Hyperspecialization as a Leadership Tool
In their Harvard Business Review article The Age of Hyperspecialization, researchers Thomas Malone, Robert Laubacher, and Tammy Johns highlight the rapidly transforming workplace, and the shifting demands (and opportunities) for technology workers to specialize. They claim that "dividing work into ever smaller tasks performed by ever more specialized workers" will improve work output, and provide quality, speed, and cost benefits to the business.
The article cites the model of the company TopCoder, which "chops its clients’ IT projects into bite-size chunks and offers them up to its worldwide community of freelance developers as competitive challenges ." It’s a unique concept, allowing the company to crowdsource their projects across 300,000+ coders from more than 200 countries. By breaking the project into smaller pieces, TopCoder is able to dramatically reduce costs (as low as 25% of the cost) for comparable quality of a traditional project. The authors treat the concept positively, highlighting the competitive benefits and flexibility of the model.
Feedback from readers, however, was mostly negative, pointing out that most businesses and individuals will struggle with implementation of this concept. Not every project can be broken down in assembly line fashion. Clearly, there is a disconnect with the concept of hyperspecialization and practical application across information worker roles. One respondent even used the example of wanting to specialize in producing graphics for data sets, and the resulting competition he assumed would happen around the task.
I believe these readers completely miss the point.
As I read the article, my mind went to the core tenet behind the book First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman: understand people’s strengths, and manage to those strengths. Hyperspecialization, in my opinion, is just another label for finding the things that your employees do well, and structuring their work (and their measurements, as well as corresponding rewards) around those strengths. As the HBR researchers discovered, when people are allowed to specialize — ideally in the areas in which they are most passionate — they will produce more, of a higher quality, in a shorter timeframe, and with higher job satisfaction. This has been my personal experience, as both an employee and as a manager.
Of course, as a leader you must balance this hyperspecialization with the needs of the business. Not every project, team, or company can support this concept. It should be viewed as yet another tool in the manager’s tool belt.