Meaningful work

Recently I came across the essay titled: “Meaningful work should not be a privilege of the elite” published in the HBR.  The essay starts with the idea of inclusive prosperity (i.e.) wealth generated by the society and / or the economy should be for all to enjoy. Thought leaders and eminent economists are pursuing these three avenues according to the authors:

  • Re-distribute the rewards of the capitalism thus making the 1% pay for the needs of the 99%
  • Emphasis on over all wellbeing rather than merely in terms of economic well being
  • Prosperity in a society is the accumulation of solutions to human problems.

The authors then branch off to state that prosperity should also include engagement in the act of solving problems (i.e.) in the meaningful nature of work.

In all these discussions the macro and micro aspects of work get mixed up leading to perennial confusion and untold challenges to the society at large. For example: “What is the job that society needs to get done that it turns to competent managers to do”? In this sentence “work” has two distinct meanings: The job that the society needs to get done vs. the job that the manager needs to get done.

  • The job that the society needs to get done:

The job of the society – the work to be done – is to understand the need (i.e.) growing economic disparity as well as the cause for it. Developments in Digital Technology (DT) leads to “smart machines with the potential to marginalize human contributions, automating cognitive work and leaving society with hordes of citizens of zero economic value”. Human being can contribute as workers through their cognitive skills, their ability to process information as well as through their physical labor. All these three pathways for human dignity through work are being challenged today. Society needs to innovate as required with new solutions to address this crisis. The society with meaningful employment and broad economic prosperity is the employer as well as the customer.

Unfortunately customers do not hire anyone to address the economic disparity. The workers in this case are the investors in the society whose single minded goal is to increase the return on their investment. As long as they find ways to achieve their better ROI by eliminating labor cost (I.e.) human centered work that already exists or needed in the future, that will be their first choice.  The net result is the “smart machines with the potential to marginalize human contributions, automating cognitive work and leaving society with hordes of citizens of zero economic value”.

The above situation will be reversed if and only if the society at large realizes that its job is not to favor Digital Technology (DT) as the only “Technology”. Developments in the field of Nuclear Science are called “Nuclear Technology”. Developments in polymers and plastics is called “Polymer Technology”; Innovation in space exploration is called “Space Technology”. Society obsessively refers to DT as the only technology. Then the society fails to recognize the preponderant developments in DT that favor a few workers and their efforts to “automate cognitive work and leaving society with hordes of citizens of zero economic value”.

Yet, when the economists and thought leaders discuss the societal needs they describe “innovations through Technology” as the savior of the future, but the implication here is technology as derived from all fields of sciences and not limited to DT. The ills in the abuse of the DT are brushed aside as they are not identified as such. As an analogy recognize the disdain society has for the use of Nuclear Technology because of the fear it instills in the mind of the many despite its many positive uses and potentials. But the abusive role of DT enabled smart machines with the potential to marginalize human contributions, automating all forms of work (i.e.) Physical, information and cognitive work and leaving society with hordes of citizens of zero economic value is not yet fully appreciated and baked into the thinking and planning of economists and other thought leaders.

The first job or work of the society has to be to recognize this dichotomy and restore due emphasis and value for developments and exploitation of all fields of sciences and their impact for a more prosperous society. This will lead to a point of view that world problems and their needs are our opportunities. Mr. Rob Jones makes the following point in his response to the above essay: Discussions of “meaningful work” seldom include examples of “meaningless work.” Which is more meaningful: a STEM educated Microsoft coder building responsive applications for video gaming, or a ditch-digger working to bring water to a drought-stricken region? Which should get paid more? Which will have the longer lasting positive effects? We would all too often identify the coder as privileged and elite, yet also assign that job the comparative “meaningfulness” that clouds our reasoning and judgment on the nature of given work and its value. That is why hunger, thirst and poverty abound, alongside obesity and gaming addictions. To solve the problem of hunger, thirst and poverty, eventually someone is going to have to pick up a shovel. That’s pretty much what university level work design should teach…and require

  • The job that the managers need to get done:

Not every manager is an economist or thought leader. Every manager is a hired hand to get the job done. They should certainly strive hard to deploy the “increasingly capable machines that enable and empower people to collaborate more effectively, and make learning from experience scalable.”

They should also remind innovators who work for them of the importance of remembering the essential “job to be done” by their offerings – what is it that customers “hire” your product or service to do for them? Their job is not only to produce better goods and services more efficiently, but to organize individuals to collaborate and create together in unprecedented ways.  The business leaders who get that job done will be those who make the most of human potential, and manage to make prosperity inclusive.

In the DT enabled world is there really a distinction between a manager and worker? Aren’t they merely part of a chain or continuum? May be both the manager and the worker need to start thinking that they are part of the same “system”. In fact in a DT dominated world where  the use and value of every worker is threatened, may be it is better for all workers and at all levels to start thinking of themselves as Technology workers, where “Technology” truly means integration of Science, application of Science (Engineering) and exploitation of Science (Management) in every field. For such workers and pool of workers, the opportunities for meaningful work are limitless. Such workers also become very competent in their Transformational Skills.

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