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Are We Too Specialized?


Today’s economy is based on ever narrower specialization–people who know their specific domains inside and out, even if they don’t know much else. But this might be leading to greater problems in the future.

Specialization only became possible as technology advanced, requiring workers with special knowledge in order to do their jobs. In the past, certain trades were also specialized, and such knowledge was kept within that profession. Apprentices learned from experienced tradesmen, and so it was in many kinds of work for hundreds of years. Today, such arrangements are relatively rare. The knowledge required has been largely institutionalized in the form of universities and trade schools. Apprenticeships still exist, of course, but labor specialization, as such, has itself become more specialized. Very narrow degree and vocational programs now exist that can take one down a very specific career path, but leave you without skills to do much else. This is perfectly fine if such a career can carry a person all the way through their working years, but such professions are few.

To make matters worse, employers often fail to appreciate that their own needs may be highly specific, so much so that it is virtually impossible to find a worker who comes pre-trained in solving those precise problems. It does not mean there is no one who is competent to do so, only that an individual with the exact background and knowledge to solve the firm’s problems immediately does not exist. Obviously, a competent individual with sufficient relevant background could evaluate the situation and come up with solutions, but too often employers want someone who has already solved their exact problem elsewhere–in other words, they don’t want to gamble on a hire who may not work out.

An amusing example I saw of this was an effort to locate a trained chemist with 10 years of experience testing for alkaloids in the food industry using Agilent 1290 systems. Evidently, such an individual with that precise skill set and experience does not exist. This leaves a firm with two choices: find someone who fits at least some of the criteria and train them, or let the position go unfilled. I have seen firsthand that the latter is a common choice, which makes perfect sense if the decision is evaluated purely from a financial standpoint–it looks fine on the balance sheet to not spend money on a new hire–but is utterly senseless in terms of fulfilling broader organizational goals.

As particular fields become full of narrow specializations, it also becomes necessary for those different specialties to communicate with one another. It is rare that someone would work in isolation on a very specific problem that no one else would have any input to, or that no one else would need to interact with. Odds are, whatever is being worked on is a small piece of a larger puzzle, and fitting those pieces together is yet another specialty. It falls upon managers of various stripes, and often project managers in particular, to determine how various separate projects interlock into a single functioning whole. This, however, is rarely a rote process, since it involves communication that effectively impresses a common vision upon everyone working on their individual projects.

But once people are so far down their own specialties they can’t communicate across disciplines, it’s easy for organizations to become dysfunctional. Some out-of-the-box thinking is required to pick up the pieces once they start falling to the floor. What can be done? Is there any hope, other than hiring managers experienced with cross-functional teams who can possibly bridge the gap?

Some novel approaches are being developed with the help of humanities and liberal arts majors. Long derided as economically worthless degrees, it turns out that people who major in languages, arts, and humanities often develop a better understanding of human behavior and communication than people with solely technical or business-oriented credentials. To be clear, I don’t believe such degrees would be without value even if they were completely useless in business–they are chronically underrated, in my opinion. In any case, part of why such degrees are useful in a management context is because pursuing such a degree in the first place more and more comes to depend on interdisciplinary learning. Language is inseparable from culture; culture is inseparable from history; history is inseparable from social geography; you get the idea. If someone is serious about the subject, it’s almost inevitable that branching out into other fields will become part and parcel of the education experience. It helps one to appreciate the interconnectedness of all knowledge and, indeed, all people. Where liberal arts degrees obtain their bad rap is likely from those who had no passion for it, and obtained the degree just to _have _one. Of course, people do this with business degrees and various other programs, as well, without those programs having their reputations tarnished.

In all fairness, what I am describing is not terribly common yet. Examples are largely anecdotal, such as this English major who became a project manager. Only a small percentage of managers, at this point, have backgrounds that focus on the humanities. But when poor management–and poor project management–are abundantly in evidence, it’s time for more radical thinking.

Technical specialists can benefit from such non-technical knowledge, as well. I, personally, have found my studying of art and history very helpful in understanding both the world around me and the problems I encounter in my job. Such problems are often very human, as well, and unfold with all the endless varieties of human behavior. What comes to mind most readily is how often people misuse database fields, entering forms of data that are wholly inappropriate or nonsensical for the field’s purpose. A poor or mediocre database designer simply finds a way to ignore or exclude the unexpected data. A better one tries to learn from users exactly what they are attempting to accomplish, and then seeks to accommodate those needs. And sometimes those needs go well beyond the scope of the original design–perhaps the data in question doesn’t belong in this database at all. But the database administrator, so specialized as he is, may not consider this–or, more likely, may be forced to go forward with what’s already in place. Concerns over time, budget, and resources can, in the end, override the desire to do things more correctly. But this leaves everyone except the bean counters unhappy.

In the end, there’s nothing wrong with specialization, but it should be balanced out with a broader set of knowledge outside one’s specialty. Ideally, this is what a university education is supposed to be for, to provide this common experience and set of intellectual tools for examining the world, but it rarely exists outside academia. More’s the pity, as that kind of dialogue and engagement with the world can lead to better communication and better solutions when facing problems in the business world, too.

Perhaps, in time, more companies will come to appreciate this, as well, and realize that winnowing their labor force down into excessively narrow specialties can do more harm than good. None should be so specialized that he or she can’t communicate or work with anyone else, and yet this is precisely the kind of environment that is often created. There are better ways.

Photo by FCVRE