Specialization is no longer just applicable to a factory floor. It now can be applied to all aspects of the workflow, and there are benefits for both employees and companies.
The rise of technology, especially the speed of information sharing, has aided access to skilled people, no matter where they are in the world. Today people are able to work, learn and share from a small office in Ukraine or a sea-facing balcony in the Bahamas. This mobility has furthered the trend of specialization, a process where work is divided into smaller and smaller pieces, with each part allocated to a specialist.
The benefits to employees are clear. You can work from anywhere in the world, at a time that suits you and on projects that interest you. For businesses, the trend offers the opportunity to create a network of global suppliers, all specialists in their specific fields, ensuring that each project has the absolute best people for the job.
Specialization is not a new idea. Anyone in the field will cite Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, written in 1776, in which he details the 18-step production cycle in a pin factory. But today, specialization is not only applicable to one factory floor. Indeed, specialization can be applied to all aspects of the workflow.
Direct access to specialists
Drawing on a network of specialists is just as relevant for knowledge work. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Age of Hyperspecialization”, the authors Thomas W. Malone, Robert J. Laubacher and Tammy Johns detail how computer-based jobs are distributed to “a vast army of workers [enabling] the completion of a whole new class of time-critical tasks”.
Companies such as TopCoder and InnoCentive offer a marketplace where coders, scientists and engineers can compete for specialist work. The benefit to employers is that they get direct, fast and economical access to specialists in their fields. Other online marketplaces, such as Samasource or the Amazon Mechanical Turk, offer a way to unload time-consuming “basic tasks”, such as Web searches or data entry, onto remote workers who are able to complete the projects efficiently and cost-effectively.
Drawbacks to specialization
However, there are certain instances where outsourcing could be detrimental to a company’s interests, says Jeff Wallingford, vice president of supply chain strategy at Riverwood Solutions. While outsourcing and specialization are not identical – in outsourcing, entire production processes are allocated to suppliers – these concerns are relevant here. Wallingford says production should stay in-house if the company’s manufacturing process is the source of its competitive advantage – be it the way it is produced, the need for secrecy (for example, the ingredients of Coca-Cola) or the importance of ensuring access to a limited resource or channel.
For permanent employees, specialization could hamper their development as experts are brought in before any workforce up-skilling can take place. The experts themselves could tire of what could become repetitive tasks, or worse, these globalized networks could result in what Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain calls “digital sweatshops” – where workers are exploited for low wages. And the benefits of employee mobility can become a double-edged sword: the specialists can leave the network whenever they like, as they are not tied into traditional employee contracts.
“Specialization is a way for companies looking for more agile, cost-effective production solutions.”
A way to meet changing demands
Still, specialization is a way for companies looking for more agile, cost-effective production solutions, for businesses wanting to meet volatile customer demand, for employers looking to address a talent mismatch, and for employees considering their options.
From manufacturing to knowledge work, the idea of specialization is the same: finding the best people who will provide the best job, at the best price, in the best timeframe. All of which allows companies to meet ever-changing customer demands.