Monthly Archives: April 2016

What is work and is it good?

I’ve struggled over the past few years with a number of related questions:

  • What do people mean by work?
  • What, in that definition of work, is (socially) positive?  What in that definition is negative?
  • What should we be encouraging?  What should be discouraging?
  • Should be seeking to define work as something to be encouraged, or something to be discouraged?
  • Do we need a new word to describe the thing we want to encourage, or the thing we want to discourage?

The Oxford dictionary gives me a primary definition of work: “activity involving a mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result”.  I’m happy with that definition, though I note the open-ended nature of “result”.

I believe that work (defined this way) is socially positive and should be encouraged, if (and only if) the achieved results are socially positive, relative to alternatives.

In other words, I think it is dangerous to promote work without considering the results (to you and to society, now and in the future).  And money being created isn’t a result – you need to consider whether it will be used positively or negatives.

And I don’t consider work positive, even if its result is positive, if there was a more positive alternative.  For example, if caring for a child or parent produced a more positive result (eg better relationships), we shouldn’t support taking a job with a less positive result.  If a job drains you, leaving you unable to do better work, that isn’t good.

There are some common additional assumptions about work:  the result must be money; there must be an employer; you must do it during specified hours and in a specified place; it must be unenjoyable.  I appreciate that for many people, these will be the case.  But these aren’t essential to work.

So, there is such a thing as good (socially positive) work, and bad work.

Unfortunately, when some people think of work, they assume the good sense, while others assume the bad sense.  And they each ignore the other kind.  This makes it very difficult to create a common vision of what we want going forward.

Are there words that we can use when we want to unambiguously refer to what I’m considering socially good or bad work?  Or do I need to make a point of always preceding the word work with one of good or bad?

 

Skills for Jobs

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenge companies have employing graduates.  There’s an increasing mismatch in what companies need and what many graduates have to offer, and I’ve seen it unfairly blamed on all sorts of factors: millennials’ laziness or pickiness, older workers not retiring, universities being insufficiently focussed on job skills, companies being impatient.  Some of these might have an element of truth, but unfortunately I believe the fundamental problem is something more complex and more difficult to address: a shift in the nature of work.

When I started work 15 years ago, there was a lot of office work that was simple, but not automated.  These were tasks that someone could explain to me within an hour, and I could then do the task each day.  The tasks wouldn’t require judgement to perform accurately, but would make me valuable to the company, giving me time to gain broader experience within the company.  For example, I had to type data into spreadsheets, or manually compare draft and final sets of accounts to ensure all differences were explained.

Since then, our use of technology has improved to the point that most of these tasks can be automated, and the remaining tasks are ones that can’t be easily explained – ones that require more significant judgement.   This means that there is significantly less opportunity for a new graduate to add value to the company in their first 3-6 months.

I don’t believe the answer is to stop automating tasks – as a graduate I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do tedious and unnecessary work *just* for the sake of having something to do.  But, I don’t think we can expect companies to be quite as grateful to have graduates, and graduates are going to have to work a bit more cleverly to give employers what they need.

I believe there is a greater need to take personal ownership for learning useful skills, rather than waiting to learn them on the job.  (Addressing two objections to this: firstly, yes, some people have always done this – what’s new is that there are fewer opportunities if you don’t do it; and secondly, while it may seem unfair that you have to do the learning and the company reaps the benefits, I’d suggest that you will be sufficiently rewarded by companies for having the skills that they value.)

Obviously there are some things you can only learn on the job, but there’s a lot you can learn, and the good news is that there’s never been an easier time to learn new skills.  The internet is filled with content – videos, screenshots, questions and answers, interactive guides, that are free or cheap (compared to what companies regularly pay for internal training).

It is still a challenge to discover which skills to learn.  No one wants to waste time learning a useless skill, and it is difficult to be motivated (needed for effective learning) if you don’t see the point.  Firstly, I’d caution against worrying too much – no one knows for sure what skills are going to be in demand, and employers know that people who can learn particular skills can pick up others more quickly.

But I definitely think it is worth researching what skills are going to be useful to help you be more valuable in your chosen field.

And I believe there’s a huge amount of value in employers collectively analysing and documenting the skills they’re wanting their employees to have.  The more accurately (and convincingly) employers communicate the skills they value, the more likely they’ll be to find employees that have these skills.

In order to explore what such a listing might look like, I’ve performed a survey of a lot of my friends that work for companies, and put together a prototype at http://guylipman.com/skills.  It is very preliminary – for example, it doesn’t give you a way to search for skills valued by a particular job or company, and it would be nice to have some social features (eg an ability to create a profile and identify which skills you had or wanted to get).  But I hope it will be useful to some people, and will inspire some useful comments.  So please do check it out and let me know what you think.  Thank you!