Victor Agruso - human resources executive

These Are the Four Main Types of Work (And Why They Matter)

Not all work is the same.

You know this already, of course. But perhaps you haven’t had the opportunity to think deeply about how one particular unit of work differs from another. Or even how many such differences exist within your organization’s workflows.

The good news is that distinguishing between different types of work requires no special skills or credentials. There also aren’t very many types of work: just four, to be precise, and only three that actually add value.

Since we don’t have to go back to school (so to speak) to understand the four types of work, why not take a few moments to define and distinguish them? We’ll start with advantage work — the “secret sauce” that your organization needs to thrive.

1. Advantage Work (Core Technical Capabilities)

Advantage work concerns the set of core technical capabilities that distinguish your organization from its competitors. Each organization has just one set of advantage work capabilities, and no two sets are alike (no matter how superficially similar the two organizations that own them). HR best practices demand that advantage work capabilities be organized, managed, and developed as a cohesive unit whose work occurs entirely in-house. Advantage work should never be outsourced.

Why It Matters: Advantage work is quite literally what sets your organization apart from its competitors. From it, all other operational requirements flow; advantage work always dictates the nature of strategic and essential support work, never the other way around. And your organization’s set of advantage capabilities should be “best-in-world”; that is, whatever these capabilities, you must execute them better than anyone else.

2. Strategic Support Work

Strategic support work leverages, supports, and (ideally) multiplies the value of the organization’s advantage work. By itself, it does not create additional value or distinctiveness for the organization. But due to its proximity to advantage work, it should be “best-in-industry.”

Why It Matters: When executed properly and adequately resourced, strategic support work buoys advantage work.

3. Essential Support Work

Essential support work is the set of background or overhead processes that must occur to keep the organization afloat but do not by themselves create or multiply advantage. Essential support processes typically vary by business line and can therefore be distributed throughout the organization without loss of value — though best practices dictate that this type of work be done as efficiently as possible and to modest “industry parity” standards.

Why It Matters: Essential support work is a potential source of operational inefficiency. Those responsible for it should focus on minimizing cost, eliminating redundancies, and widening bottlenecks.

4. Nonessential Work

Nonessential work does not add value to the organization. Nor is it necessary to keep the organization afloat. It’s wasted effort that, when discovered, should be marked for elimination with all due haste.

Why It Matters: Understanding nonessential work is important mainly as a contrast to the three “essential” types of work. It’s especially important to recognize the difference between inefficient essential support processes and truly nonessential processes; both deserve to be eliminated, but the former demands more care so as not to cut too deep.

Do you understand the differences between the four main types of work functions? Can you recognize them in your own organization?

The RBL Group’s online library was an invaluable resource for this article and readers are encouraged to explore for the latest insights on leadership development and strategic HR.