Monthly Archives: March 2014

A marketplace for work and problem-solving

I’ve got a lot of smart friends with valuable skills.  But, in today’s difficult job market, a lot of them have, at one time or other, been in a position of wanting work.  To some extent, they want work so they can earn money, but even more, they want work so they can keep up existing skills and learn new ones, gain experience, and feel productive and worthwhile.  That isn’t to say they would take absolutely any job – they know that some jobs will negatively impact their long-term potential.  But, they’re certainly not unwilling to work hard.

I also see employers struggling to find skilled workers capable of doing the job, and organisations and individuals that would love to free up their time by delegating work.

So, I’ve been thinking about some sort of ebay for talent, which I’ll explore in more detail in my next blog.  But first, I want to consider several broad issues that any solution is going to have to comes to terms with.

Should it be paid?

The most popular models I’ve seen that allow people to solve each other’s problems (e.g. stackoverflow.com, en.wikipedia.org, wilmott.com) have all refused to pay contributors.  These sites recognise that reputation, experience, and even just the sense of having helped, are all valuable motivators, and can lead to a better culture and more genuine assistance than might occur if financial payments were introduced.  I don’t disagree with that, but worry that by not paying, you limit your contributors to those that already have an income, and you force those that do need an income to get potentially less valuable jobs.  So, I’m inclined to propose a solution that does offer payment.  (Unfortunately, one downside of offering payment is that you have to think about tax and legal implications, but most people would rather earn money and pay tax than not!)

Difficulty in defining non-trivial problems

One of the toughest parts of my job has been specifying tasks for others to do, or problems for them to solve.  Sure, if it is a repetitive task that I’ve done before and want repeated, then I can specify instructions.  But if I’m trying to achieve something new, it is difficult enough to know what I want done, let alone what level of detail I have to give.  There isn’t a clear distinction between “the analysis that goes into specifying the problem” and “the action of solving the problem” and “determining if the problem has been solved”.  As a result, I often find it quicker to just solve the problem myself, deciding what the problem is as I go along, rather than specifying the problem upfront and then handing it to someone else.

I know I need to get better at this, and just as using Google has taught me to write effective searches, having a system for assigning problems would improve my ability to specify them.  And even if some problems are always going to be too ambiguous to assign, or have solutions too difficult to assess, we should still consider this system where it does work.

Difficulties in deciding what you are allowed to assign

The was a big story last year about a developer who had been outsourcing his entire job to a developer in China.  Interestingly, when I retell this story, some people I speak to think the man should be rewarded for his clever thinking (the quality of the work done was very good), while others think he should have been fired (which he was).

My view is that I’d at least like companies to talk about what you can and can’t delegate – after all, almost workers at some point talk about their work with outsiders in the hope of finding a solution to a problem.  If would help if we could identify the levels of confidentiality – things we can freely discuss, things we should require some form of agreement to discuss, and things we must never discuss.

As well, a workplace where people can outsource would force us to get better at measuring performance – assessing people on hours worked doesn’t make sense (even without outsourcing), but there will always be a lot of work that can’t be assessed purely on defined outcomes.

Loyalty

It seems logical to assume that contractors are less loyal than permanent employees.  But, I’m not sure it is true.  If by loyalty we mean caring about the employer’s short and long-term best interests, then I’d say I’ve seen good loyalty from employees, contractors and consultants.  Enough people realise that it is generally in their own long-term interest to care about the short and long-term best interests of others.   If loyalty includes only caring about the interests of one organisation, then I think that aspect is on the way out, and for good reason –  workers increasingly want to balance caring for multiple causes, including themselves, their family, their network and the community.

We always need to be aware that a worker may not care about an employer’s best interests, but I don’t believe a market for short-term problem solving would prevent the right kind of loyalty.

I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts, questions, ideas any readers have, and I’ll try to give them some thought in my next blog on this idea.

What is work? A definition

You might think the author of a blog titled “Engaging Work” would have worked out a good definition for “Work”.  It isn’t for lack of trying – I’ve certainly been applying lots of thought and  talking to a wide range of people for a long time!

