Human-centric work

What is the purpose of an employer? Why do employees go to work? These basic questions have so far had very obvious answers. A corporation exists to make money and the employee goes to work for the employer to make money. Almost all economic theories make the same assumption: the employer – employee relationship is a simple business transaction that makes work possible.

Adam Smith assumed that this transaction is by definition mutually beneficial for both parties. Marxists, on the other hand, would say that the employer will always exploit the employee and that the relationship is thus inherently conflictual. Frederick W. Taylor, the father of scientific management, believed that the relationship is often characterized by uninformed employers mistreating and misusing employees. If employers are enlightened, they can increase productivity and share more profits with the employees. This is, at least partially, the philosophical reasoning behind management education.

Regardless of their differences, these three perspectives all take the employer – employee relationship as given. The other taken for granted assumption is that it is the independent employer/manager who exercises freedom of choice in choosing the goals and designing the rules that the members of the organization are to follow. The employees of the organization are not seen autonomous, with a choice of their own, but are seen as rule-following, dependent entities. People are resources.

Dependence is the opposite of taking responsibility. It is getting the daily tasks that are given to you done, or at least out of the way, with a minimum of effort and unpleasantness. If dependent people can get work out of the way by doing it, they will do it. If experience has taught them that this does not work very well, they will turn to other, even illicit means.

We are as used to the employer choosing the work objectives as we are used to the teacher choosing the learning objectives. The manager directs the way in which the employee engages with work, and manages the timing and duration of the work. This image of work is easy to grasp because it has been taught at school where the model is the same.

In contrast to the above, digital work has brought about circumstances in which the “employee” in effect chooses the purpose of work, voluntarily selects the tasks, determines the modes and timing of engagement, and designs the outcomes. The worker here might be said to be largely independent of some other person’s management, but is in effect interdependent. Interdependence here means that the worker is free to choose what tasks to take up, and when to take them up, but is not independent in the sense that she would not need to make the choice.

The interdependent, task-based worker negotiates her work based on her own purposes, not the goals of somebody else, and chooses her fellow workers based on her network, not a given organization. The aim is to do meaningful things with meaningful people utilizing networks and voluntary participation. It is not the corporation that is in the center, but the intentions, choices and actions of individuals. This view of work focuses attention on the way ordinary, everyday tasks and conversations enrich life and perpetually create the future we truly desire.

The architecture of work is not the structure of a corporation, but the structure of the IT network. The organization is not a given hierarchy, but an ongoing process of organizing. The basis of work is not financial self-interest, but people’s different ad yet, complementary expectations of the future, conditioned by their accounts of the past.

The factory logic of mass production forced people to come to where the work is. The crowdsourcing logic of mass communication makes it possible to distribute work to where the people are, no matter where on the globe they may be. Knowledge work is not about jobs or job roles but about tasks. Most importantly knowledge work can, if we want, be human-centric.

It may not be probable, but it is possible!


Thank you Katri Saarikivi

More information:

My post on task-based work on the Microtask blog. The new entrepreneuship on TechCrunch

Jonathan Zittrain video. Research by Ramesh Srinivasan. Article by Lukas Biewald. An event on the democratizing and flattening of the global labor market  CrowdConf2010Samasource