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Cracking the Job Role Code: The Science of Knowledge, Skills, and Agency in Job Roles



This is the detailed version of the post on Linkedin: Decoding the Anatomy of a Job Role: A Guide to Thriving at Work

As the world of work continues to rapidly evolve, it is becoming increasingly important to have a clear understanding of what a job role entails. This article argues that every job role is ultimately about solving problems that are always related to human beings and ideally doing so in a creative way. This concept is universal and applies across all professions, industries, and organizational structures.

Instead of simply carrying out a set of tasks or responsibilities, individuals in different job roles should be viewed as problem-solvers who offer specific products or services, whether that be their expertise or labor, to address challenges and fulfill needs within their organization. This approach places a greater emphasis on creativity and problem-solving, rather than just completing a list of duties.

The Anatomy of Problem-Solving in Job Roles

Every job role is crafted to tackle distinct categories of problems. Hence, the resolution of these problems becomes the primary objective or, one could argue, the raison d’être of the role. Problem-solving in this context hinges on two critical aspects:

  • The Problem: This encapsulates understanding who the customer is and pinpointing their specific needs or issues that require resolution.

  • The Solution: Here, the focus shifts to what you — as an individual or organization — bring to the table in terms of products or services that can solve the identified problem.

Anatomy’s First Layer — Knowing: Information processing

The first and foundational layer in this anatomical construct is domain knowledge.

These two aspects mentioned earlier — problem and solution — are tethered to specialized bodies of knowledge, or what I refer to as ‘domains’. The primary utility of domain knowledge lies in its capacity to guide sense-making and decision-making processes.

The Role of Sensory Data in Decision-Making

When immersed in a real-world situation, our sensory organs continually gather data — from actual words being spoken to the tonal nuances in a conversation, ambient sounds, or visible physical objects. It is here that decision-making first kicks in; it facilitates what stimuli you elect to attend to and, subsequently, the interpretation of these selected stimuli, enabling you to make sense of the situation at hand. This sense-making serves as the cornerstone for both framing the problem and generating potential solutions.

To ensure shared understanding, I’ll provide a short overview of what I mean by knowledge. As you read through my overview, think about examples of the knowledge types in your current professional domain of practice.

Types of Domain Knowledge

Factual Knowledge

  • Data Points: Foundational facts, key dates, or statistics that inform basic understanding within a domain.

  • Terms: Specialized vocabulary that is crucial for accurate communication and understanding in a specific field.

Conceptual Knowledge

  • Concepts: Core ideas that act as the fundamental building blocks for understanding specific problems or generating solutions within a domain.

  • Models: Abstract or simplified representations that offer insights into complex systems or relationships specific to the field.

  • Frameworks: Comprehensive structures that organize and correlate various types of information or ideas, aiding in decision-making and problem-solving.

Procedural Knowledge

  • Methods: Established processes or approaches for achieving specific outcomes, relevant to the domain.

  • Techniques: Specialized tactics or strategies that are integral to problem-solving within the field.

  • Algorithms: Prescriptive sets of instructions tailored to address particular problems, particularly pertinent in technical roles.

  • Best Practices: Widely acknowledged procedures or strategies that have proven effective and efficient within the domain.

Theoretical Knowledge

  • Theories: Sets of principles that offer explanatory power for observed phenomena and can inform predictive models within a domain.

  • Paradigms: Frameworks of basic beliefs and methodologies that govern inquiries and problem-solving approaches within a field.

  • Laws: Universal or near-universal principles that consistently hold true, often crucial in scientific or technical domains.

  • Hypotheses: Testable propositions that are derived from theories, serving as focal points for investigation or problem-solving.

Principle-Based Knowledge

  • Principles: Foundational truths or laws that offer guiding frameworks for decision-making and problem-solving.

  • Axioms: Assumptions considered self-evidently true, forming the bedrock for logical reasoning within a domain.

  • Postulates: Preliminary assumptions that set the stage for subsequent inquiry or problem-solving.