Conventional wisdom seem to define work as “what I am paid to do”.  But I find that definition increasingly unsatisfactory (and likely to be even less helpful going forward).

The most obvious issue is that it excludes anything that isn’t paid.  It doesn’t make sense that a parent caring for a child isn’t working, while a child-carer is working.  I don’t like money being the criteria, not least because increasing numbers of people put in effort that may or may not lead to financial reward.  How many copies of a book have to be sold for the author to be considered to have worked on it?  It seems a completely arbitrary factor.

Then there is a notion that effort has to be directly linked to the reward.  If work sends me on a training course to improve my skills, is that still work?  If I spend my weekend gaining those same skills, is that just as much work?  Does the location of the course, or whether it is on during ‘work hours’ determine if it is work?  Is it work if you study at university, before you have a job to use those skills?

A lot of people consider lack of autonomy makes something work – if your boss tells you to do something, it is work, while if you choose to do it, then it is somehow less work.  Given how much we know about how much more productive and satisfied we are when we work with autonomy, it seems crazy that we would be sending a message that valid work requires us to give up autonomy.  It seems a recipe to make work as unpleasant as possible.

I am therefore working on a broader definition of work, and keen to get feedback.  I’m currently thinking along the lines of:

Work is the spending of time and energy in return for some expected gain

The first component of this definition is the spending of time and energy.  The traditional view of work is that the only personal resource that counts is time, but I think we need to be broader – your engagement, your energy, and your creativity are perhaps even more productive in today’s economy than your time.

The second component is the requirement for expected gain.  Unlike the conventional view, in my definition it doesn’t have to be monetary, and it doesn’t have to be your gain.  And it doesn’t have to eventuate, so long as it was expected at the time of deciding to do the work.  And it doesn’t have to be a net gain, just some gain that I value.

So, this broadening of the definition of work now definitely includes a parent caring for a child – he or she is spending time and energy to improve the child’s welfare.  It includes study (so long as you see some value in what you get out of it).  It includes the writing of these blog.  And it includes community work.

Broadening the definition of work doesn’t mean that all work is equally valuable, and the challenge of working out how to spend your time and energy is tougher than a financial investment decision.   In addition to the gains being uncertain, they are difficult to measure, and may affect multiple people differently.  I will most likely value gains that accrue to me more highly than those accruing to others, but that isn’t to say that I only think about myself.

There is room for refining this definition.  Are there other personal resources that should be included with time and energy?  Should we exclude certain gains?  For example, if I spent on something just to make me happy, is that work?  Do sporting activities count as work?  It is possible that I could even count sleep as work by my definition.  Have I suddenly just included all our activities in life as work?

But I’d rather risk being overly broad in how we define work, helping us make sensible decisions about the work we do,  than constrain ourselves to work that satisfies a restricted (and outdated) set of notions and reduces our chance of achieving our potential.

Why I work

One of the reasons I started this blog was out of concern that much of what I read or hear stated about why people work is too simplistic.  It assumes we pick a single goal (generally earning money), and then do whatever we can to maximise that.  Not only do I feel this isn’t what most people want to do, but repeating it can make people more inclined to act that way.

The more that we can recognise that our goals in working are more complex, and often a balancing game between conflicting motivations, the more we can manage their career in a way that makes us happy in the long term.

So in this post, I’d like to outline my motivations for the work that I seek to do:

  • I want to feel that I am making the world a better place (taking into account both the good and harm I inevitably do).  I can do this through the work that I do (in my paid job and unpaid work), as well as by financially supporting (through tax and donations) causes that are important to me.
  • I want to feel challenged, but I also want to feel competent.
  • I want to work with people that want me to work with them, that respect me for who I am as well as what I can do for them.  And I want to be able to feel the same about them.
  • I want to feel that I am creative, doing work that I care about, that couldn’t be identically replaced by a machine or another person.
  • I want my work to make me happy and to support (and not hurt) my relationships with those I care about – for example through my work’s effect on my self-identity and the time and money I have to do things I want to.

I wonder how universal these goals are.  Do readers think that any of these motivations are generally not shared by most people?  Are there motivations that other people have, that I’m missing (e.g. competition)?