The Nature of Work

People Engagement Series

Resource Note # 5

If you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.1
– Khalil Gibran, in “The Prophet”

What is work? The term refers to all kinds of deliberate effort and activity that promote human sustenance and growth.

Work may be considered as the social and psychological activity of intending, planning and acting as well as a social obligation to produce some real-world output. Psychologically, it involves a combination of continuous intuitive mental activity and action within a framework set by conscious perceptions and ideas or plans. 2 Socially, work involves carrying out some definite project within a specific time frame.

At the core of the concept of work lies the desire of the individual human being as well as the collective humankind to survive and evolve. It is important to note that the notion of work takes concrete shape only in the context of the various problems and questions that human beings deem important.

The Historical Evolution of Work

In the earliest stages of civilization, work was confined to simple tasks that involved the most basic of human needs: food, shelter, and childcare. 3 As early as 40,000 B.C., hunters had begun to work in groups in order to track and kill animals. In due course of time, our prehistoric ancestors managed to collectively organize the work of foraging and hunting as a means of increasing the food supply. Communal activity of this type required varying degrees of cooperation among members of the group. A division of labour (job specialization) probably resulted when some individuals showed proficiency in particular tasks, such as hunting of wild animals or gathering plants for food.

When crop cultivation began to replace hunting and gathering from 8000 B.C. onwards, the family became the basic agricultural work unit. The men commonly bore responsibility for seasonal tasks such as plowing, sowing, tilling, and harvesting, while the women cared for children, prepared food, and made clothing. 3 During the planting and harvesting seasons, the entire family performed fieldwork.

From around 3,200 B.C., the strength of the ox was harnessed for dragging sledges, ploughs, and wagons with wheels. These innovations led to an astounding increase in the agricultural crops and enabled transportation from more distant fields. Agriculture provided a surplus that could support the making of metal tools and weapons, which probably gave rise to the first real specialist occupation in human society. A sufficient food supply, coupled with the development of copper as well as bronze tools, laid the groundwork for more complex societies that could support larger populations. 4

The development of irrigation increased the food supply and allowed larger numbers of people to agglomerate into towns and cities. Some individuals began to pursue crafts such as pottery making, textiles, and metallurgy. Skilled workmanship and specialized tools aided production, perhaps encouraging further specialization. Step by step, human work was moved away from its initial preoccupation with the search for food and shelter towards specialization in narrower tasks.

The increasing complexity of these professions required permanent records. This fostered the development of writing and bookkeeping. 4 Newer and more specialized occupations also emerged in the areas of commerce, law, and medicine. Because farmers were vulnerable to attack, armies emerged.

As town life grew more vigorous during the middle Ages, craft guilds were formed in order to regulate production. These guilds also served to limit the supply of labour in any particular profession. This eventually led to the establishment of the employer-employee relationship.

The proliferation of industry from the 16th to the 18th century (immediately preceding the Industrial Revolution) arose from the growth of wealth and markets, as well as the introduction of new products and technologies. The technological innovations in agriculture, power, transportation, metallurgy, and machines led to newer forms of specialization. The number of specialized crafts also increased. This was accompanied by the development of large workshops that were dedicated to the production of a single item.

Early factories gradually emerged out of these craft workshops. They divided the work carried out by a single craftsman into a number of distinct tasks that were now performed by semi-skilled workers, with the assistance of rudimentary machinery. This shortened the time required to produce an item. The cost of production was also lowered, even as the product quality improved.

However, the workers balked at the discipline that such factories demanded of them. Thus, it became necessary to install a supervisory hierarchy. This represented the start of the modern factory system.

The Organization of Work during the Industrial Revolution

The machines introduced during the 18th century demanded a rational organization of job functions that differed greatly from the old handicraft tradition. In his book The Wealth of Nations (1776), the political economist Adam Smith gave the classic description of the new production system as exemplified by a pin factory. 5

One man draws out the wire; another straightens it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pin is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is in this manner divided into about 18 distinct operations. 5

According to Smith, a single worker “could scarce, perhaps with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day.” The new methods enabled a pin factory to turn out up to 4,800 pins a day. 5 Such enhancement in productivity depended far more upon the rational organization of processes, than upon individual skill.

The development of machine tools in the 19th century made it possible to manufacture large quantities of goods at relatively low unit costs, through the use of standardized parts and precise division of labour. This phenomenon was referred to as mass production. It was characterized by high volume, a neatly organized flow of materials, careful supervision of quality standards, and job specialization.

