Have you ever been thirty minutes and four specialists into a 1-800 support call and asked yourself, “Can’t they just let me talk to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about?”
I’m sure that for simple, run of the mill problems, these ”specialists” are great, but for complex problems, they’re in over their heads. The result is wasted time and a frustration on both ends of the phone. But if some business thinkers are to be believed, this is the talent model that’s going to win the future. I sure hope not.
The “Age of Hyperspecialization,” an HBR article penned by a group led by Robert Malone argues that in the future (i.e. read: today) firms will become increasingly competitive only if a larger and larger portion of their work is divided up and delivered by “hyperspecialized” employees. In essence, the future, they argue, will be like the proverbial 1-800 number we all loathe to call.
This new breed of worker will be dynamic, well-rounded, and well-positioned to tackle a vast array of problems—many of which don’t yet exist or haven’t been discovered.
The authors define “hyperspecialization” as the means of breaking up work previously done by one person into more-specialized pieces done by many. They specifically argue that intangible, knowledge-based work enabled by advanced communications technologies will be affected by this trend.
Break down this 21st-century “management speak” and the argument is merely a technology-enabled extension of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations . Smith’s 18th century argument was about the power of the division of labour: if you’re a good farmer and I’m a good blacksmith, we’re both better off if we do what we’re both good at and trade, rather than both trying to mill fields and forge horseshoes. So far so good. The problem comes when a case is made to extend the logic to the 21st century. Since Smith argued that the manufacture of a pin can be broken down into 18 specific steps in 1776, Malone infers that software development (and the creation of any other product or service) should be equally divisible.
Unfortunately he’s wrong. To paraphrase the novelist Heinlein: (hyper) specialization is for insects.
The HBR authors base much of their case for hyperspecialization on TopCoder.com, a service that chops IT projects into small chunks and uses a large network of freelance developers to fulfill the requirements. On specific projects with well-defined and documented scope, this model can work very well. Unfortunately, in the real world very few software development projects have well defined and documented scope.
In our recent paper Risky Business, we identified how poorly communicated or changing project scope has been a major risk factor in offshore outsourcing. Since, as Malone and company argue, hyperspecialization is enabled by the same set of technologies that enable outsourcing; this same concern is a major roadblock for hyperspecialization. In a nutshell, requirements and scope change. A lot.
It’s no surprise that the other significant trend in software development is the growth of Agile development, where requirements and solutions evolve through self-organizing cross functional teams. With a changing scope, it’s impossible to identify the specific specialized resources required. Worst case scenario is all the money saved sending piece-meal work to specialists will be spent again having in-house generalists stitch the work together, hopefully resulting in a product that isn’t just a ball of seams. Generalist skills enable flexibility, and flexibility often trumps specialization.
Another great example is the changing automobile manufacturing sector. Earlier generation assembly lines were specifically focussed at manufacturing a particular type of automobile in high volume. Assembly lines were staffed by hyperspecialized employees who were expert at very particular activities. The newer (and more profitable) model is the flexible manufacturing line that can manufacture sub-compact this morning, SUV this afternoon and minivan tonight. Once again flexibility rules.
An additional serious hole in the HBR argument is a misunderstanding of just how quickly technology changes. Who’s doing the same thing they did 10 years ago? Let alone 20 years ago? Almost no one. Kodak, the US Postal Service and YPG (Yellow Pages Group) were experts at film-based photography, physical mail delivery and print directory advertising and processes. Unfortunately, these companies (and their employees’ specialized skills) didn’t easily respond to disruptive new models and all are failing.
This isn’t to say specialization is always bad, it is itself very often good and can create an efficient division of labour, but it can also create mind-numbing boredom—the death knell of creativity. As we continue to invest in a knowledge and creativity-based service economy, why would we invest aggressively in destroying the cornerstone of creativity that generates this value in the first place? Hyperspecialization, in essence and substance, demands employees to do the bare minimum, and that simply isn’t good enough.
The iPad didn’t come from a scope document delivered from on high. The Blackberry PlayBook may have.
If hyperspecialization is a challenge from the firm’s perspective, it’s a catastrophe from the “specialists” perspective.
The more hyperspecialized you are, the less flexible you are and the more likely you are to get laid off in the next economic downturn. We are living in a world where high unemployment coexists with a war for talent in specific categories. Our society’s problem is not a lack of jobs: it’s a lack of skilled individuals for the disruptive high demand new jobs that our economy is creating. In other words, our employees are hyperspecialized for jobs that no longer exist. A generalist has the flexibility to move with relative ease into something related; a (hyper) specialist does not.
But if not hyperspecialization then what?
One answer comes from the team at Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow’s ICT Skills. They have an Information and Communication Technologies point of view and have taken on the challenge of solving the problem associated with a significant shortfall of employees in this sector. ICT jobs represent over 1.2 million jobs in Canada or almost 1 out over every 14 jobs in the country. As we move to shape our workforce to fill and grow these jobs, mistakenly stepping towards the promise of hyperspecialization could be devastating for Canada’s economy and our workers.
Today’s tech-related jobs are different. They are no longer only core computer science or programming but more often a mashup of digital skills with other areas such as game design, social networking, green technology, medical research, financial analysis, media and many more. These are all roles that cannot exist in a vacuum; they each implicitly require bringing together many skills in a specific—and novel—context. They are the complete opposite of hyperspecialized. Check out the newly launched Careermash.ca for more detail.
This new breed of worker will be dynamic, well-rounded, and well-positioned to tackle a vast array of problems—many of which don’t yet exist or haven’t been discovered. Their careers will be exciting and varied.
Apple has been the poster child for this changing technology environment. Apple and their employees are good at technology but they are also terrific at creating products with superior industrial design and usability. The iPad didn’t come from a scope document delivered from on high. The Blackberry PlayBook may have.
Worker ants didn’t invent Google, direct Avatar, or write War and Peace.
Multifaceted humans did.