Why roles (not jobs) rule in the digital era

It is true to say that much of our identity comes from our jobs.

Our economy builds on these and the types of jobs that are in demand (and their distribution and compensation) are often a proxy for what society considers important. 

The trouble is, jobs as a term feels old – and not in the treasured, valued, or Yoda-sage way. In today’s digital, dynamic world of work, the traditional concept of a job has become too narrow, too mundane, too fixed. The word signifies an archaic structure of inflexible and routine duties or hierarchy-based expectations. When people speak of their jobs, it often implies being a human widget. A job is either relatively stable or endlessly boring, or haphazard and chaotic with no chance to grow, succeed or achieve.

This legacy understanding of jobs doesn’t serve organisations well in trying to design for the current and future world of work and education. For individual workers, leaders and organisations, re-thinking our concept of jobs is key to economic survival and personal enrichment.

But, what’s the alternative?

Let’s start by modifying our constant use of the jobs term and build from the idea of roles instead. Roles or even ‘job roles’ isn’t a new term or practice, but its time has come to take up more space in the conversation. The concept and structure of roles are more relevant to guide how we educate, recruit, develop and transition our current and future workforce.

A role is generally defined as the way in which someone is involved in an activity or situation, what they bring, and how they impact a situational goal. Roles in the workplace are an association of work areas, tasks, and accomplishments that may flex and change based on needs and opportunities. Compared with jobs, roles imply a more dynamic and situational use of skills and capabilities – flexible building blocks rather than predefined widgets. This is incredibly important given the rapid pace of change and innovation being experienced by all organisations in the modern business environment.

A focus on flexible roles versus rigid jobs in defining, preparing and managing work today seems much more valuable. Take Millennials, for example. Research shows that rather than having one job for life, Millennials are focused on continuous skills development. Ninety-three percent want lifelong learning and four out of five say the opportunity to learn new skills is a top factor when considering a new employer.

Millennials are focused on career rather than job security, willing to play a role within an organisation that gives them real opportunities to grow. Attracting millennial talent will require organisations to pivot to a role mind-set and look for employee traits like learnability and curiosity rather than a narrow set of defined ‘job skills’.

Using roles provided the opportunity to map the work and skills required to many important elements, and to identify those that are transition targets and those that are breakout opportunities. While roles may also be actual positions (and someone’s job), they are first and foremost a combination of needed and valued skills, knowledge and outputs that can differentiate a manufacturer and serve as meaningful and well-paying careers for individuals.

Organisations operating in the modern business environment need to ensure they are changing the way they think, strategize and operate, to ensure they remain competitive, but more importantly, to ensure they are able to attract and retain the best talent for their business.

Lyndy van den Barselaar is the Managing Director of ManpowerGroup® South Africa.

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