Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Job and organisation sculpting

One question I was asked in Dubai was whether I supported job sculpting. And of course, I do.

The approach was first described by Timothy Butler and James Waldroop in the Harvard Business Review.

They suggest that organisations need to understand their talent better than they know themselves –and then use that information to customize the careers of their dreams:

"Strong skills don’t always reflect or lead to job satisfaction. Many professionals, particularly the leagues of 20- and 30-somethings streaming out of today’s MBA programs, are so well educated and achievement oriented that they could succeed in virtually any job. But will they stay? The answer is, only if the job matches their deeply embedded life interests. These interests are not hobbies – opera, skiing, and so forth – nor are they topical enthusiasms, such as Chinese history, the stock market, or oceanography.

Instead, deeply embedded life interests are long-held, emotionally driven passions, intricately entwined with personality and thus born of an indeterminate mix of nature and nurture. Deeply embedded life interests do not determine what people are good at – they drive what kinds of activities make them happy. At work, that happiness often translates into commitment. It keeps people engaged, and it keeps them from quitting."

The only organisation I've been connected with that uses this approach to any depth is Microsoft. There, they seem to be as keen to build a role around an individual, as they do, to fit someone to a particular need.

But it strikes me as a common sense, intuitively right approach for any organisation that's serious about its talent / managing people for human capital / truly believes that 'people are its most important asset'. You wouldn't buy a piece of machinery and then leave its most important functionality turned off, would you? (Actually, thinking about it, I wonder if most people's use of their mobile phones or TV recorders is a good analogy for the way most organisations manage their people?).

However, time has moved on since Butler's and Waldroop's article was published, and I wonder if there is a need for something more - perhaps organisation sculpting? Building a whole organisation around the needs of its people, rather than simply its customers?

We looked at moving in this direction when I was at Ernst & Young. We wanted to ensure we were really operating as an employer of choice, and this meant providing better development and more interesting roles than our competitors could do. We couldn't do this by courses or by bolting experiences onto the side of someone's job. We could only do it by actually changing what they did.

We understood that the worst parts of someone's role was working on types of projects or types of clients they didn't enjoy or didn't develop in. So we moved away from these types of clients and projects to give people the best experience we could. In a sense, we built the organisation around what what we needed to do to get the best talent, rather than building it to fit a particular external need.

But I think there's much more organisations could do to develop this approach. Anyone know of any more examples?


  1. And why can't we design our value proposition around our people?

    Let us imagine a farmer who has a farm. S/he begins with the nature of the land, the climate, the markets...

    We can start with people and go where that leads us.

    No one begins with customers - we all begin with something else and then start tweaking what we are doing to fit our perception of who will buy from us!

  2. I think this "sculpting approach" can be developed in organic organizations. Those are more flexible and because of their coordination mechanisms roles can be modified easily.
    In Mintzberg's typology (, Simple Structure, Adhocracy and Political Form. Maybe some organizations based on a professional bureaucracy (your Ernst & Young example) can be implemented too.

  3. Just ran across this great post. I thought you might find the one I posted interesting...

  4. Thanks Tim, I've still got to do a review on your supply chains book at some point...


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