What is the Meaning of Work? I guess many of us have been raising this question over time. I have just recently celebrated my 20th anniversary of working, yet the true meaning of work can be sometimes difficult to grasp. For sure, Work is a foundational element in the lives of every individual. For many, it is the defining element of one’s life. In Work, we see the connector between individual passions and ambitions, personal realisation, economic prosperity and sometimes higher aspirations. Yet we also connect the concept of Work to exploitation, fatigue, demotivation, poverty and fight for survival. The search for better working conditions is probably the single most crucial push for Human Migrations in the last century.
Work is also the main connecting point between Individuals and Organisations, which is why the concept of Work itself is attracting my interest in recent time. I have already written a few months ago a long article about the necessity to Reinvent Work as a concept, and I have concentrated there on a few facts that today, affect the perception of Work and its Value.
Since that post, however, I have continued my investigation around the concept of the Intentional Organisation. I am more and more convinced that real advancement in organisation design and performance can only come from the realisation of the Flows of Meaning of Work and Meaning of Value that each organisation triggers, in most cases unconsciously.
With this research effort, I will concentrate on the right side of the scheme in figure one, trying to explore the exchange of Worth and Significance that the Meaning of Work carries. We will also learn that it is not possible to identify one “best” meaning of Work, as this relates to the specific relationship between organisations and workers. An element that is immediately visible when we think at the ties that non-profit organisations can establish with volunteers: the meaning of Work there is different than the that of a traditional employment setting. I plan to do a similar investigation in the future on the sense of Value.
Merely accepting the General Accepted Meaning of Work is misleading, especially because, as we will see, we are at a cleavage point between two particular Discourses of Work. Investigating Work is, however, a daunting task. A lot of what has been written on the topic over the last century belongs to a specific discourse. Work is often seen as the currency of social class warfare. Trying to evade from that perspective is not easy, and although a lot has been researched on the topic, still there is not a holistic view of the concept of Work that would satisfy me.
I guess many of you would share some of these questions. I will try to answer at least some of these if you have the patience to read the results of this research.
Work can be defined in multiple ways, and browsing through any dictionary will find different angles on the same topic, together with its nearest synonym: Labour. Let’s see a couple of them.
First of all, Work can be seen as an intentional activity people perform to support themselves, others, or the needs and wants of a wider community. This definition is useful, as it looks at the intentionality of this activity, as well as the objective of supporting ones’ lifestyle. Another view comes from the field of classic economics, whereby Labour is seen as the human activity that contributes (along with other factors of production) towards the goods and services within an economy.
Both definitions are, however, restrictive. The word Work, and similar words in all other languages (lavoro in Italian, travail in French, Arbeit in German, trabajo in Spanish and so on), often refer to many different meanings (I am excluding the concept of Work in physics):
There are probably few words that are so rich of a differentiated set of meanings. Somehow this richness reflects also the different types of Work, and the various individual and social experiences that Work has exerted over history. I will be dedicating a first consistent part of this investigation on the changing meaning of Work across human’s history, as well as at the different discourses that Work has been associated with.
I’m here introducing the concept of Generally Accepted Meaning. The idea is based on the concept of General Accepted Principles, that, for example, is applied for Accounting. These are not scientifically demonstrated principles, or elements that are thoroughly mandated by law, but rather several shared norms that have developed over time through application. Often these standards are enforced in their application by a body like the FASB in the case of accounting principles.
With this expression, I want to underline the fact that rarely this “shared meaning” is challenged. In modern society, for example, we take for granted that Work is, typically, part of a contractual relationship between an employer and an employee. This construct, however, is, historically, pretty recent.
By merely accepting this construct without interrogating on the nature of Work, means that organisations are often losing the potential to establish priority in defining new chains of Worth and Significance. A part of the so-called new economy has tried to challenge some of this structure, for example with the expanding reality of gig workers. But we often try to understand the unknown, by using dimensions of the past.
The topic of the Meaning of Work is too complex and multifaceted to fit just one article. I have therefore decided to split this essay over several items, that I will (hopefully) publish on a weekly frequency.
As usual, this is very much a work in progress, so I will particularly welcome any idea, suggestion and feedback you might have. Please use the Comments form here or after each article to provide your inputs, or get back in touch with me.
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