• Fraser Harper

Flexible Rigidities

Flexible rigidities1 … occupational boundaries and working principles

Take a few minutes to watch someone performing their role at work. Then record what you have seen using the best (digital) work study methods. Now compare your records with what another person at the same workplace doing the same role does. You will find that there will be a series of small differences and possibly some quite significant ones. Now, scale-up your efforts and make comparisons across two, three or four workplaces in the same country, and then across several countries. The differences will probably grow further. In some occupations you would find the differences relatively small because the technology is virtually the same the world over. A good example of similarity would be an airline pilot2. We can also trace similarities in businesses that operate across many international borders e.g. major logistics businesses, the oil exploration and development companies.

The phenomenon of ‘boundary bending’ of occupations and – more especially – jobs, is driven by a range of factors which are important to recognise when using occupation data across international boundaries. We can identify a series of factors which push and shape how boundaries are challenged and change to meet local needs. The main ones are:

  1. Organisation design and structure: key here are the underlying assumptions which drive individual job, group and overall structures – e.g. process versus functionally driven, top down or bottom up job design, working principles like ‘everyone is expected to progress the task’ (the TAS principle – time, ability and safety being the only limitations on what someone can do at work3). When an organisation is process focused, where jobs are designed from the top down (meaning the job holders have as a minimum entry requirement the capability to undertaken the most challenging and potentially the least frequently occurring tasks), and broadly adopt the TAS principle, there is a high likelihood job boundaries will be pushed and breached on a frequent basis4. A parallel theme here is the drive to offer ‘high quality jobs’ across a range of business sectors and types in order to attract and retain staff.

  2. Technology: a major driver here is the level of automation (of all types), and the use of a technology (or, more likely, mix of technologies) used to progress a task or process where the technology is an aid to completion5. Processes that are fully automated and are very reliable can free an individual to focus on monitoring, maintenance and broader improvement activities. However, when the process fails, the job holder is expected to know how to react and to intervene, and then restore the process to a stable state. This situation can arise from a float glass plant to an ethylene cracker and into most offices with IT crashes and security challenges. The ability to solve problems is innately multi-skilled and does not respect traditional occupational boundaries6. And so again, this pulls job holders across multiple boundaries of occupations. A final part of the technology driver is the long-term trend of data and information usage by job holders and which is becoming of ever-increasing importance7.

  3. Resource availability: Most organisations seek to employ the least people they need in order to minimise costs. Most organisations do not have the optimal level of staffing and frequently there is a lag between increasing staffing to meet increased workload. So, current staff work harder, faster and extend the time at work. This approach can cope for a while before either work processes are re-designed along with the jobs, or additional staff are recruited. Often, adding staff is not an easy option as filling vacancies can take several months, which leads back to challenging the work process, job structure, and the deployment of resources (i.e. can the work be externalised?) In the resource constrained environment there is tendency to blur job boundaries and even create fully hybrid roles. Similar pressures exist in those organisations who are contracting and seeking to reconfigure the remaining work across as few people as possible.

  4. Supplier organisations: In general, suppliers of educated and trained people work to generalised occupation profiles and do not seek to meet the very specific needs of employers. Hence working beyond the boundaries of nationally recognised occupations is almost inevitable. This can also be linked to the professionalisation of an occupation and the attempt to create new barriers to entry (often, academic credentials) to elevate the status of the occupation8.

  5. Culture: A final factor is the culture of the organisation and the society in which it operates. In most modern, progressive societies, legislation mandates that employers do not discriminate against specific groups in the labour market and seek to share work with excluded groups e.g. those who are disabled, those who have served a custodial sentence, etc. The spirit and value of engaging with the wider community means that some special provisions might be necessary to accommodate different ranges of ability and potential. This might also include forms of job sharing, different work hour patterns, and remote working9.

