Work roles in value creation

Creating value with information requires inherently different mechanisms than those used for creating value with tangible products: New knowledge is born and becomes relevant in interaction, not through transaction. Knowledge is abundant and develops, rather than depletes, in use. Value in information intensive work grows as a function of learning. And because of this, the people involved in value creation are not a resource, but individually meaningful.

Even though this exceptional nature of information and information intensive work is widely accepted, many companies continue to operate within frameworks that do not support value creation in information intensive work. Because information creates value through learning, the key behind updating organizational processes lies in updating the organization’s perception on the individual, learning and the creative process. The concepts an organization carries can be identified through how it defines the individuals who contribute to value creation – does the organization give roles to individuals? What information do these roles contain? What kind of interaction do these roles promote? What kind of communication resides within the role setting?

The very commonplace roles of the employee and the employer or the superior and subordinate typically contain and promote an outdated view of the human mind. Management carries with it the remnants of a behaviorist view of the individual, stemming from the period of industrial economy. When considering the characteristics of value creation in information intensive work, especially the roles of superior and subordinate are impractical. They contain the notion of the employee as a will-less target of management operations. This interpersonal setting strips the subordinate of self-control, autonomy and self-discovered meaning in work, promoting schemes of dependence and helplessness. Success in value creation requires exactly the opposite.

As creation of new knowledge happens in interaction, the quality of the interaction defines the quality and value of the outcomes. Role settings based on an outdated view of the individual contain communication and statements that do not support quality in interaction. “You are incompetent, untrustworthy and replaceable.” This is something that hopefully no manager wants to communicate to his employees. However, in the superior-subordinate setting, this is exactly what is being conveyed. When decision-making is taken to a level separate from expertise, it says: “you are incompetent”. When an organization assigns someone to oversee another’s work it is saying: “you are untrustworthy”. And when an organization assigns work roles to employees it says: “you are replaceable”.

In order for people to be inspired, creative and able to learn, they need to feel that their unique contribution, opinion and decisions are valued. This value is expressed through the communication and structures of the organization. Experiencing work as meaningful is a vital part of energy and motivation at work. This is not possible if people are not trusted with decision-making about the subjects that are working with. It is also not possible if there is no freedom for organizing how and with whom they work.

So what to do? Instead of communicating mistrust and disrespect, try the opposite. The traditional role of management is to control that subordinates are doing what they are told to do. The new role of management should be to enable and empower learning, interaction, creativity and autonomy. As Forbes magazine states, a paradigm shift in management is taking place, and should we even, as Harvard Business Review suggests, fire all the managers?


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Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

The art of interaction, the design of digital and the science of social complexity

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