While the job descriptions were once the most useful way to describe the responsibilities of a role, the changing nature of work calls for something new.
The longer an employee works in an organisation, the more likely it is that they assume responsibilities beyond their original job description. What’s more, as an employee climbs through the ranks, chances are they will have job duties that aren’t replicated elsewhere in the organisation.
A case in point
Take Margo, for example. Margo began working in an entry-level accounting position 20 years ago in a large firm. When the computer accounting software in her department was upgraded, she took an active role in the transition from the old to the new system. Margo worked closely with the IT department to configure the new platform to accommodate the needs of the company. She coached all new and existing employees in the new software package since its adoption. In preparation for her retirement, Margo developed and documented a training program to use the software.
The company is now looking to fill the void Margo’s imminent retirement will create in the accounting department. The selection panel concluded that no one employee would likely have the unique skillset necessary to assume all of Margo’s job responsibilities. In fact, no one – least of all the selection panel – is sure what all of Margo’s job responsibilities are now; they certainly aren’t covered in her original job description.
Jennifer, Margo’s manager, suggests that the first step is to find out what Margo does on the job before trying to find her replacement. A work document is put together that details as best as possible Margo’s evolving tasks and responsibilities. Using this new job description as a reference, the company decides to divide the position into three parts: accountant, technology liaison, and trainer. From this point, the company decides how to fill the vacancies created by Margo’s retirement in the following ways:
- A new entry-level accountant will be hired.
- A veteran accountant will take on the additional duty of being the liaison between the accounting and IT departments for technical matters.
- To prepare for a planned expansion of the accounting department, following a recent corporate acquisition, a designated trainer will be hired to train the employees in the company’s technology gained from the merger. The company expects that the new trainer will also be an asset to other departments in future endeavours.
Margo will transition her responsibilities to her successors in the coming year in preparation for her retirement, following the predetermined employee development plan for the incumbents. By the time she retires, Margo’s successors will be adequately prepared to tackle their new responsibilities and will aid the company in its upcoming expansion. Everybody wins!
Where it came from
The concept of the job description grew out of the practice of specialisation. The job-holder is responsible for a segment of the overall work done by the company. And since scientific management chopped the assembly line into bit sized pieces, the job description became the natural extension of job specification. From here, the job description has become the backbone of all the major people management practices in organisational life.
The weakness of the job description is that its primary concern is with the job-holder’s task or technical role. But its pervasive influence holds organisations back from exercising agility and manoeuvrability for performance. Specifically, the heightened awareness of non-job roles in performance and their relevance in exercising entrepreneurial behaviour, don’t figure prominently in the job description format. A shift from the job requirements to the multiple roles people play in today’s workforce is the answer. A role description rather than a job description broadens the scope of performance beyond the technical requirements of the job.
Overall, the job description has served industry well; the employee has a clear blueprint to work from and the manager is given a frame-of-reference to manage the performance of the employee. But the transformative changes from industrial to knowledge work has rendered the job description far less useful than it perhaps once was. Non-job behaviour, such as teamwork, proactivity, and skill development, is increasingly important for agile performance. I’m suggesting a role description is a better performance management tool to capture these non-job behavioural expectations; it extends the idea of performance past the technical execution of work.
Performing work nowadays goes well beyond the piece of paper we refer to as a job description. But people management practices can be adversely influenced by the job description. Because of its pervasive presence, the job description severely distorts the non-job dimension of work to irrelevance in managing performance. This is even though we instinctively understand the value of these attitudes and non-job behaviours. Furthermore, it’s these non-job roles that propel the business towards the adaptive advantage necessary to compete in the 21st Century.
Dr Tim Baker is an international consultant and author.
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