When ‘Work’ is no longer work

Enablers and Inhibitors: Assignment Attributes

Assignment Attributes


Units of work have been described differently over time. In earliest times, the activity of work was not differentiated from any other activity that sustained life. Then the industrial age brought in the time and motion studies that propelled ever improving processes that saved time and increased the output of each worker. While industrial engineers and instructional designers continued to decompose work into its most discrete elements to improve productivity or to teach employees the necessary skills, most organizations — and their human resources professionals — have focused most closely on units of work represented as a job. They created job postings to hire people and job descriptions to ensure workers know the range of tasks they will complete in exchange for payment.

To make the shift to working in a talent marketplace, managers, companies, and individuals will need to focus on defining and describing more flexible units of work. They will need to define what we call assignments, a series of activities to achieve a specific outcome completed by any worker who has the reputation, capability, and desire to contract for it. Most organizations have jobs or roles where employees will agree to perform key tasks and “other duties as required.” However, the talent marketplace will support the description of outcomes or singular performances with precise requirements for capabilities, estimated time to complete them, and a price tag for the organization to pay the worker who wins the contract.


The term assignment is meant to provide a more generally valid concept of the allocation of a job or a set of tasks or activities (cf. Wiktionary). It is supposed to capture any potential type of work in any type of working relationship (including both Stable and Agile worlds).

Therefore the very basic definition would read: An assignment is a set of activities directed to achieve a given outcome within a given time.

An assignment encompasses a number of dimensions:

  • The duration of an assignment is by definition flexible and ultimately dependent on the desired outcome. It can be mapped to a continuum from a few minutes all the way to multiple years. The well-known case of the “job role” — in principal an open-ended assignment — is based on the assumption of permanency, it marks one extreme on the continuum.
  • An assignment may require varying levels of time consumption by someone who is allocated to it; the consumption levels may range from very high (beyond what we know as ‘full-time’) to very low (even putting the assignment ‘on hold’ for a period of time). The consumption level is dependent on the dynamics and dependencies inherent to an assignment.
  • Since the desired assignment outcomes are diverse by default the assignment can assume multiple shapes, e.g. developmental assignments to grow specific skills or stretch assignments to explore unknown practice areas.
  • Even though the assignment is directed to achieve an outcome, it is not necessarily (and in the environments we’re focusing on much less likely) fully prescriptive with regard to the activities or tasks to be performed to achieve the outcome. This is not to say that we don’t care how assignments are fulfilled — we do very much — it is all about providing the teams working on the assignments with the freedom to figure out how to best carry them out.
  • An assignment is defined as an entity. It can nevertheless be split up and allocated to a number of different people (e.g. a team) which may or may not belong to the same organization — an assignment allocated to a single person is just one out of many possible cases, which does include the option of allocating an assignment or part of it to a machine.

Assignment Attributes in an Agile Environment

Agile environments require much greater levels of maturity with regard to an organization’s ability to create assignments — moving away from the much broader definition of a job — and allocate resources to fulfill them. The talent marketplace as a common platform will…

allow for an organization

  • To offer the assignments needed to execute a given business strategy in a standardized way and
  • Search and find individuals, leaders and teams to be allocated to these assignments on the same platform

allow for an individual

  • To offer their experience, engagement and productivity on a common platform and
  • Find assignments matching their aspirations and needs on the same platform

The benefits for individual include

  • All open assignments are visible and accessible
  • Freedom to choose the work assignment that best fits personal aspirations and needs
  • Professional reputation and track-record of leaders offering assignments is transparent
  • Professional reputation and track-record of others working on assignments is transparent
  • Ability to fully own individual career moves
  • Ability to ensure employability by viewing assignment trends in the market place

The benefits for the organization include

  • All individuals within the organization are visible — including their professional track-record and their professional reputation
  • Ability to identify individuals that fit best to a given assignment, anywhere in the world
  • Ability to assemble teams short-notice
  • Access to a greater pool of diverse talent fitting assignments requirements
  • Visibility on current expertise and capabilities and future gaps across the talent pool providing the ability to design and deploy dedicated development interventions
  • Transparency on professional reputation of leaders, teams and individuals

To enable a marketplace approach the assignment-parameters will have to entail a basic set of information about:

  • The start-date of an assignment and its planned duration
  • The objectives/ desired assignment outcomes
  • The expected commitment needed to accomplish the assignment — e.g. full time/ part time/ estimated number of days
  • The customer (internal/ external) the assignment is serving
  • The experience/ expertise/ attitudes required to successfully fulfill the assignment
  • The assignment leader (his/her professional reputation and track-record)
  • The team members (their professional reputation and track-record) already engaged for the assignment (if any).

What will it take to transition your organization?

It is important for an organization to understand where it currently falls and desires to be on a spectrum of levers that impact how the transition to an assignment-based environment will be shaped. Below are a few areas to consider and our view on their evolution’s direction from a stable into the agile future state (the sliders shown are examples from a company assessment). The future state depends mainly on the business model, business strategy and the market environment of the organization.

The Intertwined Nature of Enablers and Inhibitors

Assignment attributes by themselves, however, do not make an agile environment. Interdependencies with other enablers and inhibitors play a key role in the organization’s integrated eco-system. Find below our view on the relative importance and interdependency of both internal and external enablers/inhibitors. The company’s journey and current environment will impact where it wishes to focus to become more agile in its approach to assignment attributes.

