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Job design as a fundamental skill for HR professionals

Chris Furnell, Organisation Design Consultant - ON THE MARK

Upskilling and multiskilling decisions are often made in isolation by each function or team in a business. Over time this creates a complicated and fragmented work system. This article makes the case for a disciplined approach, where HR are the active influencer and coordinator.

Making decisions about upskilling and multiskilling is an issue of work and job design – a key skill for HR. One of the central causes that drives fragmentation and frustration in work is when job design decisions are made in isolation and to meet aspirations of a single person. Across the business it manifests to narrow and specialised jobs, resulting in fragmented work rather than holistic, satisfying work. Designing jobs to a single person also creates difficulty to repeat- or backfill- the work.

Good job design is dependent on defining the work, roles and jobs, and work allocation at an enterprise level. There are several practical guidelines on how to do this with discipline. The provocation is for HR to be the active influence, coordinating this business-wide integration of work and job design.

The first guideline is to understand the work that the strategy requires the business to do. Then, how that work is organised into boundaries, and further into roles and jobs. Once the overall work design is complete, dependencies between jobs can be mapped which is a key feature to understand future upskilling and multiskilling implications.

The second is to design for maximising the quality of working life. Humans have the capacity to do more than one task—we can be multi-functional and multi-skilled. Yet organisations are often designed to break down whole work into parts and assign people to those parts. Thus, cross training is required to create backups (redundant parts). Breaking whole work into parts results in high volumes of specialised and fragmented work. Years of research originated by Emery and Trist has identified a set of minimal requirements that humans value in their work. These requirements can be deliberately designed into entire organisations, roles, and jobs to ensure holistic and satisfying work.

The third guideline is to be clear about the principles at both an individual and team level. At an individual level, jobs should be designed to increase skill variety and task identity. It should facilitate three things: experienced meaningfulness of work, responsibility for the outcomes of the work, and knowledge of the actual results of work activities. Jobs should be designed around whole work and involve planning, decision making, and creativity to decrease the gap between doing and controlling. Behaviour is just as important, for example if ‘always innovating’ was a behavioural expectation, it might require the individual to always look for ways to upskill herself, as well as the team relationship and work done for the business. But this can’t be left as a wholly emergent property, good job design requires a mechanism to coordinate ‘always innovating’ behaviour to prevent fragmentation.

At a team level, collaboration is a key requirement. Collaboration is improved by increasing the interdependence of tasks and goals. Goal interdependence means team members have a common interest and incentive in achieving the team’s goals. Task interdependence means that individual jobs should be complementary; no one team member is able to complete the team’s task, but not everyone has to be there to complete the task. A practical example is planning the next month of customer demand.

Whilst well intended, upskilling and multiskilling decisions in isolation often discount these key guidelines and result in overly complicated work systems, including more job levels than the business needs. For example, when a high performer is identified at risk of leaving. To mitigate, the person is given more responsibility in the context of line management. They stay in the business, positive about upskilling to manage a direct report.

But roles or jobs should not be created as a quick-fix retention solution. A holistic and integrated approach to (re)designing work and jobs starts with four questions: Has business direction changed? Has the work in the value stream that creates value for customers changed? Has the way we put boundaries around the work in our operating model changed? What management mechanisms should be used and how?

This might seem like quite a leap from an upskilling or multiskilling dilemma about an individual person or function. But without a holistic and integrated approach to work and job design, seemingly well intended decisions to change an individual’s job creates a manifestation of fragmented work.

In summary, making decisions to upskill and multiskill seem obvious when it comes to building latent capacity, resilience, and reward. It is a necessity but should be coordinated using a consistent and holistic approach. Setting out clear guidelines helps to exploit the best of people whilst balancing the need for the business to remain coherent, joined up and flexible to adapt. There is a discipline and skill to effectively coordinating work systems in any business and this role is ripe for HR – the first step is to create a consistent approach, before making decisions at an individual or per function basis.

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