Designing jobs that motivate and enable people to develop


Steven T. Hunt, Ph.D.

Chief Expert

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My new book “Talent Tectonics: Navigating global workforce shifts, building resilient organisations, and reimagining the employee experience1” discusses how work is being reshaped by forces of digitalisation and demographic change. Digitalisation accelerates the rate of change employees face and increases the need to build new skills. Demographic changes caused by increasing lifespans and declining birth rates have created a point where the number of people aging out of many labor markets exceeds the number of people entering them. Taken together, these forces make ongoing career development critical to the survival of companies and the job security of employees.

When people think about employee development, they often focus on development plans, allocating time for learning, or giving access to training courses. These things tend to have limited impact. Career development planning solutions are among the least used features in talent management platforms. Learning professionals struggle with employees not completing training courses2. Giving employees dedicated time for learning has very mixed results3. Employees say they value development, so why is it difficult to get them to use these resources? The answer is because these things take people out of the flow of work. They create a feeling that development is separate and may even compete with time being productive.


To solve this problem, learning must be built into work, and jobs must integrate employee productivity and employee development. This requires setting job goals that balance organisational value and developmental value. Organisational value reflects how important a goal is to the company. Goals high in organisational value are the most important part of an employee’s job. Goals low in organisational value not as critical. Developmental value reflects how much a goal exposes the employee to unfamiliar situations that require building new skills or applying existing skills in new ways. Goals with low developmental value are things an employee has done before. They may not be easy to achieve, but they involve familiar activities. The greatest levels of development happen when employees are given goals high in organisational and developmental value. These goals create learning through on-the-job experiences4. For example, the best way to help an employee develop project management skills is to give them an important project to manage and then support them with learning the skills they need to be successful.

A challenge is defining people’s jobs in a way that maximises developmental value without overwhelming them. To achieve this balance is to have managers and employees put job goals into 4 categories.

Business driven development goals are high in organisational and developmental value. These are things employees must do for work that require them to gain new experiences and develop new skills. However, they tend to be mentally demanding. They require learning how to do the work while getting the work done simultaneously.

Functional goals are high in organisational value but low in developmental value. Functional goals allow employees to contribute to the organisation by focusing on important but familiar tasks. They give employees a sense of confidence and value. The disadvantage is they do not push employees to develop new capabilities. People with too many functional goals may feel they are “stuck in a rut” doing the same things over and over.


Self-driven development goals are low in organisational value but high in developmental value. These goals allow employees to take developmental risks since failure will not have a major impact on the business. Their disadvantage is employees never get around to these goals because they are not important. I refer to these as “books I want to read” goals.

Under-utilisation goals are low in organisational and developmental value. These goals may have once had more value but it declined over time. It may make sense to eliminate or reassign these goals. A low value goal for one employee might be a challenging goal for another employee with less experience.

Based on my experience, the optimal goal mix is approximately 45% business driven development, 45% functional, 10% personal development, and 0% under-utilisation.

If companies want to future-proof their workforce, they need to structure jobs with the future in mind. Developmental job design creates a work environment where employees learn new things while adding value to the company. This also reduces the likelihood of employees losing their jobs due to digitalisation. As a general rule, once a person can learn to master a task then a machine can learn to copy them. A friend asked me what they could do to avoid losing their job to a robot. My answer was, “Structure your role so you are always being challenged to learn new things. Careers that involve constant learning are the least likely to be eliminated by automation.”

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