Daniel Lemire's blog

, 12 min read

Transemployment: creating jobs out of thin air

11 thoughts on “Transemployment: creating jobs out of thin air”

  1. Daniel, in 50-100 years, people will sure laugh at how poor and stressed out we are.

  2. @Leonid

    I am also confident that we will laugh at how silly we were to think that technology would make us all unemployed.

  3. If by us you mean you and me, we still have a chance.

  4. Christopher Smith says:

    I think there is an important distinction, both in the motivation for and the ability to identify the intrinsic value of, between “bureaucratic” functions and functions that are “a level removed” from actually doing work.

    Outside of the idealized completely open market (which only a freshman economics student might actually dream of living with), free markets are intrinsically inefficient and create inefficiencies. Their virtue is that despite their inefficiencies, they tend to be more efficient on a macro scale when it comes to allocating scarce resources.

    I do think though that you can make the case that our market has become increasingly volatile/disrupted/etc. that the velocity itself is creating a larger portion of inefficiency than it used to. It’s likely not a bad thing.

  5. Melissa Cayer says:

    I heard this somewhere as a way to be more creative or productive at work: Stop doing something and see if anyone notices.

  6. Christopher Smith says:

    It’s interesting you say, “Even just asking whether something needs doing has become a major faux pas.” While you can find it a bit everywhere, there is a strong cultural variance, and I’ve come to find it strongest in mature industries that are in decline (and therefore typically operating under zero sum game dynamics) and generally weaker across the board in Canadian & American culture. So I’m surprised/disappointed you are encountering it more often.

    The general rule of thumb is that if you don’t understand why a role is important, then there is either a need for better presentation of the role’s value (which is most often the case) or it is genuinely not a useful role (which is too often the case).

  7. @Christopher

    So I’m surprised/disappointed you are encountering it more often.

    I do not know if people really shy away from speaking up and saying “this new employee does work that is unnecessary, it is not a real job”. You tell me that you see it happening. It could well be.

    My post is speculative. I am throwing the idea on the net, hoping that people will either validate or invalidate it.

  8. Christopher Smith says:

    Oh, I’d say that generally people don’t say that about a new position, and it *is* generally considered rude to do so, because there is a presumption of significant consideration before going through the process of creating a position and hiring someone to fill it, and the value of new roles is generally speculative in the first place (it’s too soon for anyone to really know for certain what the value of the role is).

    However I wouldn’t say that suggesting that the existing role dynamics and organizational structure is in need of change/refactoring isn’t considered rude (indeed, that’s generally how those other positions get created in the first place). It is perhaps perceived as politically aggressive & dangerous, particularly when you get to specific roles and specific people, but that’s different (and fair, arguably).

    When that questioned gets raised, newer (as in, they aren’t the “new thing” now, but they would have had that designation not too long ago) roles are generally more likely to get tossed by the wayside. That doesn’t mean that the people in those roles necessarily go with it, but that is a likely outcome.

    The general mantra I hear around me is that it’d be shocking/disturbing for there not to be at least some change that hasn’t been made, but ought to be made, at any point in time.

    That said, I work in the tech business, where there are Darwinian forces that ensure organizations embrace at least the concept of change/disruption/continuous refactoring, even if they stumble at the execution. Heck, half the companies in the valley wouldn’t even exist if there wasn’t some kind of market/organizational construct that was speculated to have outlived its usefulness.

  9. @Christopher

    In my view, transemployment is created by continual change and refactoring. A lot of modern-day organizational reengineering is about creating new roles, new processes.

    Let me give you a concrete example. What I see in higher education, and this appears to be true from the most puny college all the way to the Ivy League… is that with every passing decade, we create new support or administrative positions. These positions grow in number much faster than the teaching-related jobs. The latter tends to follow the number of students. The former grows exponentially.

    So, today, the ratio professor/student is roughly the same as it was in 1970. However, you now have many more administrators and intermediate professionals that are employed by colleges but have never nor will never teach, nor will they ever do research or scholarly work.

    Where I work, at the University of Quebec, support staff and administrators outnumber professors by a ratio of 2-to-1. Wait a couple of decades and it will be 3-to-1 or 4-to-1.

    So, while on the face of it, colleges are about teaching and research… in practice, they do not tend to grow (relatively speaking) in the number of teachers or researchers… but rather, they add new layers of processes and management.

    This would be completely counter-intuitive to someone from the 70s given the technological progress we have known. Back in 1970s, messages were sent by mail… you needed a strong mail room… today they are sent by email… back in 1970, professors needed someone to type their lecture notes, today professors can type their own document… accounting has gotten far easier to do… and so on.

    This technological progress, given that colleges are still pretty much in the same business, should have lead to leaner colleges… We should have observed massive job losses.

    I think we saw these job losses, but, then, colleges turned around and created many more positions… each and every time there was a good reason. Sometimes the reason was external (e.g., new regulations), sometimes the reason was internal (e.g., the new dean wants to promote equity or accessibility).

    You are not old, but I am sure that if you were to go back to the school you graduated from, you would find many positions that were unheard from when you were an undergraduate. They were not needed back then. Are they needed today? We claim that they are, but are they? How would we know?

    Sure, sure, if we were asked to justify these positions, we would provide elaborate documents. But that is like proving the existence of God. Someone can always come up with a proof of either its existence or non-existence.

    More to the point, is anyone asking serious questions about it? No. At the margin, we complain when college presidents earn too much… but nothing is said about all the new positions that are created with every new reengineering.

    It is not just colleges however. I use this example because this is the context where I work.

  10. Christopher Smith says:

    The notion that technological innovation will inevitably lead to leaner organizations is misguided and fails to recognize factors that are on outstanding display in the software business in particular.

    The reality is that technological change often simplifies and streamlines activities, but the market response to any business that doesn’t wish to be completely commodified (read that as: “lose stakeholder value, a.k.a., ask to be fired and become irrelevant” 😉 is to increase the scope, complexity and sophistication of the organization (much as increasingly powerful tools for abstraction in software have not lead to less work but rather more and more ambition in the scope and complexity of software projects).

    Think of it this way: spreadsheets were a terrific innovation for simplifying the process of analyzing data and reports, and Excel made them that power that much more accessible and efficient. The realities of the market place and competition are such that the effect was not to *reduce* time spent doing that work, but rather *increase* it, along with the scope and sophistication with which it was done. This wasn’t just because of enlightened self interest of the bureaucracy and job security concerns (sure, those forces are there), but because the economic ROI of investing more time & expertise in the activity is ratcheted up significantly. Over the long haul, this leads to entire departments becoming core competencies that previously didn’t even exist.

  11. @Christopher

    The notion that technological innovation will inevitably lead to leaner organizations is misguided (…)

    Agreed. The evidence is indeed overwhelming that it is not the case.