Tacit Knowledge

  • Intuition: Subconscious understanding or ‘gut feelings’ derived from extensive experience within a domain.

  • Experience: Cumulative understanding acquired through hands-on involvement, invaluable for nuanced problem-solving.

  • Expertise: Mastery of highly specialized skills or knowledge, accrued over time and critical for high-level problem-solving.

Ethical/Moral Knowledge

  • Values: Intrinsic beliefs that serve as ethical compasses for behavior and decision-making within a field.

  • Norms: Shared convictions about what constitutes acceptable or appropriate actions within a domain.

  • Ethical Frameworks: Structured systems for ethical decision-making, relevant to balancing stakeholder needs and interests.

Defining Organizational Domains of Problems and Solutions

Problems arise within specific domains characterized by evolving bodies of knowledge — encompassing factual, conceptual, procedural, theoretical, principle-based, tacit, and ethical/moral categories. This domain-specific knowledge is vital for understanding, framing, and ultimately resolving problems.

Similarly, the solutions to these problems are embedded within domains defined by comparable sets of ever-changing knowledge. Domain knowledge for solutions is indispensable for idea generation and solution formulation.

Organizational Structure Through This Lens

To envision how this applies to an organizational setup, consider the following:

  • Departments: These are the building blocks of the organization, defined based on structural needs.

  • Business Department: Unique in its role, this department directly addresses the problems of external customers rather than internal departments.

  • Other Departments: These units work to solve issues for the business, and by extension, the customer. They also solve problems for other departments, thus enabling them to be more effective in serving the business and the customer.

Development Approaches for Domain Knowledge

To cultivate this crucial aspect of domain knowledge, two development pathways can be considered:

Education

This approach targets the acquisition of factual, conceptual, procedural, theoretical, and principle-based knowledge. It relies on a body of reputable, validated sources current to the time of learning.

Learning from Experiences with Reflective Practice

This focuses on tacit and ethical/moral knowledge. It necessitates specific conversational frameworks to surface this knowledge for deliberate application in professional roles.

Anatomy’s Second Layer — Doing: Action-Oriented Processes

Beyond domain knowledge, the second layer of the anatomy centers on actions and activities aimed at problem comprehension, idea generation, and solution implementation. The emphasis here is on actionable tasks and deliverables within specified processes, encapsulating the “doing” aspect of the job role.

Actions here refer to what the job role does to solve the problem. A loose adaptation of the double diamond model is used below to outline the actions. It is not intended as a process that is followed but as a way to list various types of actions a job role might perform when operating as a creative problem solver.

As you read through the actions, focus on the cognitive, emotional, and social actions and think about how they manifest in your role. Use the bullets as additional insights into the actions. Remember that these actions are relevant and do apply to any and all job roles, regardless of whether it offers expertise or labor solutions.

Understanding the Situation

Cognitive Actions: Data Synthesis and Problem Exploration with actions like

  • Organizational Contextualization: Understanding the problem within the ecosystem of the organization.

  • Role-Specific Research: Gathering facts, data, and historical solutions that directly relate to the responsibilities and functions of the job role.

  • Analytical Prioritization: Deciding which gathered information has direct bearing on the problem at hand that the role should solve.

Social Actions: Role-Centric Stakeholder Engagement with actions like

  • Interdepartmental Conversations: Facilitating dialogues with other roles or departments that are pertinent to the problem.

  • In-Role Collaborative Ideation: Brainstorming within the constraints and possibilities of the job role.

  • Role-Relevant Social Listening: Tuning into communication channels most relevant to the job role within the organization.

Emotional Actions: Emotional Intelligence within the Role with actions like

  • Role-Specific Openness: Fostering an atmosphere conducive to problem-solving within the parameters of the job role.

  • Empathetic Problem Framing: Understanding the emotional components that may be influencing the problem within the scope of the role.

  • Intrapersonal Reflection: Time to emotionally process the new information within the context of job role expectations.

Pinpointing the Problem

Cognitive Actions: Problem Definition and Objective Setting with actions like

  • Pattern Recognition in Role Context: Identifying recurrent issues or trends that are significant to the problem.

