Margin Notes: Hyper-specialization in an Organization

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Note: This is the first of a new kind of blog post we’re trying out -- Margin Notes. Margin Notes are quick snippets to get your (and our!) mental energy percolating. Fewer than 250 words, stimulating, sometimes controversial. Enjoy!

As early as 2011, experts were concerned and excited by hyperspecialization in the 21st Century. The basic idea: As the market explores the potential of the knowledge economy, specialization can surpass traditional divisions of marketing, sales, operations, and research. New organizational structure allows for micro-divisions of labor -- let’s take marketing for example.

“Marketing” no longer distinguishes what an employee does. Are they a data analyst? A growth hacker? A social marketer? A network steward? A product evangelist? Each of these individuals has developed overlapping skillsets to be used for specific use cases. They have specialized.

In many industries, the number of people working on a project has ballooned while the portion each individual interacts with has shrunk. Projects get handed down a long line of specialists with only the project manager needing a bird’s eye view. This kind of collaboration has been shown to be efficient and rewarding. (For an interesting consideration of what specialization looks from a more macro-perspective, check out Nalin Miglani’s post here.)

The pushback is the parable of the blind men and the elephant. If each specialist has only their own work in front of them, they may think they’re making a pillar, a paintbrush, or a sail, rather than an elephant. The challenge for organizational managers is to encourage understanding of the whole as members of the organizations specialize in smaller and smaller pieces of the process.

The question then isn’t “Should business cultivate specialists?” but “When should business cultivate specialists?” and “To what extent?”

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