Libraries and the Post-Job Organization

Lori A. Goetsch, Head, Reference Services

University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Technology has had a profound impact on libraries, and they have responded by adopting various organizational strategies. However, many libraries continue to organize by functional units, and job responsibilities remain closely tied to these functions. William Bridges suggests that this work environment is eroding. We have entered a "new post-job world" which requires a "post-job organization." Is there a place for the post-job organization in libraries? This position paper describes the post-job organization, examines factors that are moving libraries toward it, and explores barriers to achieving a post-job library. The paper concludes with a discussion of changes libraries will need to make to succeed as post-job organizations.

Much has been written about the impact of technology on the way we work in libraries. Automation has dramatically changed technical processes and public service delivery over the past three decades, and the rapid rise of the Internet promises more to come. Organizationally, libraries have responded by adapting various management strategies and techniques such as the quality of work life approach of the late seventies and early eighties to total quality management (TQM), continuous quality improvement (CQI), flattened hierarchies, just-in-time systems, and team-based organizations in the nineties. Nevertheless, most libraries continue to organize along traditional lines which separate work groups into functional units such as reference and cataloging. Individual job responsibilities have remained essentially the same with the addition of positions to support technology such as systems and electronic services librarians.

Organizational development consultant William Bridges suggests that this work environment is eroding as our society has moved from a production- to a service-based economy. Also, change has become more rapid, and organizations have "unbundled" activities that used to be centralized in one part of the organization. Activities are reassigned across organizational units or outside of the organization all together. According to Bridges, we have entered a "new post-job world" which requires a "post-job organization." This new organization frees the employee from the constraints of a job description, organizational hierarchy, and restrictive personnel policies and procedures. Granted, not everyone in the workplace will welcome this flexible work environment. But, as Bridges notes, ". . . most of today's organizations are trying to use outmoded and underpowered organizational forms to do tomorrow's work. . . . Such organizations won't have better results until they do two things. First, get rid of jobs. Second, redesign the organization to get the best out of a de-jobbed worker."(1) This paper will examine the characteristics of a post-job organization and consider library organizations in that context.

To understand the post-job organization, we must first consider what Bridges calls in his book JobShift, "the late great job."(2) The job as we now know it and define it is a relatively modern concept resulting from the industrialization of Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. During that period, the job evolved from something people did to something people had. Bridges suggests that a post-job organization returns to that much earlier definition of a job as work that needs to be done rather than a specific position in an organization. According to Bridges, the job, as it currently exists, is "that little packet of responsibility (job description), rewarded in accordance with a fixed formula (pay level), and a single reporting relationship (place in the chair of command). . . ."(3) The inflexibility inherent in this structure prohibits an organization's ability to be responsive to change. Bridges' solution is the "dejobbing" of individuals and organizations.

The post-job organization employs a variety of techniques to get the work done (as opposed to the job) such as outsourcing, temporary workers, and project teaming. Obviously, dejobbing is not easy, and the impact is felt on three levels--the individual, the organizational, and the societal. On the individual level, the psychological impact is great. We have learned to define ourselves in terms of our jobs--our days are determined by the boundaries of our jobs, and our economic lives are dependent upon them. But Bridges insists that we have no choice--change, technology, and economics are forcing organizations to rethink their structures and how the work gets done. On the organizational level, there are many challenges, and organizations have responded in many different ways, some of which we see in reorganization efforts in many of our academic libraries--empowerment, self-directed teams, flattened hierarchies, flextime, telecommuting, and so on. These changes do not go far enough because everyone still has a job. Bridges warns that "if one of these efforts isn't delivering the expected results quickly enough, the organization is likely to move on to another item on the list. The unfortunate result can be a Change of the Month routine."(4) On the societal level, there is an entire governmental public policy structure and national culture built upon and reinforced by the job. Taxes, social security, health care, welfare, and other job-based systems and services will need to be dramatically restructured to support the dejobbed worker and the post-job organization. In his book JobShift, Bridges takes on each of these areas and discusses them in more detail. However, for the purposes of this paper, let us look in more detail at the organization, recognizing that individual and societal factors will overlap at points in any discussion of the post-job organization.

The post-job organization has several characteristics. First, they hire the right people, by which Bridges means people who can work outside of the traditional structure and boundaries of a job. Secondly, it has a flattened hierarchy. "One thing that has to go," according to Bridges, "is the elaborate matrix or horizontal classifications and vertical ranks."(5) Accountability is to the work that needs to get done and the recipient of that work--the customer, whether that is a person internal or external to the organization. The work, therefore, is defined by customer needs and not a job description.

