The Specialism Meme

The Specialism Meme

Do you feel you have much more to offer than the bounds of your current job afford you?

At the recent Agile Testing Days conference in Potsdam, one of the most common themes I heard from individuals was just this. That they could be doing so much more for themselves, their teams and their organisations than their given role, remit and management expectations allowed. And that they could be having much more fun in work, too, if only they didn’t feel so pigeon-holed and constrained by their nominal specialism.


We’re rarely aware of our prevailing memes and memeplexes which, nevertheless, profoundly influence the way we live and work. My recent post on Theories of Motivation and the Theory X and Theory Y memes is but one case in point.

Another of the many memes which pass uncommented and unexamined in most organisations is the idea of specialisation. In the Analytic memeplex, narrow specialism is deemed a helpful and beneficial strategy for making individuals more efficient and productive. This stems back to at least the days of Adam Smith and his 1776 book “The Wealth of Nations” wherein he described the principles of specialisation and division of labour.

Subdivide a job – such as making pins – into its constituent operations, and have different workers become expert in each of these different, repetitive operations. This allows for rapid training of non-skilled labour, and “an enormous increase in the productive powers of labour”.

T-Shaped People

In e.g. Lean Manufacturing, companies try to develop workers with multiple skills, multiple specialisms. This aids flow of work through the factory, by allowing workers to redeploy to different jobs and stations when bottlenecks and other impediments to flow arise. The production line can more easily adapt to the ebb and flow of demand.

In knowledge work too, we see organisations looking for T-shaped people – people with deep skills in maybe one or two areas, but with useful skills in perhaps a dozen other areas, too. And not only do they look for these T-shaped people, but organise the work such that people can become more T-shaped over time, and get to regularly use their whole range of skills “on the job”.


Yet, the egregious waste of human potential continues in most Analytic organisations, where people are locked into a narrow specialism, and expected to work inside that box, neither deviating nor wandering outside of it. This hardly endears the employer to the workers it so confines. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of dysfunctions that stem from the Specialism Meme in knowledge work:

  • Impediments to flow
  • Specialists as bottlenecks
  • Boredom
  • Waste of human potential

Why this tie to the Specialism meme? Because it’s bound to the other memes of the Analytic memeplex. Try to overthrow or replace this meme, and the other memes in the Analytic memeplex act to oppose the attempt.

It seems to me fruitless to address the dysfunctions inherent in the idea of specialisation, without addressing the other, interlocking and reinforcing memes in the Analytic memeplex too. And then we’re into the territory of Organisational Transition and the wholesale, organisation-wide replacement of one memeplex (i.e. Analytic) with another (i.e. Synergistic).

How would you explain the continuing hegemony of the Specialism meme in knowledge work organisations everywhere? And what would you suggest by way of means for replacing it?

– Bob

Further Reading

Paint-drip Shaped People ~ Kent Beck

  1. Nice post Bob, where it applies.

    With increasing product complexity comes the necessity technical specialization. For example, I help build multi-million dollar air defense and air traffic control radars that require the integration of: expert RF microwave antenna design skills, mechanical structures design skills, pyhsical materials skills, analog RF/IF hardware design skills, digital signal processing hardware design skills, mathematical radar waveform and tracker design skills, real-time embedded software design skills, web/GUI software design skills, database design skills. Unless you’re lucky to be blessed with a team of Einsteins, it’s impractical to expect people to become proficient across more than one (perhaps two) of these deep, time-consuming-to-acquire skill sets.

    If, by “knowledge work” (which is quite a squishy term like “agile”), you specifically mean single domain, software-only work (e.g. a web-based IT app attached to a backend database), then I think cross-skill training is a worthy and pragmatic goal. However, it’s all about context – and that’s why I consistently “challenge” software coaches/gurus who confidently think their ideas are universally applicable across-the-board like physical laws.

  2. Oddly enough, I often find it’s the workers that resist branching out and learning a different skill. This puzzled for a while, but I think I figured out one cause. There’s a feedback loop related to hiring that reinforces specialization.

    When hiring, analytical organizations mostly recruit for technical skills. As such, as a worker that changes jobs every 3-5 years, unless I’m becoming management, I want to deepen my technical skills so that I become more sellable on the job market.

    As an example, this week a team I’m working with had a brainstorming session for a new product. We had developers, artists and “product people” in the same room working on defining a prototype. During breaks, I’ve had several private chats and found to my surprise that some developers viewed the session as a waste of their time. They were hired to write code, not come up with product ideas, the thought went. Why weren’t the product people doing their job? Does the company know what it’s doing?

  3. Paul Beckford said:

    Hi Bob,

    “How would you explain the continuing hegemony of the Specialism meme in knowledge work organisations everywhere? And what would you suggest by way of means for replacing it?”

    You are on a roll 🙂 This is a question that deserves an answer. I think that behind the specialism Meme lies a deeper Meme, one I will call the Control Meme.

    Let me explain. Prior to the industrial age there were craftsmen who possessed a broad range of skills. Everything needed to deliver a product or service.. By virtue of their skill these people gained social status and could earn a tidy sum. An example in point is the guys that use to make medieval armour. This was a rare skill indeed, and a full suite of armour was extremely expensive, well beyond the reach of most, and the craftsman involved were well rewarded.

    With the rise of the company, industrialisation and modern day capitalism, the Capitalists needed to find ways of deskilling the work and in so doing removing the dependency on skilled craftsman. The way they did this was to break the work down into simple repetitive tasks and to automate as much as possible. That way they could always ensure that there was a ready pool of cheap labour available to them. Specialism as a means of deskilling, and in so doing as a way for Capital to maintain control over Labour.

    This desire for control has deep routes and can be traced back to slavery. Early companies based their structure and policies on those used in slave plantations. For example the modern day supervisor (manager) is a direct descendent of the overseer used in slave plantations.

    You see this in software today. The drive to turn programmers into a commodity. The drive to get rid of programmers all together if possible 🙂 At its route is the desire for control.

    As to what to do about it? Well it depends who is asking 🙂 As a capitalist looking to maximise the return on your investment, the best labourers are the ones you don’t have to pay – slaves. With the move to a knowledge economy and an increasing dependency on well educated knowledge workers, the capitalists are turning to developing nations as a source of cheap labour. Globalisation as a means of increasing the labour pool and in so doing reducing costs.

    As a worker, you want to convince the powers that be that giving up some control can be a good thing for all involved. This is a hard sell however. It isn’t difficult to convince capitalists that paying themselves more is a good thing, but convincing them that empowering others, and rewarding them accordingly is also a good idea is much trickier 🙂

    I was sorry to hear about your bout of depression the other day. I hope it has past BTW. I suffer from bouts of depression too. One definition of depression I’ve come across that I find very useful is that depression is the frustration one feels when you want change something you have no control over….

    I find this really useful. It reminds me not to get hung up on things over which I have no control. Capitalists don’t come out of this little expose of mine very well 🙂 I’m not condemning capitalism. There have been many capitalists that have taken a different approach to the one I describe here. Over the longer term these have been amongst the most successful capitalists. One group that comes to mind are the Quaker industrialists of the 19th century.

    This does provide some hope I guess. Maybe getting capitalists to play the long game is one way of changing things. To advance this as a strategy however is to misunderstand human nature I think. The Quaker industrialists weren’t motivated solely by money, and yes whilst their enlightened approach was also economically beneficial, they would have chosen that approach anyway even if it meant earning less.

    Which brings me back to spectre of control… None of us can control the motives of others, however well intentioned our desire to. Accepting this and knowing when to let go is one way of maintaining your own wellbeing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: