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Asked what they do, most public servants will talk in terms of positions in the hierarchy, or perhaps reflecting, broadly, the words in their position description.

But work (perhaps I should capitalise it: Work) is a much misunderstood concept, particularly—but not exclusively—in the Australian Public Service. Much work is hidden from formal view, and sometimes from the ‘public face’ of the organisation or sub-organisational group.

We can think of work in in two dimensions, transparency and formality, as set out below. Formal, open work is that described in position statements. Formal, behind-the-scenes work—such as team-building and collaboration—may be acknowledged in position statements.Work and reform

Informal work includes the ‘articulation work’ needed to adjust in the face of shifting, often unexpected circumstances, to work around problems and roadblocks, to deal with the consequences of distributed teams and changing understandings, and to get back on track (Star and Strauss 1999). Articulation work is likely to be non-discretionary—it’s needed to get the job done—but unrecognised.

When there is a misfit between the formal, overt expression of work and the actual work needed, articulation work increases. And as technology changes and cultural norms within the workplace evolve, articulation work increases.

The difficulty for anyone experiencing a reform program is that such reform teams often only acknowledge the formal, overt expression of work—position descriptions, in public service terms. They may acknowledge, even encourage collaboration, but show no awareness of the articulation work needed to support successful change, collaboration, and the constant adjustment of the workplace.

A focus on position descriptions increases the likelihood of misfit, hence greater informal work, especially articulation work.

Granularising work into individual positions perpetuates the production line mentality that tends to prevail in the public service, particularly in the rigid hierarchies of Defence.

It encourages reform efforts to see work as a linear, stepwise production line in which individual components can made more efficient and streamlined—the fallacy of likening work to tyre changes in a pitstop. It focusses on outputs, not outcomes.

Such views of reform completely miss the point. Defence will remain broken until it sheds such rigid, brittle, antiquated strait jackets of thought. That includes the notion prevalent particularly in the military that so long as the process is right, good things automatically follow.

Work is an intensely social activity. It bears all the attributes of any social activity: it is intensely non-linear, involving trial and error, the testing of ideas, artefacts and relations against the expectations of superiors, colleagues, peers and norms, a mix of exploration, confluence and opportunism.

And work is highly contextual: the work—and its convergence of purpose, intensity, support, technologies, skills, experience, personalities, rewards—needed to change a tyre in a pitstop are just that, suited to change a tyre in a pitstop. They don’t easily transfer out of that context.

In contrast to that 60 or six seconds in a pitstop, policy advising and intelligence analysis are—or should be—rigorous, rounded, inquisitive, judgmental and creative. Aside from sitting uncomfortably within bureaucracies, these are attributes are not suited to a production-line, efficiency-oriented, output-focussed mentality.

How should such reform efforts proceed, then? First, the heads of reform programs would be well advised to seek a better understanding of work, of the different types of work and their contexts at a individual, a group and an organisational level. Second, they should avoid the rigidity of position descriptions, and encourage more freedom for teams to devise their own work behaviours. Third, recognition of the existence of articulation work—but not formalising it, as that detracts from adaptability—would help reform program and managers ensure teams and teams members at all levels are better supported.

References

Star, Susan Leigh and Strauss, Anselm (1999), ‘Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work’, Computer Supported Co-operative Work, 8, 9-30.


Very busy–the lead up to the end of financial year and projects to finish.  Somewhere in between, I’m also trying to keep an eye on the Kang Nam, unrest and cultural imperatives in Iran, and readings on CAS and COIN, risk and strategy.

Update: And then there’s Tweets–21st century statecraft vs war crimes.

Some general advice and lessons learned (alas, not by me, though they make uncommonly good sense):

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