Another key characteristic of the post-job organization is a redefined infrastructure. Policies and practices on work hours, compensation, retirement, evaluation, training, communications, and the meaning of management itself must all be recast. For example, the number of hours and where they are worked become less important and less valued than getting the work done. In terms of benefits, Bridges speculates that individuals will operate much more as self-employed workers, and he points to the growth of 401K programs as one example of a step in this direction. Pay becomes skill-based or on a fee-for-service arrangement because "the organization of the future is going to find that salaries are as counterproductive as jobs."(6) Training is replaced by strategic continuous learning as workers retool for the next project or study trends to anticipate coming needs. And managers? They become coordinators, facilitators, coaches, consultants, visionaries, or perhaps they don't exist at all as decision-making rests in the hands of the people doing the work.

Is there a place for the post-job organization in libraries? Several interrelated factors are moving us towards a flexible job environment. First of all, libraries already recognize that the traditional division of labor approach is not effective for knowledge work in the age of technology and a service economy. As technology has blurred the lines between public and technical services, some libraries have "unbundled" tasks and created a growing interdependence across library departments and outside of the library with vendors and other service providers. Three examples serve to illustrate this point. First is the development of electronic document delivery which blends circulation, reserve, reference, and interlibrary loan services in an increasingly access-driven environment. Secondly, an example of unbundling and distributing tasks to vendors happened early in libraries in the use of commercial binderies and approval plans. Now the availability of cataloging records directly from approval plan vendors enables libraries to unbundle and reallocate tasks in cataloging and acquisitions. Finally, client-server environments are decentralizing functions that were once the purview of library systems departments or campus computing centers.

A second factor driving libraries towards the post-job organization is the economic and political environment. Serials inflation, backlash against higher education, competition for services, and the reduction in the infusion of research funds to universities are trends from the academic library world. For-profit approaches to customer service have been embraced by libraries as we attempt to be relevant to our user communities. Many libraries are downsizing, rightsizing, reallocating, and doing whatever it takes to survive with diminishing resources. What has happened to the traditional library job in this environment? Personal experience tells me that the "other duties as assigned" statement in the job description has become a larger and larger percentage of an individual's activities. Librarians have assumed multiple roles that cross traditional departmental lines as we try to get more work done with fewer personnel. Also, responsibilities have shifted among various categories of employees, from librarians to support staff and support staff to students assistants. Traditional role definitions between professionals and nonprofessionals are breaking down in the process.

Clearly, libraries are displaying some characteristics of post-job organizations. If, as Bridges suggests, we are being inexorably driven to a post-job world, what barriers exist in libraries that are making it difficult for us to completely embrace this change and become responsive post-job organizations? Perhaps the greatest barrier is our own resistance and our ties to the culture of the job. Our identities are tied to being a reference librarian or a cataloger or a library director. Bridges writes, "A job gives people parts to play and tells them what they need to do to feel good about their contribution. It gives them a way of knowing when they have done enough, and it tells them when their results are satisfactory."(7) Libraries are like any other organization in terms of the structures we have established to reinforce the security of the job. For example, unions, tenure, and credentials such as the MLS protect the individual's entitlement to a job. Compensation and classification systems are elaborately structured to pay workers for the job as it is described, rather than by how it is performed. Evaluation systems reward or punish workers for how well they meet the functions listed in their job descriptions. These systems conspire to create an environment that focuses workers on the limits and boundaries of their relatively narrow range of responsibilities, what Bridges calls the "I'm just doing my job" syndrome.(8) To our credit, libraries have tried various means of breaking down some of this culture by attempting to "empower" staff and push decision-making down to lower levels of the organization in hopes that workers will buy into larger organizational goals and view themselves as part of the big picture. But Bridges pushes our thinking further. "What we fail to see," he writes, "is that we are encouraging those limited outlooks by keeping them in jobs, organizing them in clusters of jobs, evaluating them as to how well they do their jobs, and paying them according to a job-based pay system."(9)

In addition to employee resistance, management resists the end of the job as well. Loss of control, the difficulty of coordinating work rather than supervising jobs, and other challenges to the traditional job of being a boss threaten the managerial culture in our organizations. The disappearance of middle managers in some libraries suggests, however, that we are willing to make some efforts to break down traditional organizational hierarchies. Also, the interest in the movement from management terminology to leadership terminology suggests that we are open to change. Bridges speculates that there are several possible explanations for this migration to a leadership culture, some of which are particularly relevant to libraries.(10) One is the feminization of the workplace. Libraries have always been female-intensive workplaces, but only recently have women assumed higher-level positions (yes, jobs) in our organizations, particularly in ARL libraries.(11) Another possible explanation is that the baby boomer generation, children of the human potential and anti-war movements, are now heading our organizations. Nevertheless, whether they are called managers or leaders, the people who occupy these jobs are still interested in keeping them for various reasons--higher salary, status, self-image, authority, and so on.

