Hyperspecialization: Opportunity for Mastery or Knowledge Worker Production Line?

Here’s an intriguing video interview with MIT Sloan professor Thomas Malone on his article about hyperspecialization.  In a nutshell, Malone sees that the age of cheap communications open an opportunity for workers to specialise very deeply and narrowly on particular tasks which can be joined together with other specialists in something of a knowledge production line (my interpretation, not his phrasing).

I’m unsure.  I absolutely agree about the opportunity to develop and exercise mastery in a particular (or several particular) area.  Dan Pink identifies Mastery as one of the three key motivating factors at work in his book, Drive.  However, I worry about creating a knowledge worker production line where individuals focus on micro-tasks without sight of the bigger picture.  This would surely lead to all the issues of disengagement which industrial age factories have experienced, compounded by isolation issues where these virtual production line workers all work from home.  If my hyper-specialism is auditing complex spreadsheets or tarting up  visually enhancing PowerPoint presentations, I may get very bored, very quickly.  Or maybe not.

I think the question is: what does “hyper” mean?  How narrow is narrow?

A second factor which may inhibit this development is that of transaction cost.  Back in 1937, Ronald Coase emphasised the role of transaction costs in determining the size and nature of the firm.  Essentially, firms or organisations will be as large as the marginal cost of transactions will allow.  The recent fall in such costs – through cheaper, more powerful IT – is a key driver / enabler in the recent exponential growth in freelancers and micro-preneurs.  In a world of serial hyperspecialists, the transaction costs of breaking down and then re-joining all of the micro-steps in creation will place a natural limit on the degree to which hyperspecialisation will be possible.

Food for thought.  I’ve watched the video, but haven’t read the full article yet.

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About Andrew Munro

An independent business consultant, interim manager and writer, Andrew operates through his company, Burning Pine Ltd (http://burningpine.com).
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