in Innovation, Learning

Welcome to the Age of Hyperspecialization

Christina Hamlin, a technology and design consultant and Robert Hughes, President and COO of Topcoder led a conversation that was introduced as follows:

The work of the future will be atomized, with many workers doing pieces of what is today a single job. The hyperspecialization of workers may be inevitable given the quality, speed and cost advantages it offers- and the power it gives individuals to devote flexible hours to tasks of their choice. Just like craft workers of the past, knowledge workers, or hyperspecialists, will engage in peripheral activities that could be done better or more cheaply by others. Using real world business examples the panel will explore directed innovation through hyperspecialization.

The discussion was based on an Harvard Business Review article titled: The Age of Hyperspecialization. From the summary:

Just as people in the early days of industrialization saw single jobs (such as a pin maker’s) transformed into many jobs (Adam Smith observed 18 separate steps in a pin factory), we will now see knowledge-worker jobs — salesperson, secretary, engineer — atomize into complex networks of people all over the world performing highly specialized tasks. Even job titles of recent vintage will soon strike us as quaint. “Software developer,” for example, already obscures the reality that often in a software project, different specialists are responsible for design, coding, and testing.

Or check out this video by Thomas Malone from MIT:

The beginning of the hour was mostly dedicated to the methodology that Topcoder uses to do software projects. They use many true specialists (that compete against each other on getting jobs for these projects) and then a generalist (or co-pilot) whose task it is to pull everything together. One problem with this model was addressed by my colleague Ronald In’t Velt: people might lose passion for their job (and thus engagement) when they have too narrow of a focus in their specialty. According to Christina some people actually enjoy digging down in their specialization, whereas other still manage to reach outside their scope, just because they are interested.

One question that I was asking myself is how you prove your (or someone’s) competency in a very specialized field. Topcoders solution to this is to focus on outcomes rather than on the skills. If people have shown that they can create things that the user likes or fulfil a need, than that is a good predictor for the next project. For me this does not solve the inherent paradox in this. We need hyperspecialized people because our needs have hyperspecialized too. There is therefore a big chance that you are embarking on a project for which there are no previous outcomes. I am not sure that either of the presenters have really thought hard about this issue. If they don’t see it as a problem, then they are likely working with specialists, rather than hyperspecialists.