Specialization can be good, or not

In the July-August issue of The Harvard Business Review is an article by Thomas W. Malone, Robert J. Laubacher, and Tammy Johns that describes how modern technology advances are transforming the workplace.  That is no surprise.  We need only look around how our tools and processes bear no resemblance to the ones we used only 10 short years ago to know that something big is going on.  Their point is that Hyperspecialization, which is the division of work into small tasks that are performed by ever more specialized workers, creates more speed, quality, and cost advantages.  Let’s hope they’re on to something that turns out to be better than the bleakness that is painted by that sentence.  It sounds like an assembly line to me, and having once worked on one, I can say that while I clearly understood the cost advantages of having armies of people doing one specific thing in sequence, it’s not something I wanted to do for any longer than that summer between high school and university.  The human spirit is too easily dulled by such repetition.

I encourage you though to read the article.  As befits the HBR, the writers argue intelligently and persuasively.  And it made me think about specialization versus the alternative, people being individually responsible for a far greater amount of the end product.  A comparison might be this.  Houses these days are constructed by many, many individuals, each being responsible for a piece of the product.   There is no question it is the only way to create many houses quickly and more cheaply but does it mean quality also is higher?  Not always.  But more importantly, there is a much higher degree of pride and satisfaction in the work done when a staff member owns responsibility for more of the output.  Again, through personal experience, I can say this is true.  I built my own cabin in the woods of Northern Ontario entirely with my own hands, from foundation to roof, from floor to ceiling, from kitchen cabinets, to the brick of the fireplace wall.  Sure I could have hired scores of people to do all that, but where is the sense of satisfaction and fun?  Why even attempt if you can’t see how what you did made anything of meaning?

About Peter Armaly
I get jazzed by automation, big data, and blockchain tech. Business, technology, and fitness are things I understand. Scotch, wine, food, and fiction are things I appreciate.

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