“The very concept of a ‘job’ is changing,” argues a newly released white paper from the Upwork Research Institute. The paper notes that for the most part, since the Industrial Revolution, “individuals’ jobs have been discrete and straightforward,” requiring a specific and relatively fixed set of skills. Now, though, the tasks that make up jobs, and the skills required to perform them, are more in flux than ever before.

We recently spoke to Kelly Monahan, managing director of the Institute and co-author of the white paper, about what that means in practice for the way employers think about teams, projects, and organizational priorities. Below are highlights from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

How are you defining ‘job disruption’?

I’ve been researching the future of work for the last 10 years and I just am puzzled why we haven’t come further along in re-imagining how work is conducted. A lot of the qualitative research I do with leaders, there’s a lot of friction I hear from them on how work is being orchestrated within the organization. We are more advanced from a technology perspective than ever before. [For example,] generative AI has obviously made strides for us, and yet when you look at the adoption numbers, we still see a disconnect on the actual adoption of AI tools in the workplace. With this research, we were trying to understand, what’s the problem here? Why are we not adopting new ways of work?

The conclusion we came to was that the unit of how we think about the flow of work has to be disrupted. For historical context, the [concept of] the job itself, which was adopted in the industrial era, made sense when you needed task orientation—we knew we needed a way to measure people, and so a job just became a way to organize work for us to make something that’s complex, simple. The problem is because of that, we’re limiting ourselves around innovation and really rethinking work in many different ways. I define job disruption as the need to rethink the way that work is orchestrated in the flow of work throughout an organization. It can’t just be through a static job anymore.

What’s the better alternative?

What we have to do is go back to, what are the tasks—and most importantly, the skills—that are required to solve the business problem at hand? We’ve created so much self-manufactured work in bureaucracy within our organizations that the flow of work is happening but isn’t solving business problems. Why does your organization exist? What is the value that you need to provide to your customers? Every person in the organization needs to be thinking that way. Once you begin to think that way, it quickly becomes apparent, what are the projects I need to start working on or that need to be accomplished to solve this business problem, to start adding value back to customers?

You can then begin to start at the project level. First is the business problem, second is the project level. Third is, what are those tasks and skills that we need to complete the project? I think of the Hollywood model a lot: If you want to create a movie, you get together all those different roles that you need, all this different expertise in the room, and create it. That’s really what I think we need to be doing within our organizations today, is forming project teams. It provides a lot more agility. You then are playing to people’s strengths and expertise in a way that’s organic and not forced. That also allows for us to see, where does AI fit into this? What tasks—not what jobs can AI do, but what tasks can AI do to help us solve the business problem we’re going after? Quite frankly, we need to see organizations doing this so we can start to learn and develop case studies and move it from an idea and theory into practicality.

In this shift to organize work around skills, what is the role of the organizational leader versus the manager versus the individual worker?

The way that I would think about it is, organizational leaders have to be responsible for driving the business strategy. There has to be a clear North Star of what their customers need, what society needs, the value they’re providing. Shockingly, very few employees today actually know what that is. Stuff has gotten so muddied with the pandemic. So leaders have to do that. Once they’re able to do that, managers can then identify, what are the projects that my team needs to complete in service to that mission, in service to that strategy? What do we actually need to be focused on to reach those goals? Then managers have to move away from writing job descriptions into identifying tasks and skills that they think a project team needs to be successful.

As you get to the individual level, there’s a responsibility to make sure that they know what their skills are, what their expertise is, and how they can ladder back up to the broader mission. The taskification operationally takes place at that middle [managerial] level, but it can’t be done well without that [leadership] strategy and without individuals identifying their skills. All three have to be in harmony.

Charter Pro members can read a full transcript of our conversation, including the questions workers should ask to get a better sense of their skills, how to write more future-focused job descriptions, and how organizations can better prioritize upskilling.

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