The New Architecture of Work - by John Sumser - HRExaminer

The only thing we know for sure about breakthrough software development is that it seems to involve late nights and a lot of pizza.

The New Architecture of Work

The non-administrative parts of HR have their roots in industrial engineering. At one point, HR was focused on the measurement and improvement of the actual mechanics of each job. Time-motion studies and big experiments with working conditions are the legacy of the pioneers in the field. Productivity improvement and real return on investment in human capital were the centerpiece of HR’s value.

Work and job design, now relegated to job description writing and the creation/maintenance of org charts, were the heart of HR. This was particularly true in heavily unionized manufacturing.

Then a couple of things happened.

The Western economy shifted away from manufacturing and purely physical work. Time and motion are not the issue when the product is ideas, conversation and reusable intellectual property. The only thing we know for sure about breakthrough software development is that it seems to involve late nights and a lot of pizza.

Workplace improvement initiatives moved away from the HR/OD team and into the functional organizations. Beginning with the Total Quality Movement in the 80s, the continuous improvement of work became an individual responsibility. While the tools were reusable, responsibility for the actual accomplishment of improvement moved out of HR’s hands. HR’s focus moved towards team building events at unique places like The Great Escape Room and workplace harmony while the actual work of the company was getting done by the actual workers.

Today, no one in the organization really owns the exploding new toolkit for work design. The discipline that produced great work like the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (which defined job requirements across the culture) seems to be slipping into a transactional coma. The intellectual clout that produced learning organization design, self-directed work group parameters and experiential training is increasingly focused on box checking and gap measurement.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, things are happening.

A whole host of new technologies for designing, strengthening and improving the quality and effectiveness of work are falling from the sky like the frogs in the movie Magnolia. These tools all emerge from technology but have their practical applications in the day to day execution of our jobs and the work of the organization. Analytics and big data are emerging as the way to discover the opportunities for the use of these new tools.

Individually, the tools are all interesting. But, they are best understood as a tool kit. The optimal workplace design will come from an integrated application. For the near term, we’ll be learning what works and what doesn’t. It’s my suggestion that HR become the central repository for accumulated wisdom on the efficacy of these tools.

We’re witnessing the creation of the 21st Century organization and enterprise kit. It’s part technical, part social and part ongoing experiment.

Here are some of the tools that I’m referring to:

  • Gamification
  • Agile Methodology
  • Collaborative Technology
  • Accelerated MultiMedia Learning Environments
  • Small Bite Video Education
  • Career Transparency
  • Flexible Real Time Labor Markets
  • Short Burst Status Messaging
  • Analytics
  • Dynamic Visualization
  • Data Driven Job Branding
  • Time Scaled Performance Feedback
  • Real Time Organizational Feedback
  • Informal Learning Design

Over the next couple of pieces, I’ll put some detail under each of these categories. They all have some applicability to some problems. None of them are perfect single point solutions for anything. Over the coming decades, we will all be learning how to use them (and more), how they work and where they don’t.

What’s interesting about this time and place is that HR has an amazing opportunity to take real leadership. Things are moving fast on the planet and there is little time to wait for the traditional uptake from academia. The need is more urgent than that.


The ideas behind this piece have been a long time in gestation. I was prompted to write because of a note I received from Jason Lauritsen. He’s like that. If you have an opportunity to get into his orbit (at a talk or by reading his stuff on line), do it. He’s one of those people who causes ideas to gel.

The New Architecture of Work Series

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