What is high value work? Despite the pressing need for it, there is little consensus yet. For the purposes of this project, we have created a definition by looking at different parts of the existing literature in the area.
THE DEFINITION OF HIGH VALUE WORK
High value work is work that is:
- Productive because it creates new value.
- Sustainable because it creates value over time.
- Inclusive because it creates shared value across businesses, employees and society.
For these reasons, it is also meaningful.
First, high value work is productive work. It creates value rather than extracts it. While it may seem surprising to have to make such a distinction, a significant proportion of business value over the past two decades has come from what economists describe as “rent-seeking” behaviour, or removing a slice of value from an existing transaction. In his book The Locust and the Bee, Geoff Mulgan uses the two insects to contrast these two types of activity. High value work is about bees, not locusts.
Secondly, high value work produces long value or “thick value”. This idea of “thick value” has been popularised by Umair Haque, but remains poorly defined. In his book, The New Capitalist Manifesto, he writes about “value that matters, value that lasts, and value that multiplies”, and about value that is meaningful, durable, and tangible. For the purposes of this report, we see this as value that exists and extends over time, which creates new value relationships between producers and customers.
Thirdly, the value created becomes “shared value,” to use the term developed by Michael Porter. Shared value, he argues, “involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress.” Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) is a good example; its objectives align social outcomes with category leadership, and also address the need to reconfigure supply chains in the face of resource pressure. So as well as extending value over time, high value work also extends value across society, creating wider pools of prosperity.
In summary, high value work creates value through innovation to meet real underlying needs, producing products and services that create relationships with users that persist over time. In doing so, they don’t dump costs (“externalities”) on to either customers or the rest of society. Often this means reimagining a product or a service from the perspective of the customer, understanding how it fits into the context of their overall lives. This usually involves innovation, but this innovation is as likely to be in service design or business models: it doesn’t have to involve expensive R&D or high-end technical processes.
High value work also adds meaning to business—even in mundane work—and in doing so it creates both economic value and emotional value that extends beyond business owners and shareholders to both the workforce and to wider society.
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