Mass production led to an even more meticulous sub-division of tasks. Since much of the skill was built into the machine itself, low-skilled workers could now carry out the tasks. The growing size of the manufacturing concerns and the increasing complexity of their operations encouraged the employment of managerial personnel. They specialized in service areas such as accounting, engineering, research & development, human resources, information technology, distribution, marketing, and sales.

 The American automobile manufacturer Henry Ford designed an assembly line that commenced operations in 1913. This innovation reduced the manufacturing time for magneto flywheels from 20 minutes to 5 minutes. 6 When this technique was applied to chassis assembly, the time was halved from 12.5 to 6 man-hours. With further improvements such as a chain drive to power the assembly line movement as well as comfortable stationary locations for the workmen, the chassis assembly time fell to just 93 man-minutes by the end of April 1914.

Ford’s accomplishments encouraged both his competitors as well as his parts suppliers to imitate this technique. As the assembly line spread through American industry, it brought about dramatic productivity gains. Skilled workers increasingly began to be replaced by low-cost unskilled labour. 3

The pace of the assembly line was dictated primarily by the capacity of the expensive machinery. This created a division of labour between the owner of the machines, and the employees who operated them. The dull and repetitive nature of assembly line jobs bored the employees. The owners were also tempted to accelerate the system, and then compel the workers to operate at the pace of the machine.

While it may appear that the mechanized division of labour destroyed skill and dexterity, it undoubtedly led to a vast improvement in the quality of the finished product. Furthermore, specialization did not so much impair skill as limit it to a particular field of development. Within the context of a particular task, it might even enhance skill and expertise – by virtue of continued repetition.


The next technological development was the automation of work. This implied the elimination of all manual labour, and the use of self-regulating controls that ensured uniformity, precision, and quality.

Automated machinery allowed small numbers of highly skilled workers to operate sophisticated, computer-controlled equipment. The erstwhile operator of the machine now graduated to become its supervisor.

The process of manufacturing gained unprecedented flexibility with the advent of computer-enabled automation. The machinery could now work on small batches, and still achieve the economies that were previously available only through the large-scale production of identical objects. Computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) allowed the mass production system to manufacture customized “handmade” articles. 7

The next step was robotized production. Robotic machines could perform unpleasant or dangerous jobs such as painting, quite easily and without complaint. Moreover, they handled loads of up to a ton or more. Robots also worked efficiently in temperatures ranging from near freezing to uncomfortably hot.

Robots generally see the world in pixels and sensor readings, while humans view it as related concepts that are connected to form reasoning and higher order thinking. Thus, the first generation of industrial robots could perform only simple tasks such as welding because they became confused even by slight differences in the objects upon which they worked. 8

However, robots have been making impressive gains in sensitivity, mobility, and autonomy. Going forward, they shall serve in a larger variety of roles – from the design and prototyping stages through production and shipping. The day is not far when humans and robots shall rub shoulders and work together, side-by-side.

Services have now come to represent the growth engine of the world economy. From touchscreen ordering systems to burger-flipping robots and self-driving trucks, automation is stalking an increasing number of professions in the service sector too. 9 Personal services had hitherto been considered as relatively difficult to deliver via robots because they require greater flexibility, adaptability, and common sense that what these devices could ordinarily deliver. But again, the situation is changing fast.

In 2016, Hilton Hotels piloted an artificially intelligent robotic concierge that possessed sufficient capabilities to maintain conversations with guests and also answer questions about the local area. In 2017, the San Francisco coffee shop Cafe X was organized such that customers ordered their specialty coffee through on-site kiosks or a dedicated app. The coffee was then prepared and served by a 6-axis industrial robot, as part of an automated system that eliminated human interaction out of the equation.

Future developments in machine intelligence and cognitive computing are likely to facilitate the next round of overwhelming productivity increases. With the help of 3D printing, fast automation, artificial intelligence and advanced IT systems, the manufacturing and service operations of tomorrow are likely to be able to independently coordinate along the entire supply chain and actually run themselves. 10

Hopefully, they would still work under human oversight!

The Essence Of Work

Work may be defined as an organism’s use of judgment in making the decision that are necessary to reach a goal. Human work fundamentally caters to solving problems that come in the way of survival and growth. When a person does not have any problem, she has no obligation to work. This occurs when the basic human needs have been satisfied, and psychological conflict has been fully resolved. This actually signifies the state of human fulfillment, of which the sages have spoken since time immemorial.

However, most individuals are still some distance away from complete fulfillment. Problems start with the unavailability of something valuable that a person needs or wants. They may arise either from an individual’s personal and intrinsic desires, or from the necessity to accomplish a task towards meeting an organizational requirement. Either way, the person must sort through all the situational elements in order to specify exactly what would satisfy the identified need. A goal is thus formulated.

