Coming to grips with super specialisation

This article appeared originally in Gulf News: link to original article

We have come a long way since the first time labour specialisation was ever mentioned. Actually, I would like to think the concept of assembly line was very much affected by that, except on a smaller scale and applied in other fields rather than the typical examples of farming.

What makes specialisation special is not just that it makes people more focused and devote their time towards one or more simple tasks, but the fact that such devotion leads to the build-up of many hours of practice which leads to some sort of perfection in carrying out the given task.

Eventually, and if a person is an out-of-the-box thinker, such close to perfection performance leads to coming up with more efficient ways of carrying on tasks, subsequently saving on time and cutting down costs. So how has specialisation transformed from those times to the different needs of today’s markets and hence of various occupations? And how is this connected to career progression, horizontally or vertically?

Let’s consider an example here. Over the centuries, the once simple role of a physician has evolved so much from treating sickness to being specialised in tens of fields with tens of sub-fields under each. That in itself is an indication of how occupations are now so sophisticated that one-size-fits-all doesn’t work anymore.

This is of course subject to the nature of the occupation itself and how one’s career advances within the occupation, horizontally, or within an organisation or different ones, vertically. Specialisation as a concept has evolved from knowing how to efficiently plant a certain crop, to assembling a car part, to acquiring very specific set of skills to carry on multiple tasks that are no more simple, but complex.

The more specialised you are, the higher your market value is and the better your career prospects are. Or at least that’s how it should be.

There are currently three levels of specialisation within an organisation: extreme, mild, and low. In extreme specialisation, an employee can only advance in a horizontal fashion where they can get better grades hence better pay, but not necessarily penetrate the bureaucratic ranks of an organisation. They are more likely to jump from one organisation to another, getting more specialised and acquiring additional qualifications that make them more unique in their own field.

The low specializer is whom I like to call the ‘floater’ (you might want to research Schumpeter and skiving). A ‘floater’ is one who you can’t figure out what are they doing in an organisation because they don’t seem to have any clear speciality. They rather intervene in everyone’s work within a department, doing simple tasks or taking advantage of others to get them done.

A ‘floater’ cannot normally advance if in private sector. If a ‘floater’ was lucky enough to find a way to enter a private sector organisation, or via a personal connection, their luck will run out some time in the coming years.

The third and last type is basically everyone else who can do certain tasks requiring a specific set of skills, yet, they can easily shift to a different department and acquire new skills for the newly required tasks. Why is this important?

Well, occupations are getting more sophisticated and not the other way around. Understanding this can pave the way towards better career planning for individuals starting from university onwards. It’s not enough now to study finance, but to perhaps study corporate finance, or futures and options, or perhaps both.

Encouraging specialisation and paying well for it will result in better students’ distribution in different study fields, addressing shortages in highly technical occupations such as specific fields of engineering and medicine, as well as ensure that no outperformer gets condoned because of bizarre promotion and other rules.

The last thought I want to leave you with is, how can Emiratisation and specialisation work hand in hand?