The Road to Virtual – A Blog Series: VII – The How and the Why of Work

The Road to Virtual – A Blog Series: VII – The How and the Why of Work

Written by Gary McGillicuddy, Birches Group Managing Partner


Catch up on the last blog here: Let There Be Light


There really should be no mystery as to the components of work which come together to form teams. Literally for millennia this has been taking place. It is in vogue today to speak of “agile” organizations as if this is some breakthrough insight. Again, nothing new. In 480 BC, the Greeks, led by Themistocles, defeated the Persian navy at the battle of Salamis. Why?, they were more agile. Outnumbered overwhelmingly, they adapted tactics and had better, more agile vessels. Some historians believe that the battle of Salamis is the most significant naval engagement in history for by defeating the Persians, the Greek city states were able to evolve and bring a crazy idea like democracy into existence. Oh yes, despite his triumph, Themistocles was eventually exiled from Athens and ended up living in the Persian court, only illustrating the axiom that no good deed goes unpunished.

Agility in organization design was historically the only advantage that opposing forces could possibly muster from the Roman phalanx through to Mongol horsemen and archers led by Genghis Khan to Nelson at Trafalgar.  Technology played a much smaller role. We seem to have forgotten this. 

The principles of job evaluation and design are centuries old. The significant differences which demark levels of work and those characteristics which establish equivalence across different occupations have been well established and practiced while at the same time in recent times they have been distorted and obscured.

In the modern office, since the 1950s, organizations have employed job evaluation approaches that have refined and segmented the analysis of work to the point that only highly trained analysts could accurately assess job placement. The creation of point-rating methodologies became the zenith of this evolution, providing a quasi-scientific patina to what otherwise can be accomplished with some simple guidelines and a little common sense. While appearing to be “scientific”, in reality this dense layering only added complexity without bringing clarity.

I know this to be true since I have served for many years as a high priest of the old ways and a radical heretic trying to shine a light and spread the word on the true nature of job evaluation. We have forgotten the centuries long journey on how humankind has evolved its understanding of what is knowledge and how do teams actually form into coordinated complementary work units. The tragedy of modern job evaluation is that is has replaced clarity regarding the progression of knowledge with an artificial construct that is focused not on the demands of the job but the processes which govern and control its execution.

 I have come to learn that if we are to free staff and managers from the current rigid grade structures, we must first reveal clearly what is the basis for the progression of work represented in the grading system, and once empowered with this knowledge, hold everyone accountable for sustaining its integrity. 

The design of the Birches Group approach for assessing and illustrating job value rests on three simple factors which build from a core focused on purpose and augment this understanding with context related to engagement and delivery.

With these three factors, an evaluative framework is created where it is possible to establish clearly the role of the job and its placement in the grade structure.

These three factors form the foundation of our Community™ platform which begins with job evaluation and moves to provide an integrated framework supporting market analysis, skills assessment and performance management. Starting with job evaluation, the three factors are used to provide illustrative milestones which define the progression of work from its most simple through to senior management. These milestones are presented for the three factors in the table below.

Working with this progression, Birches Group has further refined the organization of work roles into four distinctive clusters which provides a useful demarcation of the focus of work as the levels progress. These clusters are presented below.

The clusters help provide greater clarity on work roles and how these roles fit into an overall team structure. What the clusters illuminate is the fundamental underlying structure of all organizations, the relationship between process and design or even more simply between roles which focus on how work gets done and roles which focus on why work gets done.  This relationship between how and why is critical to the successful operation of any organization. And while technology may have impacted levels of resources and approaches, the fundamental need to have a balance in any institution between the how and the why remains lies at the heart of success.

The focus of the how roles is more clearly presented in the illustration below. These roles are undergoing radical change as technology has reduced the need for staffing and has led to other innovations. However, whether done in a labor intensive internally or as an outsourced service, good process management aligned with organization mission is as important as always.

The How Roles

When aligned with job roles that support why work gets done, an organization achieves synergy and balance. The why roles give the organization its purpose and define what is unique in its existence and what it has to offer which distinguishes it from all other organizations.  Illustrated below, the why roles in the design and leadership clusters are the core knowledge of the organization.

The Why Roles

The Community™ model provides a simple but powerful platform which illustrates the interconnected nature of work and clearly showing the distinctive nature at each level and role as work progresses. Gone are the sub-segmented approaches and the focus on the internal over purpose found in “modern” job evaluation. With Community™ we have returned to the universal and timeless aspects of work that has brought teams together for centuries.

Through this approach, it is now possible to more simply and explicitly construct jobs and begin effective linkage to the individuals that actually carry out the work. We are learning that with the need to be more creative, work more virtually, this linkage needs to be enforced outside and apart from classic office structure.

In the next blog post we will address the basic currency of work, the job description, and how we can take what is usually a poorly written document and make it the cornerstone of human resource management.  Can’t wait to share this.


Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world

posted on April 30, 2020 / Blog, Featured