  • Role-Scoped Objectives: Establishing clear, role-relevant goals for problem-solving.

  • Boundary Definition: Specifying the limitations and responsibilities of the job role in solving the problem.

Social Actions: Role-Specific Consensus and Alignment with actions like

  • In-Role Consensus Building: Facilitating agreement within the team and other job roles on the problem definition.

  • Feedback Channels for Role Effectiveness: Instituting regular updates and check-ins related to role-specific tasks.

  • Role-Focused Alignment Meeting: A formal discussion to finalize the problem definition within the scope of the job role.

Emotional Actions: Emotional Resilience and Morale with actions like

  • Role-Based Confidence Building: Ensuring high morale for challenges specific to the job role.

  • Emotional Requirement Validation: Ensuring the problem statement takes into account the emotional demands or tolls of the job role.

  • Role-Centric Mindfulness: Maintaining an emotional balance while focusing on role-specific tasks and issues.

Generating and Testing Solutions

Cognitive Actions: Prototyping and Iteration with actions like

  • Role-Centric Prototyping: Creating models or simulations that are directly applicable to the ‘products and services’ the job role can offer as solutions and related tasks and responsibilities.

  • Solution Testing in Role Context: Evaluating the prototypes with respect to the metrics or KPIs most relevant.

  • Role-Guided Iteration: Refining the solutions based on tests, aligning them with the objectives and constraints.

Social Actions: Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Feedback with actions like

  • Role-Integrated Cross-Functional Workshops: Inviting expertise from various roles for a well-rounded problem-solving session.

  • Intra-Role Peer Reviews: Having job role peers critically assess each other’s problem-solving approaches.

  • Stakeholder or User Testing in Role Context: Seeking external feedback that specifically addresses the role’s output.

Emotional Actions: Emotional Resilience and Curiosity with actions like

  • Role-Focused Frustration Management: Applying coping strategies that are tailored to the unique pressures of the job role.

  • Small-Win Celebrations within Role: Acknowledging and rewarding progress specific to the objectives.

  • Role-Specific Curiosity: Cultivating an attitude of exploration and inquiry from the perspective of the role’s responsibilities and accountabilities.

Implementing Solutions and Solving the Problems

Cognitive Actions: Final Assessment and Transition with actions like

  • Role-Aligned Final Analysis: Comparing the solution with role-based objectives and constraints.

  • Role-Specific Documentation: Creating records that detail the problem-solving process, relevant specifically to the role.

  • Role-Centric Transition Planning: Preparing the implementation or hand-off within the purview of the role’s responsibilities.

Social Actions: Stakeholder Communication and Training with actions like

  • Role-Oriented Stakeholder Presentation: Effectively communicating the final solution to stakeholders in the context of the job role.

  • Role-Specific Training and Onboarding: Preparing internal or external groups for solution adoption, tailored to the responsibilities and objectives of the role.

  • Role-Inclusive Public Release: Announcing the solution to a broader audience, considering the role’s significance and impact.

Emotional Actions: Emotional Closure and Reflection with actions like

  • Role-Specific Closure: Providing an emotional wrap-up that is tailored to the job role’s journey through the problem-solving process.

  • Recognition within Role Context: Celebrating achievements that have a direct impact on the role’s performance.

  • Role-Centric Reflection: Taking time for individual and collective emotional evaluation, focusing on the aspects pertinent to the role.

The list above represents an example of the types of actions performed by a job role seeking creative and innovative solutions to problems. Domain knowledge required has already been discussed in anatomy layer 1. Here the focus is on skills.

So again, to ensure shared understanding, I’ll provide a short overview of what I mean by skills. As you read through the skills, think about how you apply them and how confident you are in them.

Types of Skills

Cognitive Skills

Technical:

  • Data Analysis: The ability to interpret and utilize data effectively.

  • Software Proficiency: Mastery over specific software or platforms.

Intellectual:

  • Critical Thinking: Evaluating information and arguments in a balanced way.