Elliot Jacques has provided a brilliant conception of organizational work through outstanding research that spans across half a century. He states that the specification of a goal comprises two elements: 2

  1. The result that is required, in quantity and quality (what)
  2. The target completion date (by-when)

Once the goal has been specified, the person must then work to formulate the task for attaining the goal. The task comprises:

  1. The goal itself – the what, and by when
  2. The method to be used
  3. The resources required
  4. The prescribed limits within which the work must be done – policies, rules, and regulations

Work may thus be regarded as an undertaking to find the means for traversing through the field (as in hockey or football) in order to get to the goal.

The Development of Pathways

Since a field has to be traversed in order to reach the goal, a pathway has to be created. Jaques contends that there are two main kinds of pathways that may be used for traversing a field: 2

  1. Known or definite pathways
  2. Uncharted, or undetermined pathways

Known pathways are those in which previously learned knowledge exists in available articulated form, and can therefore be applied according to known rules. The most elementary type of known pathways is retrieval, which is a process of calculation that involves the application of formulae according to defined rules. For example, 3 + 3 = 6.

Calculations that are based upon known routines are slightly more complex than retrieval. The arithmetical operations conducted upon numerous rows and columns of figures, in order to arrive at the Net Profit of a firm, are an example of calculation. Herein, the individual deploys known pathways.

However, most real-world situations are characterized by the presence of several unknown operating variables. These give rise to numerous surprises, problems, and obstacles that call for resolution. Uncharted pathways now need to be formulated and traversed.

When a person moves across an uncertain pathway, she encounters repeated problems and obstacles. To surmount each such problem, the individual is required to muster the available knowledge resources along with the details of the situational context. All this data is processed by means of a range of mental processes that include taking in information, playing with it, analyzing and reorganizing it, and judging as well as reasoning with it. An appropriate conclusion or decision is then arrived at. The traversing of an uncertain pathway thus requires the continued exercise of discretion, judgment, and decision-making.

Mental Processing

Elliot Jaques employs the concept of “mental processing” to describe a combination of discretion, judgment, and decision-making. The complexity of such processing refers to the maximum scale and intricacy of the world that a person is able to pattern, construe and function in. This includes the amount and the complexity of information that must be processed in doing so. 2

The most elementary aspect of mental processing is that which goes on in words. This is intimately connected with the knowledge that is possessed by the person. The term “knowledge” refers to all forms to articulated ideas (words, formulae, models, drawings, designs, mathematics etc.) and symbols which human beings use in order to communicate with each other. Knowledge is accumulated through formal learning and experience. Knowledge is held in memory, and is verbally articulated.

The true source of difficulty in any problem lies in its complexity, which may be defined in terms of: a) the number of variables that have to be dealt with in a given time in a situation, b) the clarity and precision with which they can be identified, and c) their rate of change. The human faculty of Buddhi comes into play, when the person seeks solutions to increasingly more complex problems.

The Role of Buddhi in Mental Processing

The Buddhi is the operative dimension of the human personality that is responsible for processing data, with the aid and involvement of human consciousness, in order to arrive at conclusions and outcomes. It is the human faculty that enables people to discriminate and comprehend the factual nature of things, as distinguished from mere appearances or speculations. Buddhi possesses a dual capacity of being sensory as well as intuitive in nature, depending upon whether it is directed outward or inward.

When buddhi functions externally, it manifests as the human intellect that connects the outer world of the senses with the inner world of consciousness (refer to March 2019 Issue of SATTVA). The concrete side of the intellect allows people to grasp external objects. This includes the capacity to understand and reason about verbal information, and also to recognize, compare and fathom perceptual patterns. On the other hand, the abstract side of the intellect enables people to comprehend ideas.

The intellect may be likened to a “conscious” Central Processing Unit (CPU), unto which the dynamic stream of knowledge impressions coming in from the mind as well as the senses is delivered. These impressions are then mutually compared and contrasted by the application of inductive, deductive and retroductive reasoning methods. Conclusions are arrived at, such as deducing fire from the presence of smoke. Finally, a decision is taken.

The capacity of an individual to sustain complex discretionary processes in carrying out tasks of different levels of intricacy is determined by the availability of relevant knowledge as well as the astute application of the intellect. The acme of this cognitive process is achieved when the operation of the externally oriented intellect is complemented by the use of internally directed intuition. The latter represents the power of direct perception, without the mediation of the human mind & the five senses.