Taking these factors together would suggest that most people are working beyond the boundaries of those occupations recognised and classified by most national and international systems. It is also clear that job holders naturally work across job and occupational boundaries when their employer organisation has an ethos of whole task completion and process focus. One of the side effects of this boundary crossing is to enhance job quality and encourage active learning on-the-job. How much time and how many tasks are undertaken beyond the boundary of a job is difficult to say. Studies of the use of working time (despite the development of digital data capture10) are very few and is an area where we need further data capture research across a range of occupations, much as we have for the full use of time across all activities11.


  1. Dore, R.P. (2012) Flexible Rigidities. Industrial Policy and Structural Analysis in the Japanese Economy, 1970-1980. Bloomsbury. 292 pages

  2. An increasing number of occupations require a licence to practice and these often have international application or at least international reciprocal recognition systems. This works across most of the professions (e.g. medicine), in transport and logistics, most chartered engineering roles, finance, etc.

  3. Davis, M.C. et al (2009) “Advancing socio-technical systems thinking: a call for bravery”, Applied Ergonomics, 45 (2) 171-180; Flanders, A.D. (1964) The Fawley Productivity Agreements: A Case Study of Management and Collective Bargaining. Faber, 360 pages; Young, K. (1986) “The management of craft work: a case study of an oil refinery”, British Journal of Industrial Relations, 24 (3), 363-380.

  4. Another approach to the working beyond the boundary of a job is to have some broad rules which encourage extended working 10-15% of the time. Examples of this can be found in the car industry where process (total quality) improvement can be a significant part of the role. Additionally, in highly automated workplaces (e.g. chemical plants) multi-skill technician roles have been created which rotates across operations, maintenance, overall, site services and security roles. The greater the degree of rotation, the greater level of training required to maintain the rotation of roles and the entry back into them after scheduled breaks. In order to maintain this degree of flexibility and skills requires significant training and development input of up to 10% of working time.

  5. McKinsey Global Institute (2019) The Future of Work in America. People and places, today and tomorrow. 124 pages.

  6. Karmos, J.S.; Presley, C.A.; Daniels, M.H. and Karmos, A.H. (1984) “Basis skills for work and living: a model for self-empowerment”, Thresholds in Education – Applied Basics in Education, 10 (3), 5-10. Whilst written over 30 years ago, the core assumptions about the future of work which underlie the key themes of the paper are just as relevant today.

  7. ATC21S (2014) Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills. http://act21s.org ; ETS iSkills (2013) www.ets.org/iskills ; ISTE – International Society for Technology in Education NETS (2013) www.iste.org ; Lisbon Council (2007) Skills for the future. Lisbon Council, Brussels. www.lisboncouncil.net/component/downloads/?id=214 ; Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2013) http://www.p21.org

  8. Pew Research Center (2016) The State of American Jobs. 95 pages – see Page 83 on the “credential gap” where people perceive that they can’t enter an occupation because they don’t possess a particular credential (e.g. a degree) yet have the experience and competence to undertake the role.

  9. Dore, R. (1994) Incurable unemployment: a progressive disease of modern societies? Occasional Paper No 6, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE, 28 pages.

  10. Bittman, M. (2016) Looking into the black box of employment: the ‘intensive hour’ approach to time spent in employment-related activities. Centre for Time Use Research, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford. 32 pages; there are a series of one-off studies like the one done by www.vouchercloud.com who surveyed 1989 office employees who were 18+ in age and they found that of an average 8 hour day there was only 2 hours 53 minutes being productively used. Likewise www.tempo.io looked at negative productivity factors and found the main ones taking people away from their prime tasks being: fixing other people’s work (54%), office politics (47%), waiting on a project from a co-worker (42%), work meetings or events (42%), and administrative work (33%). Almost all of the solutions to improve productivity are around changing job boundaries and workflow management.

  11. Fisher, K. and Gershuny, J. (2016) Multinational Time Use Study. Users’s Guide and Documentation. Centre for Time Use Research, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford. 162 pages. This work has now moved to UCL and is based in the Institute of Education.

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