Saturday, December 05, 2009

Good Work Defined

What is work really? And when is work good? How about these definitions:

Work: An activity you engage in for some extrinsic purpose. You want the the fruits of your labor: The coconuts picked, the grain harvested, the wages earned, the social status obtained.

Play: An activity you engage in for its own sake. It carries intrinsic rewards. You do it because it's fun.

Good work: When your work contains 100% play. It's fun to do.
You still need those extrinsic things (salary, status, etc.) but if they were provided to you by other means, you'd still do the work.

Bad work: When your work contains 0% play. You do it exclusively for the extrinsic rewards. If they were provided to you some other way, you'd drop the work.

As is evident, these definitions point to a goal for work redesign: Work must become like play.

Afterhought: We need to work in a moral dimension, though. We can't recommed that people do work they feel is fun if it is socially destructive (predatory lending, coke dealing).

Another problem with this definition: Do such traders really find their work intrinsically satisfying, or do they do for the sky-high salaries and bonuses? Well, who knows? It's probably a mix of the adrenaline kick from a successful deal, the camaraderie in the trading room, the respect of their peers, and many other things. The definition above may be fine in the abstract; the tough thing is to sort out, in practice, which of our motivations are extrinsic and which are intrinsic to the work at hand. Is group belongingness intrinsic to work that must be carried out in a group, like operating a large vessel? It may be intrinsic; however, the chatter and bonding that workers engage in while operating a bottling conveyor belt seems extrinsic; they probably chat and bond just as well during breaks.

A major problem: For the definition of "good work" to work, we cannot accept just anyone's experience of what constitutes play, or we would end up recommending coke dealing as good work if a bunch of coke dealers happened to feel it was intrinsically rewarding to deal coke. So we need to institute a moral person to do the experiencing: Work that a responsible and morally mature person would experience as intrinsically rewarding (hence fun) is what we would recommend as a goal for work redesign. Jeez, that's a little complicated. But, hell, probably no different from other social theory, which often presupposes a "sensible person" to do the judging and valuing.


Mike Gottschalk said...

Ib, your observation leads me to the question, what differentiates adult play from childhood play?

And further along this line, the narration behind nature films that show animal cubs in play, talk about their play preparing them for their life in the wild; so how does human play differ from other animal play? And, is the context of civilization different than the context of nature?

Ib Ravn said...

Well, Mike, thanks for your question, but I'm no expert on play per se. What concerns me here is activity undertaken for its own sake, and that is one characteristic of play. There must be many others. But in this regard, play is a useful contrast to mind-numbing work, and the juxtaposition of play and work is thought-provoking, don't you think?