  • Problem-Solving: Identifying issues and developing feasible solutions.

  • Analytical Skills: Breaking down complex problems into smaller, understandable parts.

Creative:

  • Innovation: The ability to generate new ideas or unique approaches.

  • Design Thinking: Using design principles to approach problems and create solutions.

Project Management:

  • Time Management: Efficiently allocating and utilizing time.

  • Resource Allocation: Effectively distributing resources to meet objectives.

Social Skills

Interpersonal:

  • Communication: Effective and clear exchange of information.

  • Conflict Resolution: Mediating disagreements to reach a consensus.

Collaborative:

  • Teamwork: Working well in group settings to achieve common goals.

  • Networking: Building and maintaining a professional network.

Cultural:

  • Cultural Awareness: Understanding and respecting diverse cultural backgrounds and viewpoints.

  • Global Mindset: The ability to operate effectively across different cultural and geographic landscapes.

Emotional Skills

Emotional Intelligence:

  • Self-awareness: Understanding one’s own emotions and reactions.

  • Self-regulation: Managing one’s own disruptive emotions and impulses.

  • Empathy: Recognizing and understanding the emotions of others.

Adaptive:

  • Flexibility: Adapting to new information or circumstances.

  • Resilience: Maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity.

Ethical:

  • Integrity: Upholding moral and ethical principles.

  • Ethical Decision-Making: The ability to make choices based on ethical frameworks and considerations.

Development approaches for skills

In contemplating the skill facet of job role anatomy, skill development can be strategically approached through two avenues.

Knowledge of the Skill: Awareness and Understanding

Skill awareness and understanding are akin to domain-specific knowledge but center on the skills themselves. Like with domain knowledge, this facet requires a dual approach:

  1. Education: This covers theoretical and conceptual understanding of the skills involved. It often involves formal training, courses, or workshops that articulate the scope, limitations, and best practices related to these skills.

  2. Learning from Experiences with Reflective Practice: Practical experience provides the context and nuances that education may not capture fully. Experience offers tacit knowledge, making it invaluable for gaining true skill comprehension.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice refers to intentional, structured exercises aimed at skill mastery. It incorporates:

  1. Micro-Level Practice: These are the granular, task-specific exercises aimed at mastering specific subsets of skills. For example, for a skill like ‘problem-solving,’ micro-level practice might involve repeatedly breaking down complex issues into manageable parts.

  2. Macro-Level Practice: This level involves holistic, scenario-based training that integrates multiple skills in realistic or simulated environments. This aids in not just mastery but also the seamless integration of skills into workflow processes.

  3. Cognitive, Emotional, and Social Competency: The objective is to progress through stages of applied competency in these realms. It isn’t just about knowing how to do something (cognitive), but also knowing when and why to do it (emotional), and how to collaborate or lead effectively in doing so (social).

Anatomy’s Third Layer — Being: Autonomous Decision-Making

This part of the anatomy is about the agency of the individual in solving the problems afforded by the job role.

I feel I need to explain what I mean by the statement above, so let me do that briefly by looking at the key ideas.

Agency

Agency, in social and psychological contexts, refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently, make choices, and exercise free will. The concept is commonly explored in various academic disciplines, including psychology, sociology, and philosophy.

Relation to Capacity and Capability

While both terms ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’ pertain to the abilities or attributes of an individual or system, they are distinct in their implications.

  • Capacity: This term often refers to the maximum amount that something can contain or produce. In the context of an individual, it implies inherent potential or raw ability to perform a task.

  • Capability: This goes beyond inherent potential to include the effective application of skills, knowledge, and experience. Capability is the realized or actionable form of capacity.

By understanding agency in relation to ‘capacity’ and ‘capability,’ one may argue that agency manifests not merely as the inherent potential to act (capacity) but as the realized power to make effective choices and solve problems (capability).

Problems Afforded by the Job Role

Affordance, originally a term from ecological psychology, refers to the possibilities for action that an environment or object offers to an actor. In design and human-computer interaction, the term is often used to describe features or functions that a system makes possible or easy.

