Work 2.0 – Hyperspecialization

Great article over The Harvard Business Review – The Big Idea: The Age of Hyperspecialization which looks at the phenomenon of organizations breaking down knowledge based tasks into increasingly smaller pieces.  This is very similar to Adam Smith’s classic Wealth of Nations that looked at breaking down the steps of manufacturing operations (i.e., pin making) into many steps – taking away the need for a specialized workforce, and turning the entire operation into basically manual labor.  From the article:

Just as people in the early days of industrialization saw single jobs (such as a pin maker’s) transformed into many jobs (Adam Smith observed 18 separate steps in a pin factory), we will now see knowledge-worker jobs—salesperson, secretary, engineer—atomize into complex networks of people all over the world performing highly specialized tasks. Even job titles of recent vintage will soon strike us as quaint. “Software developer,” for example, already obscures the reality that often in a software project, different specialists are responsible for design, coding, and testing. And that is the simplest scenario. When TopCoder, a start-up software firm based in Connecticut, gets involved, the same software may be touched by dozens of contributors…TopCoder chops its clients’ IT projects into bite-size chunks and offers them up to its worldwide community of freelance developers as competitive challenges (opening the possibility of becoming a “top coder”)….

The term “hyperspecialization” is not synonymous with outsourcing work to other companies or distributing it to other places (as in offshoring), although it is facilitated by the same technologies. Rather, it means breaking work previously done by one person into more-specialized pieces done by several people. Whether or not those pieces are outsourced or distributed, their separation often leads to improvements in quality, speed, and cost…

Hyperspecialization reduces costs most dramatically when a company can turn to an expert instead of having to reinvent the wheel. For example, consider how much (expensive) time junior law associates spend researching the same legal precedents again and again in firms across the United States. Contrast that with the value a firm could realize by tapping into a network of experts who each specialize in some tiny aspect of the law. A firm might suddenly require knowledge of, say, the detailed rules and precedents associated with filing deadlines for U.S. antitrust cases, or the rules of evidence for murder trials in Texas. It could pay a hyperspecialist five times the hourly rate of a junior associate and still come out well ahead on costs.

I think within HR many get this concept.  We see recruiting functions being broken into so many subsets, it’s hard to find an actual “recruiter” anymore.  Gone are the days that someone works a “full” desk.  Where you work directly with a hiring manager, develop the job description, determine a compensation strategy, design a sourcing plan, source, screen, assess, interview, reference check, make an offer, on-board, etc.   I’m not saying the “good-old-days” are preferred by me – I love the new way to work.  The speed at which we can recruit candidates now continues to blow my mind, as I think of our time to fill numbers when I started recruiting in the 90’s!

As we move into this post economic recovery phase over the next 5 years, watch as you see organizations redesign many of their functions with this concept in mind.  As an HR Pro it will make it even more important that you really get involved in the operations of your organizations, so you can help direct your leaders into this hyperspecialization of our workforces.  This is a change some, especially the old guard, will want to fight – “we’ve always had a Process Engineer, just give me another”, versus looking at alternative ways to do the same work – faster, cheaper, more effective.  Internally, to our organizations, we need to be the experts in how to design and get the most out of the headcount we have – Hyperspecialization will be one more tool in your arsenal.

One thought on “Work 2.0 – Hyperspecialization

  1. Great post, Tim. I think of myself when reading this and can’t help but think I’d hate to be so hyperspecialized that I did the same thing all the time. One of the things I love the most about my job is that I have responsibility for a broad function and am able to do many different things from day-to-day, thus alleviating some of the boredom and repetition that this seems to imply.

    We cross-train a large portion of our houly manufacturing workforce for this very reason – doing the same thing day after day leads to burnout, quality issues, higher turnover, etc. Do you see hyperspecialization as possibly having negative implications in this regard?

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