A assignment based environment will

  • Require significantly more flexibility of reward and recognition systems. Assignments come along with their price — which will vary based on urgency and importance of the assignment and the availability of talent to work on the assignment — transforming the way we reward and pay people in corporations
  • Drive transparency of the professional reputation of the market players since it will become the “ticket” to an engagement
  • Be closely tied to the introduction of people attributes — because both represent the two sides of the same coin named marketplace
  • Support more just-in-time and on-the-job types of training and learning — empowered by AI-recommendations
  • Disrupt the employee lifecycle as we know it since the ‘cycle’ restarts with every assignment and evolves itself into a journey through multiple assignments
  • Strongly influence new requirements for managerial roles — focusing on three areas: breaking down strategic goals into assignments; assembling and forming high-performing teams short notice; coaching teams to their strengths
  • Depend on a culture that is supportive of the approach and vice versa drive a flattened networked organizational structure

Four external drivers are strongly influencing assignment-based environments:

  • Even though not necessarily a prerequisite emerging technologies like collaboration tools and — very soon — VR and AR are the most important enablers and drivers for assignment-based environments. They allow for speed, transparency and accessibility in the talent marketplace and enable virtual teams across company and national borders.
  • Digitalization and the VUCA business and societal environments are forcing organizations to create more agile and responsive ways of working.
  • Automation and robotics in concert with AI have the potential to replace millions of jobs in the next decade — and with it the notion of a job as such. Hence the urgency for alternative collaboration and employment models.
  • Finally, the increased transparency of labor markets through platforms like upwork.com or freelance.com has already created assignment-based marketplaces with strong growth rates empowering talent to try out new ways of working — and raising their expectations with regard to employers.

Potential Hazards to Guard Against

It is equally important to assess hazards and hinge factors that could disrupt a re-imagined approach to assignment-based environments. Here are some key areas for consideration:


There will always be specific assignments (e.g. innovation work) that cannot be made visible to the entire talent population to protect intellectual property/ competitive advantage.

Equally it is important to understand who is currently benefitting from the of lack of transparency, which characterizes many as-is assignment-offering and resource-allocation processes. Otherwise one runs at risk of not being prepared to manage the dynamics which will be caused by making them more transparent.

Assignment Allocation

With allocation-transparency comes the need to ensure fairness in the way in which talent is selected and appointed, to minimize individual bias or retaliation.

Assignment Pricing

The marketplace will need to ensure that less-attractive assignments (e.g. low-visibility/low-complexity vs. high-visibility/high-complexity work) are also being ‘sold’ — e.g. by increasing the reward.

Platform Design

The design of the marketplace platform needs to start from a User Experience perspective and therefore be based on the right balance between simplicity and effectiveness to stimulate user acceptance and impact.

Platform Design

In an assignment-based organization managers should be able to translate the organizational strategy and goals into the work-to-be-done to execute them and — of course — to manage work by transposing it into assignments.

Transformational Trajectory

How could the journey from a stable world into an agile one unfold?

The key states and the related activities are:


  • Analyze and understand the Business environment (volatility/ unpredictability/ disruption)
  • Identify the impact of a globalized Talent and Labour Marketplace transparency
  • Assess technologies contributions and opportunities: ubiquity of broadband, devices, collaboration applications
  • Sense the changing societal values (work-life blurredness, meaningful work, demographic change)


  • Define the strategic impacts on traditional organizational design requirements
  • Set a two horizon technology/ digitalization/ automation assessment for your architectures and infrastructures)
  • Assess your cultural maturity/ savviness
  • Establish an early-prototyping environment, doing experimentation, testing, and validation of your hypotheses


  • Start with pockets within a project-driven organization with urgent/ important business demand (e.g. agile teams, consulting services)
  • Provide core platform functionalities based on a robust architectural framework (including data model/ infrastructure/ end-devices/ user experience/ mobility)
  • Partner with regulatory bodies to develop playbooks
  • Fuel self-sustainability


  • Evolve as business needs evolve
  • Shortened improvement loops
  • Set analytics to identify areas for automation
  • Showcase business (impact) and talent (employability/ autonomy) benefits
  • Establish lower walls to / network with external marketplaces
  • Turn risks into innovation opportunities


  • Get ready for a Blockchain-powered global marketplaces
  • Transition to “wirearchies”
  • Implement AI powered allocation/ learning
  • Experience VR/AR becoming a commodity — allowing for improved collaboration experience and
  • Leverage the full power of IoE/IoT driving decentralization of business models and economies as such

Questions to Get Started

In an environment where many factors are changing at once, here are a few simple questions to help assess whether moving to an assignment based environment is a primary area for an organization to focus on or if other enablers and inhibitors must be addressed first…

Customer/ Business Strategy

What level of agility and flexibility does your business model/ your business strategy require from your workforce? Are you facing an increased number of short-term high-priority customer requests? What level of cross-functional/ cross-geo collaboration and innovation does your business model/ your business strategy require?


Are you facing an increasing number of reorganizations? Are you challenged with a growing number of re-skilling initiatives? Are you experiencing an increase of involuntary layoffs and hiring-peaks in the same period?

Employee Experience

Are you facing an increase of voluntary terminations/ attrition rates? Are employee engagement scores are going down with regard to development/ career opportunities?

There are 7 other fundamental factors that will enable or inhibit the transformation… View the entire article here