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Roles vs Jobs. Why Roles are More Important than Jobs in Agile/Lean Workplaces!

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Roles vs Jobs?  It is my contention that, in Agile workplaces, Roles are more important than Jobs.  And here’s why I believe that.

What is an Agile Workplace?

By an Agile Workplace I refer to a work environment that has become flexible so as to be able to change and transform in the shortest possible time as and when needed.  The need to change or transform could be determined by a number of factors, including: technology changes; changes in customer demands; or, even the realisation by management, that they have not yet achieved a truly flexible organisation.

Feudal Society

Prior to the Industrial Revolution there were no “jobs” per se, just work.  The King owned all land and “gave” parcels of land to Nobles and Knights in return for soldiers and horses for the King’s army.

The Peasants (or workers) owned nothing, but worked the land and produced food and clothing for “their” nobles.

Food and goods were produced and distributed largely within the locality in which they were produced.

Then Came the Industrial Revolution

The concept of a Job was created in the industrial revolution.  Work was organised into processes with work stations at each stage of the process.  People were skilled to perform at a work station – a job, and when they had completed their specific task in the process, the goods were handed over to the next work station in the process – a different job.

This “process-driven” method of work carried on, pretty much unchanged, until the beginning of the 21st century.

What Changed – or Who Moved the Cheese[1]?

Change, at this, the start of the 21st century, is being brought about, largely, by technology change, and the new capabilities brought about by the new technologies.

This change is now exponential – and what is more, the rate of change is also exponential.

According to Ray Kurzweil of Singularity University, “We’re entering an age of acceleration.  The models underlying society at every level, which are largely based on a linear model of change, are going to have to be redefined.  Because of the explosive power of exponential growth, the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress; organizations have to be able to redefine themselves at a faster and faster pace.[2]

So, change, and change at an ever-increasing pace, is the new norm.  It’s the new constant.  And, organisations have to become more and more flexible, more modifiable at a faster rate, (or “Agile”) to be able to, not just grow, but to actually survive in the years to come.

The “Lego” of Flexible, Modifiable Organisations

Today’s organisations can, in my opinion, best be equated to Lego.  The basic building blocks of our new flexible organisations are – Competencies!  And, when we build the new shape (structure) that we have imagined, we create Roles, based on Competencies.  We can use Competencies in a number of different Roles, and change them around, if necessary, to become more effective.  New technologies and processes come and go and need new and different competencies.  Just like Lego introduces new shapes they “modernise” the resulting form to be created.  It’s Roles and Competencies that enable the organisation to become flexible and modifiable and the shortest time possible.  HR practices have to catch up with this reality and become equally flexible and modifiable – in other words, Agile.

Roles vs Jobs in Agile Workplaces

The basic differences between Roles and Jobs in Agile workplaces are:

Jobs are Rigid

Roles are flexible
Jobs are associated with a person

Roles are associated with a flexible process
Jobs are task driven

Roles our results driven
Jobs relate to a hierarchy

Roles can be used anywhere
Jobs focus on a hierarchy of control

Roles focus on the execution of a process
Jobs are applied to a permanent workforce

Roles can be applied to a flexible or permanent workforce
Jobs are more difficult to recruit

Roles are easier to develop people
Jobs focus on task execution

Roles focus on value to the organisation

Roles and Competencies enable the organisation to be flexed and modified as quickly as possible without the massive disruption of organisational restructuring that we have experienced in the past.

But what about People I hear you Say?

That’s the real beauty of Roles and Competencies.  People, today, don’t want to be “stuck” in a job.  They want to experiment with different Roles.  They want to explore career options rather than being “stuck” on a hierarchical escalator.  They want to grow and develop at their own pace, not “stuck” in a job because there is no other place to move.

And, the more, competencies, relevant to the organisation, that they develop, the more valuable they are to the organisation.

So, when it comes to Roles vs Jobs, I believe that Roles are more important than Jobs in Agile workplaces.  How about you?

For more detail see our Knowledge Base article on this topic.

[1] With apologies to Dr Spencer Johnson

[2] “Understanding the Accelerating Rate of Change”,