Over Specialization

It seems as though business, or maybe more accurately organizations and the conduct of business, is at a crossroads. Like “process”, organizations seem to have drifted into the position that if a little bit of specialization (and process) is good, then a whole lot of specialization (and process) must be better, right? After all, if one man who is a four hundred meter specialist can run the distance in about forty five seconds, and four men who are hundred meter specialists can run the distance as a relay team in thirty six seconds, then forty men who are ten yard specialists should be able to do better than that, right? When does specialization run its course when it comes to creating an advantage?

I absolutely agree that some specialization can create a competitive advantage. As noted above, four one hundred yard sprinters working together will usually beat a single person running the distance alone. The focal point of this is the word “usually”.

Since 1920 the United States four hundred meter relay team has won the gold medal fifteen out of a possible twenty one Olympic games. One time they didn’t compete due to a boycott. So three out of every four Olympics they have run the race and won. The other twenty five percent of the time they either finished behind, or didn’t finish at all because of poor handoffs of the baton. The handoff either slowed them down, or they dropped the baton and did not finish all together.

On the surface this looks like a pretty good performance. From an Olympic standpoint there is no doubt. It is excellent. But what is our reaction if we translate this performance into business terms? What would you do if someone came up to you and said:

“I am going to quadruple your costs (going from one employee to four), improve your performance by just under twenty percent (reduce your time from forty five seconds to thirty six seconds), and introduce a one in four chance that you will not even finish the project (the baton gets dropped twenty five percent of the time). In return for these increased costs and risk, you will succeed three quarters of the time.”

Now admittedly I have stacked the deck here a little bit. The Olympics happen only once every four years. This rarity of opportunity has a tendency to breed a “Win at all costs / Win or go home” sort of mentality. It is indeed a high risk – high return mentality. But I think it helps to make my point.

Business on the other hand occurs every day. While there is competition, success is usually measured in relative terms. I think that the Sales role is the only one where there is a win – lose relationship with the competition. You either beat them, or you don’t get the customer order (“the gold”). After that everything is more of a “how well did you do” question as opposed to a “did you win” question.

What I think it also points out is that specialization does introduce incremental expense in the form of multiple specialized participants where in the past there may have been fewer potentially more generalized people. The idea here being that if you can grow the business to the point where you can break the increased work down into smaller more specialized roles that can be aggregated it can be more efficient. This brings up the next point.

How far can the work be efficiently broken down and aggregated? If four can do it faster than one, can eight do it faster than four? Can forty do it even faster than that? At what point do you spend more time passing the baton than actually running the race? If no one can ever accelerate to their potential ability (top speed) before they must pass the baton, will the relay team actually be faster in the total?

The final aspect of the added cost and complexity of over specialization is the risk it induces. If the best relay teams have three hand-offs of the baton (first leg-second leg, second leg-third leg, third leg-anchor), and manage to drop it one out of four races, what happens when more and more baton hand-offs are introduced. It is possible to theorize that there is a point where there are enough handoffs that it is statistically probable that there will always be at least one dropped transition, and no race (project) will ever be completed, at least without some secondary group to monitor the transitions and make sure that a final work project is in fact delivered.

I believe that this secondary group responsible for making sure that all business baton handoffs occur (amongst other process responsibilities) is usually called the “Quality” group, but that could just be my opinion. They are the group that is usually responsible to make sure everyone runs in their proper lane, and hands the baton off when they are supposed to.

Specialization is the logical extension of what is known as “Fordism” in the theory of production. As we all know Henry Ford was one of the first to recognize the values of specialization and the production line. Although Fordism was a method used to improve productivity in the automotive industry, the principle is thought to be able to be applied to any kind of manufacturing and by extension business process.

Fords major success is thought to have stemmed from a couple of major principles:
1. The standardization of the product (nothing hand-made: everything is made through machines and molds by unskilled workers)
2. The employment of assembly lines, which used special-purpose tools and/or equipment to allow unskilled workers to contribute to the finished product

I didn’t make that last bit up. I looked it up in my cyber wanderings regarding specialization.

Ford wasn’t the first to do this but he saw the value in breaking complex tasks down into component simpler ones in order to better utilize the available labor component. The point that I see here is that specialization was born from the need to get the most productivity possible from the predominantly unskilled labor force. Today we seem to be continuing to try and further apply these principles to a very skilled and in many cases knowledge based labor force.

I think some specialization does in fact produce returns that can be justified against the increases in complexity and added potential risk of a “missed hand-off”. I also believe that there is a point where the number of hand-offs and the added complexity of having tried to add too many runners into the relay race generates decreasing returns.

When a business gets to the point where it loses visibility of the overall delivery responsibility, it has probably decomposed its work products beyond its optimal granularity.

Most businesses today do not rely on unskilled labor. If fact most of the technology based organizations that are looked to as drivers of the new economy require not only college degrees as a minimum threshold for employment, but would prefer that employees come with previous experience for the job. In short, organizations are looking for smart people who already know how to do the job.

It is against this increasingly intelligent and skilled workforce requirement that organizations seem to be trying to reduce the skill and intelligence needed to do a job by ever reducing the scope of the job as it gets more and more specialized. Business in effect wants people who can do more, but wants them to be limited by specialization to doing fewer things – hopefully better.

In encouraging team members to focus on smaller and more specific roles instead of understanding and requiring more and broader capabilities, organizations run the risk of stifling future leaders. If team members are incited to only worry about their specific task, where will the next generation of leaders who will be responsible to the team’s performance of aggregated tasks come from?

Business leaders require a very good working knowledge of many different business disciplines in order to be successful: Sales, Finance, Marketing, Operations, and Service, just to name a few. A lack of knowledge in any of these areas, or an over dependence on any of these specific disciplines can weaken the leadership capability of the organization.

Even in the age of (over) specialization, the title of the “Worlds Best Athlete” still is bestowed upon the winner of the decathlon. The decathlon is the event where there are ten different aspects of the competition. The winner of the decathlon is not an expert in any one or two of these aspects. They don’t have to win all of them (or potentially any of them) but they must be very good in all of them.

Leadership today needs to recognize the trade-off between specialization in the drive for efficiency, and generalization in the need for a broader end to end view of business. Future leaders cannot be expected to easily move from a specialized discipline experience set to a generalized business leadership set, anymore than a sprinter should be expected to be able to effectively compete in the other nine aspects of the ten event decathlon. Nor does the decathlon allow for a passing of the baton between ten people, one for each event.

While business does depend on team work and the ability of the team, sometimes it is not a specialized relay race.