Application to Job Role

When I talk about ‘problems afforded by the job role,’ I am referring to the specific sets of challenges or tasks that the role makes possible or necessitates. This is not just about the problems that are to be solved but also about the opportunities for problem-solving that the role inherently contains. In other words, the job role offers a specific landscape of actionable problems that an individual can engage with.

Putting it all together, the statement underscores the empowered role of an individual in effectively tackling the unique set of challenges or opportunities that their specific job role presents. The agency here isn’t just reactive (solving problems as they come) but also proactive (leveraging the ‘affordances’ of the job role to enact meaningful change).

Core Elements of “Being — Autonomous Decision-Making”

Cognitive Agency

  • Decision Autonomy: This refers to the extent to which an individual can independently make choices in problem-solving.

  • Critical Thinking: The ability to apply discernment and analysis to the plethora of information one encounters.

  • Situational Awareness: The capacity to read and interpret the context effectively, enhancing one’s decision-making quality.

Emotional Agency

  • Self-Regulation: The ability to manage one’s emotional responses, particularly in stressful or fast-paced environments.

  • Emotional Intelligence: Understanding not just one’s own emotional landscape but also that of team members, clients, or stakeholders.

  • Motivation: An intrinsic sense of purpose that guides one’s actions and decisions, often aligning with organizational goals.

Social Agency

  • Influence and Leadership: The ability to guide and inspire team members and to shape team culture.

  • Collaboration and Networking: Effective interaction with peers, superiors, and subordinates to collectively arrive at decisions.

  • Conflict Resolution: Navigating interpersonal issues or ideological clashes with the aim of reaching a consensus.

Practical Applications of the Third Layer

Organizational Alignment

  • Developing mechanisms to align individual agency with organizational goals and ethics. This could involve regular training and workshops on ethical decision-making, corporate culture, and organizational expectations.

Assessment and Feedback

  • Implementing comprehensive assessment tools that measure not just knowledge and skill but also elements of agency such as decision-making ability, emotional intelligence, and social skills.

Talent Development Programs

  • Curating programs designed to enhance the third layer of role performance, focusing on leadership skills, emotional intelligence training, and social capital development.

Personalized Career Pathways

  • Using the metrics from assessments to create tailored career development pathways, allowing for a more nuanced approach to talent management and succession planning.

Conclusion

In a rapidly evolving work landscape, dissecting the anatomy of job roles becomes not just an academic exercise but a practical necessity. We have journeyed through the multi-layered facets that constitute a job role, identifying Knowledge, Skills, and Agency as its core building blocks. Each block is uniquely tailored to encapsulate job role capacity and capability requirements for solving specific problems, serving as an integral component in an organization’s ecosystem.

For individuals, a deep understanding of this anatomy facilitates targeted development and intentional career progression. One is empowered not merely to act but to act wisely and efficiently, catalyzing both personal and organizational success.

For organizations, decoding the job role anatomy presents an opportunity for systemic optimization. By designing job roles that emphasize what it means to be human, organizations can foster a closer relationship between role and identity. This in turn drives agency within the role, which is a powerful catalyst for engagement and performance. Such human-centric design enables organizations to construct a talent architecture that is aligned not just with organizational objectives but also with the nuanced needs and problems of their stakeholders, both internal and external.

In summary, a nuanced understanding of job roles through the lens of problem-solving serves as a roadmap for both individual empowerment and organizational efficacy. As we continue to navigate the complexities of the modern workforce, this anatomy can serve as a foundation upon which we build adaptive, resilient, and forward-thinking careers and organizations.

 

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I’m passionate about performance, capability development and capacity expansion, purposefulness and intentionality, success strategies, holistic wellness, meaningful life and work, human+technology, technology as an enabler, music and creative media production techniques and technologies. Reach out, I’m open to a sit down anytime to share ideas over a nice cup of coffee or tea!

 

This article incorporates text generated with the assistance of GPT, an advanced language model developed by OpenAI.

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