Gary Klein defines intuition as the way individuals translate experience into action. 11 His research concludes that intuition is an important subconscious decision-making tool that originates from an ability to recognize patterns and interpret cues. Klein has demonstrated that intuition is a natural outgrowth of experience and preparation. 11

When the intellect works in conjunction with intuition, Buddhi becomes the mainspring of human creativity. It also acts as the executive part of the human personality that decides what the individual must do or pursue. Since Buddhi resides deep within the personality, at a level that transcends the familiar world of words and thoughts, its operations are not amenable to description or articulation. 12 That is the reason why mental processing cannot be directly observed. Only its effects can be seen.

The functioning of the Buddhi involves a continual interplay between overt knowledge and the underlying consciousness. This interchange enables the whispers of consciousness to inform the operations of the Buddhi in real time. As a result, the mental effort remains squarely oriented towards the servicing of human needs – which is what the phenomenon of work is all about in the first place.

Work equals the use of Buddhi

The application of Buddhi (inclusive of its intellectual as well as intuitive facets) is central to the process of decision-making, wherein the person makes a choice from among an unlimited number of options just at the moment of truth. Most of these reasons are unformulated, and the decision usually reflects the best apparent choice that can be made at that time.

People become aware of what they have chosen, only after they have committed themselves to some preference. If an individual can completely enumerate all the reasons why she made a decision, she would have merely carried out a calculation. It does not constitute true decision-making.

The knowledge of procedures that people learn to use at work without having to think about can be described as “skilled” knowledge. This may be regarded as a particular kind of learned knowledge that comprises of learned psychomotor patterns and calculating routines. These help to simplify work by enabling a person to carry out parts of a problem-solving activity, without having to think about them. Skilled knowledge can be improved with practice. 2

It is possible to develop skilled knowledge to support literally anything that a person does. When a particular type of task or routine is carried out often enough, the individual might begin to perform the activity without the active use of the intellect. For instance, the famous cardiac surgeon Dr. Devi Shetty is known to listen to an assistant’s narration of office documents that require his urgent attention – even as he is engaged in stitching up a patient’s heart in the operation theatre after a successful surgery.

However, skilled knowledge is not equivalent to work. This is because when all non-verbal judgment is taken out of a decision, it becomes a mere calculation. The possible outcomes are predictably limited, and the process may thus be mechanized or computerized. Computers and robots are unable to even approach human choice processes, because they cannot deal with ideas, perceptions, feelings, and emotions that have not yet been verbalized.

Even though modern computers increasingly appear to be intelligent, they cannot authentically serve human needs without the guidance of human consciousness that the Buddhi provides. In fact, when non-conscious or “artificial” intelligence takes over the work of the intellect, we run the risk of the servant assuming the role of the master.

That is the reason why the celebrated physicist Late Stephen Hawking and the business magnate Elon Musk publicly raised a concern in 2015 that humanity could lose control of Artificial Intelligence systems via the rise of “super-intelligence” that do not act in accordance with human needs and wishes. They also expressed the fear that an incautious deployment of superhuman artificial intelligence systems could someday lead to the end of the human race. 13

Thus, the core effort in making judgments and decisions involves the processing of knowledge elements by human intelligence in order to arrive at accurate conclusions. These outputs subsequently emerge into verbalized mental awareness, and become available for use in problem solving. That is work!


  1. Gibran K. The Prophet. New York: Knopf; 1923.
  2. Jaques E. A general theory of bureaucracy. London: Heinemann; 1976. p. 117, p. 99 p. 18, p. 25.
  3. Kranzberg M, T. Hannan M. History of the organization of work [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. 1999 [cited 5 May 2018]. Available from:
  4. Work | economics [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2014 [cited 26 January 2018]. Available from:
  5. Smith A. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [Internet]. 5th ed. London: London: A. Strahan; T.Cadell; 1789 [cited 2 May 2018]. Available from:
  6. T. Hannan M, Kranzberg M. History of the organization of work – The assembly line [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2017 [cited 5 May 2018]. Available from:
  7. Leondes C. Computer-Aided Design, Engineering, and Manufacturing: Systems Techniques and Applications. 5th ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press; 2000.
  8. Schwab K. The fourth industrial revolution. Danvers, MA: Currency; 2017.
  9. Fleming S. Why robots are coming for US service jobs | Financial Times [Internet]. 2016 [cited 17 August 2016]. Available from:
  10. Kilpi E. Perspectives on new work: Exploring emerging conceptualizations [Internet]. 2nd ed. Sitra Studies 114; 2016 [cited 5 May 2018]. Available from:
  11. Klein G. Intuition at work. New York: Currency/Doubleday; 2003.)
  12. Rama, Ballentine R, Ajaya. Yoga & psychotherapy. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute; 1976. P. 79
  13. AI Open Letter – Future of Life Institute [Internet]. Future of Life Institute. 2015 [cited 5 May 2018]. Available from:

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