Beware the Perils of Hyperspecialization

A recent article over on the Harvard Business Review on the age of hyperspecialization said that we are entering an era of hyperspecialization and that it will convey a pulsating, world-spanning flow of knowledge work. Heraliding it as the continuation of Adam’s Smith division of labour, it notes that hyperspecialization reduces costs most dramatically when a company can turn to an expert instead of having to reinvent the wheel and alow the company to achieve a better utilization of their own employees’ time.

However, there can be just as many perils, if not more. The article, which clocks in at seven pages, briefly passes over these five perils:

  • Digital Sweatshops
    In developing economies, enterprising industrialists might use hyperspecialization to create “digital sweatshops” where workers, sets of whom specialize in specific tasks, are exploited for low wages by those who have the means to do so.
  • Astroturfing
    If work is divided into small enough parts, it is possible that a worker may not know what they are working on and may be contributing to something counter to their personal beliefs, or even the law. For example, a mathematician could design a new lottery game or a “greeting card writer” could be creating text for e-mail spam.
  • Electronic Surveillance
    Not only can every aspect of the work be monitored, but it may even reach the point where the work in progress, and the person doing the work, is monitored from start to finish.
  • Dull & Meaningless Work
    Even Adam Smith noted the deleterious results when a person’s work was reduced to “a few very simple operations” back in 1776. If tasks become so refined that they become monotonous, there surely will be ill psychological effects.
  • No Guarantee of Payment
    While spec work is not new, today, most spec work is confined to proposals. In hyperspecialization, workers will actually be doing the work and whether or not they get paid could be at the whim of the company that issues the task.

But misses the most important peril of all:

  • Loss of Vision
    If everyone works on a tiny little piece of a puzzle, over time there will be fewer and fewer people who understand how a puzzle is to be put together. This will seriously stifle innovation as the creativity that results from exploring beyond your horizons diminishes as horizons shrink.