Personalized Work

David Warlick is a North Carolina-based educator and consultant who keeps a blog, 2 cents worth. His most recent posting describes the transition education is making, as a result of the information, communications, and technology revolution, to personalized learning. As someone who believes work itself will be reconceptualized in the next decade or so, I found many parallels between education’s major transition points and where work is likely to go. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could ever take individuals who have learned through the process he describes and then shoe-horn them into jobs as they are currently designed.

His major points are that personalized education:

  • Will be fueled by questions,
  • Provoke conversations,
  • Be responsive, i.e. be interactive
  • Will learn from mistakes, and
  • Will lead to personal investment from the learner and contribute to his/her evolving identity

(I reordered Warlick’s points slightly and did just a little wordsmithing, but I think I’m true to his ideas.)

Personalized work follows along similar lines. What do I mean by personalized work? Most jobs today are still designed according to some archaic position description, this is certainly very common in the government environment. These descriptions are infrequently updated. (I remember at the CIA it was always a very bureaucratically fearful time when the professional job redescribers descended upon your office.) (This makes me think of another post that would be fun to work on: When Bureaucrats are Scared, but I digress.) But if you just think about it, doesn’t it seem nonsensical that in this day and age we would organize the work of our mission around position descriptions that can frequently, I think, be more than a decade old. But it’s not the vintage of the description that’s the real sin, it’s the fact that you could never find a single person who could perfectly perform all the tasks required. So because of the perceived need to order work in ways that the bureaucracy and pay system can best handle, we actually make inefficient use of people, our most important resource as we are often and unattractively reminded.

Is there another way to organize work? YES!! Innovative organizations are beginning to work with new designs that actually allow them to match tasks to the best-suited individual. And they use technology to mash the two up. Every manager needs to visit and become familiar with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (I’ve made more than forty dollars there so far as a worker, enough to finance my MP3 purchases, but I digress.) At Mechanical Turk, large missions and jobs are being atomized into minute tasks, allowing individuals to self-select the tasks they are both good at and enjoy. What a concept!!!! I actually believe this approach could be applied to many tasks, including some missions of the federal government.

Another approach to personalizing work is to bring the aspects of game design into the work environment. It is an odd phenomenon that millions of individuals, many of whom have important positions in their analog lives, voluntarily and happily spend hundreds of hours a year playing computer games such as World of Warcraft. They solve complicated problems, collaborate and form trust relationships with people they’ve never physically met, and all for very little tangible reward. And yet some, when they come into work, mail it in. What is wrong with this picture? What is it about how work is designed that is demotivating, while game design engages individuals? Could it be factors such as immediate feedback, transparency, personalization? For more on this topic, check out recent books such as Total Engagement for eye-opening discussion on why games are not the opposite of work.

Anyway, this posting is already too long and there’s still much more to say and do on the topic. These changes are fueled by technology, but I don’t in any way consider myself a technology expert. I associate myself with David Warlick’s own description of himself: Technologists get excited by the light. I get excited by what we can shine that light on.

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4 responses to “Personalized Work

  1. loungecreature

    I’ve been thinking about the same things quite a bit lately. Having managed “knowledge workers” for many years now, I have found greatest success when I adapt my approach to the individual. People are most likely to respond to cues or rewards that THEY define. The single constant I see from managing these folks is that they all work and think differently. Why should I try to fit them into my model if I don’t absolutely have to? Likewise, as a parent of an Asperger kid, I am constantly reminded that there is an endless diversity of perception and learning. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of committed educators, our educational system still clings to outdated, uniform concepts such as summer vacation, an emphasis on handwriting, and teaching to the lowest common denominator: pass. This is an exciting time, and yet a frustrating one. Thanks.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments. This new age finally makes customization to the individual possible. But many find that concept itself threatening.

  3. Thanks the author for article. The main thing do not forget about users, and continue in the same spirit. http://odessacity.net/

  4. Pingback: Arbitrary Work Design is a Sin against Nature « RecoveringFed

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