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Redefining Work for New Value: The Next Opportunity

Redesigning jobs should be viewed not as an end goal, but as a process that enables work itself to be redefined so that the workforce creates new value

Source | sloanreview.mit.edu | John Hagel, Jeff Schwartz, Maggie Wooll

The nature of work is evolving in two complementary directions. In one direction, managers are redesigning jobs to take advantage of new opportunities to automate workflow processes. Their aim: transform how workers execute tasks in order to boost efficiencies and reduce costs. At the same time, some managers are redefining work to take advantage of new capacity freed up by job redesign. With work redefinition, work is no longer simply about task execution; it’s about creating new sources of value for customers and the business. Although redesigning jobs and redefining work are both integral to long-term strategy, our research shows that too many companies are focused primarily on the former. Without an overriding strategy of redefining work, workers represent cost savings rather than freed capacity to create new value for the business or the customer.

This is a big problem: Investing in job redesign without first planning for and investing in redefining work narrows future outcomes and limits opportunities for both growth and long-term value creation. Understanding the relationship between these two approaches to work is essential to any strategic effort to compete over the long term.

Of the two approaches, job redesign is clearly the more popular and well understood. The rationale is often cost reduction — either directly, by reducing head count, or indirectly, by eliminating human-driven mistakes and delays. Job redesign may benefit customers with quicker response times, more consistent or error-free service, or lower costs, but cost reductions are a game of diminishing returns over time.

The less familiar but more expansive approach is to redefine what work is all about: It shifts the primary objective of work from efficiency to broader value creation. When work is appropriately redefined, workers focus on identifying and addressing unseen problems and opportunities instead of executing tasks. In contrast to the incremental and diminishing returns of job redesign, redefining work leads to increasing returns because of its significant potential for long-term value creation

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