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”.
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
- 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?