Changing jobs to be done

Based on a lot of reading and listening to people like Clay Christenson and Horace Dediu I've a few observations concerning the current transformation of the PC market, Apple, Android and tablets.

For many years the PC combined with Microsoft Office were the defacto computing standard. This combination was a product of their time between analog and digital eras. Office is made up of three main components: Word, Excel and Powerpoint.


Word is the cornerstone of the Office suite for most people. But just looking at the current interface for Word, one thing jumps out immediately: it is a product designed to use your computer to produce pages containing information. At the beginning of the PC era, this was a key factor as the electronic exchange with anyone outside of your immediate computing circle still required an analog phase, either in the form of paper or a fax. So it made perfect sense that we built tools that facilitated the bridge between the two worlds. But things have changed in the intervening 20 years, and now Word's primary use (outside of slow moving enterprises, government and education institutions) is a convenient container for transferring information via email. The frustrating part is that it comes along with all of this historical page oriented metadata and associated structure that the page metaphor imposes.

From a practical standpoint, the majority of data entered into Word today is not destined to paper, but some form of electronic transfer or storage.

In addition, computers are no longer rare items, relegated to specialists, like the typing pool where the first inroads started with word processing systems. In most developed nations, the majority of the population have access to some kind of computing device, whether a full fledged PC, tablet or smartphone. This has demoted the importance of the paper document or the paper metaphor for sharing information. The most current widely accepted container for sharing information now is the web page, static or dynamic. Even ePub is nothing more than a packaged web site. With the advent of web applications like blogs and wikis, we can now write, store and share information in a structure adapted for the end-to-end digital toolkit that sheds the need for concepts like headers, footers, margins, page breaks and so on. Purpose-built applications with a web and a local client enable optimized authoring and consumption completely outside of a document or file based ecosystem. The bottom line here is that Word's value has diminished and is becoming increasingly irrelevant for those people ready to embrace a modern toolkit.


In the beginning (said in stentorian tones), Powerpoint's role was very similar to Word. It was designed to facilitate a bridge between the digital and analog worlds. Presentations were not yet done using digital projectors, but rather using 35mm slides and overhead projectors with transparencies. With the inevitable audience handouts... on paper.

The advent of ubiquitous projectors changed the role of Powerpoint somewhat and the omnipresence of Office permitted it to become the defacto container for sharing presentations, but always in the context of a document object. To this day, I attend meetings where slides are projected, yet every participant is given paper handouts to follow along with.

In this area we see a slower movement towards better tools designed for the all digital lifesyle, but Powerpoint has succesfully transitioned it's job to be done from preparing overheads and 35mm slides to projecting a predominantly static content to an audience.

But we are starting to see changes here where the job to be done is less pure presentation to a passive audience to interactive meetings where the audience participates and drives the content with questions. Products like Roambi and Perspective which are currently tablet only are better adapted to a collaborative presentation or meeting tool.


Excel remains the tool best positioned to live in this new age. Its links and dependencies with the analog world are considerably weaker than its brethren as the job to be done is processing information. Communicating the data is usually done with separate pages containing graphs or report tables optimized for print or being copied into other documents.

In this case, Excel's job to be done will change very little and still has considerable value that other systems have yet to reproduce at the desktop. On the other hand, much of the heavy lifting of Excel can (and often should) be replaced by server-side tools that can offer better shared access to information, more reliable availability and backups.

Presenting and sharing Excel driven data currently done via OLE and copy/paste is accomplished more efficiently and with more value using the tools noted in the Powerpoint section. But as a backend for interpretation and analysis, Excel continues to offer real value to its users.

Where do we go from here?

The consequences are being played out in the market right now where it would appear that the traditional PC, desktop or notebook is a market that has peaked and is now starting its slow decline. Like any evolutionary platform change, this will not be immediate or quick and will play out over at least a decade. During this period I predict that the mass of computing will move to systems that are deemed good enough for most people, but that drive expert users crazy.

Currently, the driver for this change is predominantly the iPad. Possibly the most interesting thing about the iPad is that is has managed to become as big as it has without Microsoft Office. Granted that there is a level of reasonable compatibility for reading Office documents, but it exists outside of the fully compatible round trip environment deemed essential and necessary by so many.

Perhaps the jobs we hired Office to do for do many years are no longer the jobs that need to be done today?

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Reader Comments (26)

Doesn't Clayton Christensen argue that the job stays the same over time?

It's just that we don't need Word anymore to fulfil it.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHanno ten Hoor

Effectively, we've changed jobs, but Word hasn't changed. Originally we hired Word to produce paper documents, but the job we're hiring for today is a method of structuring electronic documents.

February 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterErik

You forget that Word format is for some time now practically an XML
You would still need to pass the data\information between different platforms.
the data must be in some format
HTML is not suitable since its not a container, image files for example need to exist separately
given that Word format is XML, it,s already used easily on the web
Word is definitely not less important
with Office on the web (Live services) Office product is a new era

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

The underlying file format is definitely a component, but the vast majority of all of the data that is stored in a standard Word file is superfluous to the eventual use of the content.

For an awful lot of use cases, a simple Markdown aware text editor is all that is required. In many other situations, a wiki or blog engine is all that's required. So many Word documents are created for things like operating manuals for internal applications. In these cases, the author and the end user are better served by a wiki-type online tool rather than a document container.

February 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterErik

You are touching different kind of using the content.
For content like manuals: in this case you are referring to creating content which is not meant to be passed along \ shared. Word is not necessarily here, I agree and it has been already replaced with other tools.

But again, for content which needs to be passed along \ shared between organizations or individuals, Word is what's needed.
There is also a problem regarding having the content offline.

I don't share your vision that Word is becoming less important.
Like I said, with what they did with the Live services (Office on the web), I think it's more important actually.
What you could say that is no longer need the Word desktop app installed anymore. But when you do not have internet, you need it :)

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Some valid points there, but a few extra data points to consider :

The job to be done is changing as can be demonstrated by the success of the iPad. There's no Word and no Office available for the platform, but people are buying them. Mostly because the job that we hire Word to do is becoming less relevant for many people. Email replaces paper mail, and the preparation and printing phases that precede it. A lot people bypass the whole question and just use Facebook (to my unending horror, but that's another discussion)

Interorganisation tools and getting better and better with the advent of open authentication tools, so things like document repositories and wiki style tools can be made intraorganisational and in many cases, completely externalised to internet hosted services.

That said, as I mentioned in the article, slower moving organisations still use Word as their primary tool for document management at all levels mostly due to inertia (and a few of the advanced collaboration functions like change tracking) but this does not describe the bulk of the purchasing public who will be content with "good enough" tools whether it be Pages, Byword, Drafts, Simplenote, etc.

February 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterErik

I bought a tablet specifically for usage scenarios where I don't need Office. I don't use Office less; in fact I use it more than ever. The tablet is great for content consumption, but in spite of all the arguments for content creation on a tablet, it's still far faster and easier on a personal computer. I think the real evolution of usage is not in the tablet, but in hybrid devices like the ATIV PC Pro 500t. It's not the fastest computer and has a lot of rough edges, but I increasingly leave the tablet with my wife and use the ATIV in all scenarios. Regardless, I'm excited to see where this is all going.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThomas


"There's no Word and no Office available for the platform"

Not completely correct.
It's true that Microsoft Office for iOS doesn't exist yet.
But there are products which can open and edit Office files.
So again, Office format is very useful.

"Mostly because the job that we hire Word to do is becoming less relevant for many people. Email replaces paper mail, and the preparation and printing phases that precede it. A lot people bypass the whole question and just use Facebook (to my unending horror, but that's another discussion)"

I don't understand why do you keep comparing Word with sending email.
Who's using Word to create content sent by email?
Email is meant to contain messages, not replace documents.

And Facebook!? How can you compare messages on Facebook with authoring content in Word?
It's a completely different kind of content.
You could compare email to Facebook if you want, but to a certain extent.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Disclaimer: I work as a lawyer in a law firm where I write Word documents all day. This may colour my perception (although I am trying to base this analysis on my own personal, out of work experience as well as what I see clients, who are not lawyers, trying to achieve with their computers).

Interesting points, particularly with respect to Word, but I think you've been sidetracked focusing on the page metaphor that Word uses. That might not be necessary in all cases but I don't think it's the cause of Word's problems. Rather, it's a symptom of the real problem: printing.

You don't say it in so many words but I think the job to be done for Word is the sharing of a particular type of information, namely information that isn't a spreadsheet, isn't an image and isn't simple enough to put in an email.

However, it's important to realise that there are in fact two types of sharing going on. Considering each in turn, we can think about whether a webpage is the correct solution.

By far the most important of the two sharings is sharing for feedback. In my experience, most people are creating Word documents as a means of collaborating with their colleagues. It is true that Word sucks at this job. And it sucks at this job because it is still built on the assumption that the primary way that people will share information is by printing it off and giving a physical copy to a person. But of course people don't print things off to share them any more, they email them. Nobody is emailing documents around because they like it but email remains the only robust way to share Word documents electronically (at least for versions up to and including Word 2011).

Now while email allows you to reap the minimum benefit of electronic communication it really is the bare minimum. Email doesn't allow for any of the advantages that electronic communication could provide in terms of collating and incorporating feedback. This is immediately obvious when you have more than two parties trying to collaborate on a single Word document.

The solution is certainly to leverage network storage. Does it follow that the Word document should be a webpage? I'm not so sure. I don't see why the problem isn't solved by me running Word as a desktop application while you run Word as a desktop application with the changes being transmitted (and possibly stored permanently) in the cloud.

Now that's the first type of sharing. The second sharing is sharing for presentation. This is where you are giving someone a Word document (or a PDF), not because you want their feedback, but because you want to communicate the finalised ideas contained in the document (and hopefully for them to take some action as a result). Again, Word assumes you will do this by printing. And again, the hack to get around this is email.

I don't think email sucks as much in this case because I'm not as convinced that the benefits of electronic communication are much better than paper. When I send a letter to another party, I'm not sure I do want that to be a webpage. I think I might really prefer to have it be a file. What do I gain from having it on a webpage? It's easier to update but do I want to update a letter? Do I want to update a receipt? That's not to say that I wouldn't like the ability to share via a webpage if that suited me. And Word sucks at this, too. But I'm not sure that's the best solution in all the circumstances (although I am open to being convinced).

Analysed this way, it's evident the pages metaphor that Word uses isn't central to the real reason it sucks: in essence, it isn't engineered from the ground up for electronic sharing. If it fixed that, it could keep all the page aspects it currently has and still be able to better solve the job to be done.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Camilleri

You hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph:

"Analysed this way, it's evident the pages metaphor that Word uses isn't central to the real reason it sucks: in essence, it isn't engineered from the ground up for electronic sharing. If it fixed that, it could keep all the page aspects it currently has and still be able to better solve the job to be done."

The page metaphor is the byproduct of it's print oriented legacy. Which also brings along a huge pile of functionality that isn't required for the mass of people for what we traditionally call "word processing"

This is course is leaving aside all of the issues concerning the crappy UI/UX and stability of the software (see

February 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterErik

That's the whole point. Word's original role (job to be done) was to facilitate communication, which was predominantly via paper. Communication tools and channels have evolved immensely and thus the job to be done of communication can now be accomplished via many different means.

I know it may look strange comparing what are essentially apples and oranges, but I'm looking at what we hired the product to do for us, not the necessarily it's conceptual description as a tool.

February 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterErik

No, I don't think Word was and is for facilitating communication.
It's for facilitating content authoring.

In my opinion, you are speaking of issues of a tool which is not suitable for the doing job anyway.
It's like complaining that you with a pen you can only write a letter to someone, but it can't help sending the letter to the person, you need to mail the letter.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I draw a distinction between the job to be done and the product that we hire to do that job. The job hasn't changed; we still want to share information, either for collaboration or presentation. What has changed is that technology now allows for a better product to be developed.

(Given how limited my understanding of 'jobs to be done' theory is, you very likely know more about this than I do, so I am willing to accept that the distinction I draw between jobs and products is incorrect.)

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Camilleri

No, I don't think Word was and is for facilitating communication.
It's for facilitating content authoring.

All information tools are for facilitating content authoring. But the purpose of almost every content authoring tool is communication.

It's like complaining that you with a pen you can only write a letter to someone, but it can't help sending the letter to the person, you need to mail the letter.

Actually, this is exactly what I am arguing. Technology evolved and now the pen can mail the letter. That Word does such a poor job of (the equivalent of) this is it's primary failure. But the problem is not that the pen is premised on the concept of the page; it's that it assumes that the page will be physical.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Camilleri

For me it looks simple.
Word, the product, is for authoring content. The content format, the Word document, is a container of information.

Collaborating is a different thing. Word is not good at that alone, unless you have solutions like Sharepoint for example. But when we say Word, we mean, Word the product or Word the format?

Comparing Word to email and Facebook is ridiculous in my opinion.
Both are a communication channel and content authoring tool, and can ANY kind of information attached.
Word exists more like a format these days. You can edit it on the desktop, web, keept it online and offline. But it's not a communication channel, nor meant as a message creator tool.

We are trying to invent or reinvent something which doesn't exist.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

It's more of a philosophical point than anything else. :-)

February 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterErik

There is already a class of products that does an excellent job of collaborative editing. They are called Wiki's

March 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob G

Yes - I agree.

The underlying point isn't that you can't use Word or that you should use a wiki, but analysing the underlying trends based on what people need/want to do.

I'm trying to point out that people's computing needs for 20 years gravitated naturally towards Word and Office, and now we're seeing broader adoption of non-Office capable systems that leverage other means of accomplishing the tasks people ask of them.

This displacement is much more visible and rapid in the general public who don't have business and operational workflows around documents in the same way that businesses do, hence the rapid uptake of modern tablets. As a side point, this may also be a factor in why previous Wintel tablets didn't take the market by storm, which were more of the same than they were different.

March 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterErik

Word is the last indicative of the planning age. Today peoples use Cell Phone to ask what to do.
They start the job without know the objective an resources. When all go wrong, they return to read again the e-mails received. If they detect your responsability, says: i do not received the e-mail. The other person enters ali-express to search the cheap solution for a not serious age.
Yes, I learn english by web.

March 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoni

Pagination is not really an overhead in Word files; it is dynamically generated and hence is a feature of the program not a data overhead. All programs have features some people don't need; pagination exists in Word because it is useful to some users for some jobs. Maybe not for you. The only negative impact is a product with a complex menu structure.

And "designed to be printed" and "paginated" are two completely different concepts. If you are producing a 30 or 40 page document designed to be read linearly, breaking it into pages with a table of contents etc is a very good format for screen reading. The death of printing does not mean the death of pagination, or the other related features of Word that provide layout information.

March 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Webb

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