The Big Idea: The Age of Hyperspecialization

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations,published in 1776, famously described what would be one of the central drivers of economic progress for centuries to come: the division of labor.

Much of the prosperity our world now enjoys comes from the productivity gains of dividing work into ever smaller tasks performed by ever more specialized workers. Today, thanks to the rise of knowledge work and communications technology, this subdivision of labor has advanced to a point where the next difference in degree will constitute a difference in kind. We are entering an era of hyperspecialization—a very different, and not yet widely understood, world of work.

Looking at today’s terrifically complex supply chains, one might think we’ve already reached the extremes of specialization. Boeing’s initiative to build the 787 Dreamliner, for example, was hailed as the epitome of subcontracting—and then proved to have gone a bridge too far when the parts failed to come together as seamlessly as envisioned, and delays ensued. A web page listing just the “major” suppliers of the plane’s components contains 379 links. But an aircraft is fundamentally a physical product. Consider how much more finely work can be diced when it produces intangible, knowledge-based goods and the information involved can be transported anywhere in the world nearly instantaneously and at almost no cost.

Just as people in the early days of industrialization saw single jobs (such as a pin maker’s) transformed into many jobs (Adam Smith observed 18 separate steps in a pin factory), we will now see knowledge-worker jobs—salesperson, secretary, engineer—atomize into complex networks of people all over the world performing highly specialized tasks. Even job titles of recent vintage will soon strike us as quaint. “Software developer,” for example, already obscures the reality that often in a software project, different specialists are responsible for design, coding, and testing. And that is the simplest scenario. When TopCoder, a start-up software firm based in Connecticut, gets involved, the same software may be touched by dozens of contributors.

TopCoder chops its clients’ IT projects into bite-size chunks and offers them up to its worldwide community of freelance developers as competitive challenges (opening the possibility of becoming a “top coder”). For instance, a project might begin with a contest to generate the best new software-product idea. A second contest might provide a high-level description of the project’s goals and challenge developers to create the document that best translates them into detailed system requirements. (TopCoder hosts a web forum that allows developers to query the client for more details, and all those questions and answers become visible to all competitors.) The winning specifications document might become the basis for the next contest, in which other developers compete to design the system’s architecture, specifying the required pieces of software and the connections among them. Further contests are launched to develop each of the pieces separately and then to integrate them into a working whole. Finally, still other programmers compete to find and correct bugs in the sundry parts of the system.

TopCoder’s model is intriguing, not least for what it allows its network of almost 300,000 developers from more than 200 countries to do. Because the company aggregates demand for specific tasks, it enables a developer who is particularly good at, say, designing user interfaces to spend the bulk of his or her time doing just that. Indeed, TopCoder developers are becoming increasingly specialized. Some focus on programming specific kinds of software such as small graphics modules. Some have discovered a talent for putting together software components that others have written. And some specialize in fixing bugs in other people’s code.

In the great tradition of the division of labor, this hyperspecialization pays off. TopCoder can often provide its clients with development work that is comparable in quality to what they would get by more traditional means but at as little as 25% of the cost. And it manages to do this while maintaining a satisfied, well-paid community of coders. As we’ll discuss, the potential quality, speed, and cost advantages virtually guarantee that this model will become more widespread. But will its benefits be unalloyed? To ensure that hyperspecialization is as welcome as it is likely, we must keep our eyes open to its possible dangers.

Fast, Cheap, and Under Control

The term “hyperspecialization” is not synonymous with outsourcing work to other companies or distributing it to other places (as in offshoring), although it is facilitated by the same technologies. Rather, it means breaking work previously done by one person into more-specialized pieces done by several people. Whether or not those pieces are outsourced or distributed, their separation often leads to improvements in quality, speed, and cost.

Source: Harvard Business Review

About Abdul Rahman Alieh

I use this space to share interesting videos and snippets from articles and books I come across. I hope you find this blog interesting. Can't wait to read your comments! Abdul Rahman

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