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What Is Work?

In the age of artificial intelligence, the answer to a more optimistic future may lie in redefining work itself

John hagel and Maggie Wooll

Work, as an idea, is both familiar and frustratingly abstract. We go to work, we finish our work, we work at something. It’s a place, an entity, tasks to be done or output to achieve. It’s how we spend our time and expend our mental and physical resources. It’s something to pay the bills, or something that defines us. But what, really is work? And from a company’s perspective, what is the work that needs to be done? In an age of artificial intelligence, that’s not merely a philosophical question. If we can creatively answer it, we have the potential to create incredible value. And, paradoxically, these gains could come from people, not from new technology.

Since the dawn of the industrial age, work has become ever more transactional and predictable; the execution of routine, tightly defined tasks. In virtually every large public and private sector organisation, that approach holds: thousands of people, each specialising in certain tasks, limited in scope, increasingly standardised and specified, which ultimately contribute to the creation and delivery of predictable products and services to customers and other stakeholders. The problem? Technology can increasingly do that work. Actually, technology should do that work: Machines are more accurate, they don’t get tired or bored, they don’t break for sleep or weekends. If it’s a choice between human or machines to do the kind of work that requires compliance and consistency, machines should win every time. But what if work itself was redefined? What if we shifted all workers’ day-to-day time, effort, and attention away from standardised, transactional, tick-the-box tasks to instead focus on higher-value activities, the kind machines can’t readily replicate? And to let them do it in a way that engages their human capabilities to create more and more value? More to the point, why aren’t many companies recognising the opportunity to engage employees in work that creates more value, individually and operationally, and may be future-proof? The reality is that our long-held views of what constitutes work are reinforced and amplified by institutional structures far beyond the individual. Fundamentally changing the work people do is tremendously challenging.


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July 2019