A Case Against Extreme Specialization

January 12, 2012

By regular contributor Rafael Gomes de Oliveira:

No single person on the planet knows how to make a pencil. That is the idea behind economist Leonard Read’s humbling essay “I, Pencil.” Each of the tasks involved in the process – the felling of trees, the production of the lacquer, the mining of the graphite, the formation of the rubber, etc – are so specialized that no one person would be able to make a even simple pencil from scratch. Can you imagine making a toaster or personal computer?

Specialization and the division of labor allow society to combine many different skills in the production  of goods and services. Collaboration makes much possible. I don’t have to worry about making my own clothes or growing all the food I eat. However, specializations are becoming narrower and narrower all the time, even inside the discipline of civil engineering. Just take a look at ASCE’s several different technical groups and their committees. Despite all the benefits specialization brings, too much of a good thing can become a problem.

Specialization is often the by-product of having explored new and exciting territory, but it is difficult to come up with new concepts if you are working under too narrow a scope of ideas. By considering a broader knowledge base, you will be more likely to make connections across disciplines, where many innovative ideas come from. Leonardo da Vinci once said:

Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.

I follow this suggestion by maintaining awareness of things outside my area of expertise and by looking at the bigger picture. Too much specialization can limit your vision, resulting in scarcer creative opportunities. Creativity and innovation are two of the sought after skills in today’s market. Balancing specialized knowledge with broad awareness is key to creativity and innovation. Another key is practice. Yes, you can practice creative thinking. When making decisions try to think divergently instead of utilizing established concepts.

Companies are currently comprised, to some degree, by generalists and specialists. The generalists are usually in charge of a comprehensive view of the company or a project, and the specialists are responsible for fulfilling the required needs of the company. They are both equally important, and one can’t survive without the other.

I foresee a shift from this type of division into more hybrid workers. The most successful worker will be the one who can be both a generalist and a specialist. Their versatility will give them an advantage over someone who is either/or, and their creativity will allow them to come up with innovative ideas and concepts. Specialization will continue to be an important part of our civilization, but couple that with a generalist way of thinking and you will obtain a great formula for success both in your academic and professional lives.

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