A third barrier is that libraries do not exist as independent entities but are part of a larger organizational structure and culture that is even more resistant to accepting a post-job environment. For example, academic libraries are bound by the persistent medieval university model where disciplinary turf--and the jobs that go with it--are strongly protected and defended against encroaching threats. Recent efforts at some universities to redefine or even eliminate the tenure system or employee unions, and the strong and vocal reactions against such movements, indicate that universities are a long way from achieving the characteristics of a post-job organization. In fact, many libraries lead their campuses in organizational redesign, acting as pilot sites for campus TQM and CQI activities.

These barriers lead to the final question for consideration. If we need to dejob our libraries to survive and remain relevant in our communities, what do we need to do to become post-job organizations? As noted above, libraries have already made efforts to respond to a rapidly changing environment, suggesting that we are in what Bridges calls a transition. A transition is defined as "the process of disengaging from the old expectations, the old assumptions, and the old identity that the job world provided and required."(12) He cautions that we should not underestimate the importance of the transition and the development of a plan to move to the post-job organization. In JobShift, he outlines several societal and individual transitions and processes that will facilitate the move to a post-job organization, many of which are relevant to and already applied in some libraries--a shared vision, broader communications and decision-making, and employee and leadership involvement and commitment.(13) Another characteristic of most libraries is that they are continuous learning environments. Peter Drucker, in his article "The Age of Social Transformation," writes that the knowledge worker will "redefine what it means to be an educated person. . . . Increasingly, an educated person will be somebody who has learned how to learn, and who continues learning, especially by formal education, throughout his or her life."(14) Library workers have always been active learners, so this aspect of our culture should help us adapt to new expectations and needs for various knowledge and skills. Drucker continues in his article to suggest that knowledge workers will be highly specialized but not in the way that libraries have traditionally looked at specialization. "What we will increasingly mean by that term," he writes, "is people who have learned how to acquire additional specialities rapidly in order to move from one kind of job to another."(15) While Bridges may quibble with Drucker's use the term "job," he agrees in concept with the flexibility that this definition implies. Consequently, we will have to rethink specialization in terms of the work which will need to be done in the post-job library.

More challenging are changes in infrastructures that support the job. The requirement of educational credentials such as the the MLS for professional positions has begun to be relaxed in some libraries, particularly for work related to systems applications. Many libraries have unionized staff or faculty status for librarians. Bridges calls not for the elimination of these systems but suggests that their continued existence depends on embracing a post-job world rather than working against it. For example, in JobShift, he describes "tomorrow's unions" as advocacy-based, educational institutions and communities much like craft guilds of the past and professional associations of today. He goes on to suggest that the reinvention of unions will most likely begin among knowledge workers "where the process of dejobbing is furthest advanced."(16) It remains to be seen if the American Library Association, Progressive Librarians Guild, or some other organization will step forward and fill this need for library workers.

Will the libraries of tomorrow reflect Bridges' vision of the post-job organization? Of course, that is anyone's guess. Some of us will be around to see it, some of us will lead it, and some of us will resist it. And even Bridges acknowledges that this future is not without its potential drawbacks for the individual, the organization, and society as a whole. Nevertheless, change is definitely upon us, and we have the opportunity to survive and thrive in the post-job world or succumb to it. As Bridges concludes, "I'd urge you to turn your face toward the future and set forth."(17)


  1. William E. Bridges, "The End of the Job," Fortune 130 (September 19, 1994):74.
  2. William E. Bridges, JobShift (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1994).
  3. Ibid., 26.

  4. Ibid., 145.
  5. Ibid., 150.
  6. Ibid., 163.
  7. Ibid., 120.
  8. Ibid., 47.
  9. Ibid.
  10. William Bridges, "Leading the De-Jobbed Organization" in The Leader of the Future: New Visions, Strategies, and Practices for the Next Era , eds. Frances Hesselbein, Marshall Goldsmith, and Richard Beckhard (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996), 11-12.
  11. Suzanne Hildenbrand, "Still Not Equal: Closing the Library Gender Gap," Library Journal 122 (March 1, 1997):44-46.
  12. Bridges, JobShift, 195.
  13. Ibid., 194-207.
  14. Peter F. Drucker, "The Age of Social Transformation," Atlantic Monthly 274 (November 1994):67.
  15. Ibid., 68.
  16. Bridges, JobShift, 192-3.
  17. Ibid., 231.