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From Job Descriptions to Role Profiles – Why and How?

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“A tidal wave of change is coming that will soon make the way we work almost unrecognizable to today’s business leaders.  In an age of rapidly evolving technologies, business models, demographics, and even workplace attitudes—all shifting concurrently—change is not only constant but also exponential in its pace and scope.  Companies, from start-ups and online businesses to incumbents in all industries, will experience the effects in far-reaching and transformational ways.[1]


Back in 1993, Edward E Lawler of the Center for Effective Organisations wrote an article published in Harvard Business Review titled, “From Job-based to Competency-based Organisations”.  This was prophetic.  Right now this move is becoming more and more apparent in organisations, especially those looking to become more dynamic and flexible to meet the challenges of Industry 4.0 and the New Way of Working.  We are in the process of moving from Job Descriptions to Role Profiles.  What’s the real difference?

Job Descriptions

Much like what is happening today, over time the nature of technological change created changes in the way work was conducted.  The introduction of new mechanical contrivances and developments in the application of power to old devices and to the organisation of work allowed production on a larger scale. This represented the start of the factory system and the dawn of “jobs”.

For the past 100 years, “jobs” have been considered the basic building blocks of complex organisations.  As such, they have been fundamental for most research and theory in the field of organisational behaviour.  In other words, few people have really questioned the validity of this.  It is just taken for granted – until now!

Our “traditional” approach has been that organisations consist of jobs, that can be studied, specified, work methods can be devised for performing in them, and they can be rationalised.  From an individual perspective, an individual will have a specific job, with specific accountabilities, responsibilities, and activities.

This led to the belief that the Job “Paradigm” is the unifying concept in employee selection, training, performance, and compensation.

The “job-based” economy was good for the era of mass-production.  But in the Knowledge Economy and the environments of business changing so fast and so dramatically, as Edward Lawler points out, the efficacy of this “system” is proving wanting.

The first, flawed assumption of this “traditional” approach is that, individuals add value to the organisation to the extent that they fit the work structure of the organisation.  Selection tests are designed to identify individuals who fit a specific job, and training is used to develop skills for these specific jobs.

The competitive “edge” of organisations was therefore to have better organisation design, better job design, and better selection than competitors. There was little organisational change as the structure of the organisation was seen to be a static structure around jobs.

This led to a hierarchy of responsibilities, duties, and accountabilities, which ushered in the command and control structure in which individuals were held responsible for their performance, which was assessed by a manager.

The New Way of Working

In the New Way of Working, individuals add value to the extent that they are adaptable.  Selection is now based on the ability of the individual to learn, unlearn, and relearn rapidly.  People development is based on continuous learner-driven learning experiences.

The competitive edge of organisations today is the individual and the knowledge and skills and learning that they possess and accumulate.  Changing needs of users, technology improvements, and broadening market places require consistent upskilling and reskilling to remain competitive.

The trend is for organisations to become increasingly flatter.  This predominantly means decreasing management layers, which increases the requirement for individuals to take responsibility for their own performance.  But they are only able to do this if they have a better understanding and buy-in to the business as a whole, as opposed to operating in narrow silos.

Careers can no longer be hierarchical, as the job-based organisation dictates.  We must enable better ways of creating lateral careers, and these are based on defining and measuring a range of competencies that are required to fill multiple roles in the organisation.

Job based organisations’ focus is on defining jobs and then fitting people to the job.  This runs the risk of underutilising key resources, and fails to focus on the capabilities and competencies critical to maintaining the organisation’s competitive edge.

In the New Way of Working, we have Roles as opposed to jobs.  Each Role is defined with its required competencies and, people will be required to perform more than one Role in their work.  “Jobs” are flexible, depending on the Roles needed to be played by team members, and the competencies of the individuals in the team, at the time.  It is expected that employees will seek out their desired career journey.  However, the organisation must show what the possibilities are by providing a lattice or spiderweb organisational structure.  This kind of the structure will enable lateral and varied career paths, combining multiple role profiles.

Our next article “From Rigid Hierarchy to Reconfigurable Organisations – Why and How” explains how Roles are used to create Reconfigurable organisations.

  • Has your company started to make the shift from jobs to roles?
  • Are you losing critical digital skills because individuals don’t see a path for their career development in the traditional “jobs” structure?
  • Is your leadership equipped to manage an agile workforce?
  • Do we have a digital skills architecture that addresses today’s skills demand?

[1] Vikram Bhalla, Susanne Dyrchs, and Rainer Strack, “Twelve Forces That Will Radically Change How Organizations Work”, The New Way of Working Series, March 27, 2017