Maladaptive specialisation: is there a danger in being too specialist?

In an industry where it pays to be specialist in one key area, what are the implications on the wider organisation? Arraz Makhazani of UnWork looks at the limitations of overspecialisation in the workplace

The changing dynamic of teams means that there is an increasing pressure on workers to become more specialised. With the advent of platforms such as Mechanical Turk, TopCoder and InnoCentive, it has never been easier to farm out tasks to flexible networks of specialists who have become experts in small processes. The impetus for this process is the productivity gains realised through successive waves of specialisation; economist Adam Smith famously showed how the division of labour could increase the output of a pin factory from 10-20 pins per day to 50,000. Now we see analysts who are authorities on niche processes, cars that have pieces assembled across an entire continent and scientists who spend their entire lives researching one organism. While there are clear gains to this methodology, we should consider the extent to which this has gone too far.

Extreme specialisation

The argument for specialisation is generally that if one becomes an expert in a process, they are very efficient at completing it. If you are making widgets all day, every day then you can identify the most efficient way to improve the production of them.

However, when it comes to the hiring process it is not typically done by the expert but instead by the human resource department. This can mean that, in extreme cases, the right person is not hired because of a misunderstanding and disjointed approach to the skills needed to undertake the role. By placing people in rigid siloes of specialisms it can become a barrier to furthering the success of the organisation.

‘Overspecialisation can cause expertise and knowledge to become fragmented …’

Recently many organisations are taking active steps to dismantle siloes within their organisations – the benefit of specialist people is creating dynamic teams where people can share their expertise with others. When skills and knowledge become too concentrated, siloes begin to form. Specialists need to be included in a more general, wider ecosystem of people who can share a broader range of knowledge to help further the organisation as a whole.

The more people work with others and in other specialisms, the more they learn about things outside their realm of knowledge. This breaks down siloes and helps people see the bigger picture and what the organisation is actually for as well as just what that individual does. In the US military, flag offices (generals, admirals etc.) for some posts actually have to spend time outside of their branch to solve exactly this problem and combat their overspecialisation.

Overspecialisation can also cause expertise and knowledge to become fragmented and concentrated. If someone wants to know if a product is viable, they may have to talk to a number of different specialists and somehow integrate their opinions rather than speaking to one wider team who have a broader knowledge base. This can delay decision making or result in critical business knowledge and skills being lost.

The adaptation problem

While there are several issues with overspecialisation, one of the biggest may be the adaptation problem. When you become increasingly specialised, you become more successful and adept at dealing with a particular environment and set of circumstances. When fine-tuned to a specific niche and highly adapted, there is a high risk that any change in the environment will lead to heightened disruption for specialised employees. So what happens to a worker who is so specialised they cannot adapt quickly enough to changes in the workplace? The same thing that happens to organisms that are overspecialised to their environments: extinction.

Take for example coders. If a coder is specialised in one particular application, they may be great at churning out code for that specific program. But what happens if that application then becomes obsolete? Or if advances in fields like artificial intelligence render the entire concept of human coders obsolete? At that point you need adaptability and flexibility to learn new skills as well as a foundation in a range of other skills not directly related to your work. Exactly the kind of things that you will not have been working on due to your specialism.

‘As the nature of work continues to change, being able to deal with change effectively is going to be one of the most important skills …’

Indeed, there is much excitement about the benefits of specialisation, yet we rarely hear about the benefits of generalists. Wider ranging skills and working across siloes promotes the ability to see the bigger picture and be more adaptable in an ever-changing workplace. New theories and inventions are increasingly the domain of specialised multi-disciplinary teams and given that breakthroughs often rely on piecing together disparate pieces of information from different disciplines, having some generalists with broader, shallower knowledge is often extremely useful when having to piece things together.

This article does not aim to argue against specialisation; there are many cases in which specialisation is essential for the correct functioning of a role. Science for example relies heavily on specialisation because there is simply too much detailed information being generated for anyone to have a chance of becoming reasonably knowledgeable about all of it. The important point is that we need to recognise overspecialisation and know when it becomes maladaptive. We need to be able to recognise skills that are useful regardless of specialism and make sure that we are still engendering useful traits like adaptability into the workforce. As the nature of work continues to change, being able to deal with change effectively is going to be one of the most important skills of the 21st Century.

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork