companies can choose to be thoughtful about the work and how managers direct workers’ time. What if, instead of getting rid of employees or re-skilling them to pursue other routine work, we encourage workers to use more and more of their time for problem-solving? Employers could begin encouraging workers to exercise and develop new muscles that would prepare them for a new type of work-and start generating impact for customers, internal participants, and other ecosystem stakeholders.

For a more in-depth look, including case studies, download our full-length article, Redefine work: The untapped opportunity for expanding value. The longer report includes a discussion of why companies should broaden their view of value, why companies should focus more on cultivating human capabilities than on skills training, and how customer value, context, and latitude can help organizations overcome some of the biggest obstacles to this type of work.


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