Specialization is a common differentiation strategy in the business world. Finding a niche market and dominating it with specialized products or services has been an effective competitive strategy for over a century. Marketing gurus since the 1980s have preached the virtues of specialization. Employees have been told a similar story: Develop a specialized skill set for employment security.

There are numerous illustrations of successful companies that specialize. There are lending institutions specializing in home loans and construction companies specializing in commercial property, for example. But there’s a downside.

A business striving to corner a niche market may sacrifice their capacity to be agile. These companies replicate their specialism internally. They segment and organize the enterprise around functions or clusters of activity. This division of work is not dissimilar from the Ford Motor Company assembly line 100 years ago. Forming people around specific functions—while undoubtedly efficient—creates challenges in flexibility, responsiveness, and adaptability.

A barrier to agility is job specification. The time-honored practice of erecting clearly defined boundaries around jobs makes superficial sense. Narrow and clearly defined job design is about control—controlling the process and output of the worker. By restraining the work of the job-holder, employees can be held accountable for a few clearly defined tasks by management.

So what’s the price to pay for this clarity and accountability?

An agile enterprise has three workforce characteristics:

  • A highly skilled workforce.
  • A high degree of flexibility within its workforce.
  • Employees are in a continual state of honing and improving their skill set.

Job specification impedes these fundamentals, particularly the last two. The inherently inflexible job specification can, for instance, put the brakes on internal mobility. Learning skills beyond the explicit limits of the job-holder’s position description isn’t encouraged, and even discouraged. This learning barrier raises the question: Can the enterprise achieve the three agile workforce characteristics and—simultaneously—reap the benefits of job specification?

Flexible Deployment

An alternative approach—flexible deployment—doesn’t abandon job specification altogether. Flexible deployment means accumulating a range of experiences and retrofitting skills and competencies outside the scope of one’s job specification. In other words, it’s deploying the job-holder’s current specialized skills in a variety of ways beyond their job description. Flexible deployment builds new capabilities upon the foundation of specialization.

A professional public speaker can now diversify into giving presentations online. Or, a mechanic can work with customers to sell more products, leveraging off their product knowledge. In both cases, the specialist in deploying their current skill set in different contexts. They subsequently broaden their capacity. This is in the mutual interests of the individual and organization.

Flexible deployment doesn’t, however, mean becoming a jack-of-all-trades. It isn’t about transitioning from specialist to generalist.

Through flexibly deploying their capabilities the employee appreciates and understands a bigger scope of operational activity outside their job limits. The systematic deployment of competencies across an enterprise leads to organizational agility. Being adaptable and maneuverable contributes to greater responsiveness, increased speed, and—ultimately—more agility.

Where did job specification originate?

Job design and scientific management

Scientific management was the genesis of job design. Specialization has its origins in Frederick Taylor’s scientific management philosophy. Taylor broke the assembly line up into a series of specialist tasks and treated each component separately in his analysis of how performance could be boosted.

The driver for specialization was reducing waste and increasing efficiency. By identifying the best way (What Taylor referred to as the ‘one best way’) of performing a task, wastage in time, resources, and effort is abated.

Taylor studied each job in the factory to determine the least amount of time and effort required to complete it. Standardized methods of job performance were central to Taylorism. Each job on the assembly line would be meticulously planned in advance, and employees were paid to perform particular tasks in the way specified by management.

So, the present day people management practice of job specification originated from Taylor’s job specialization. A job specification entails breaking down a job into its simplest component parts and assigning them to a job-holder to perform the tasks in a consistent and efficient manner.

There are several obvious advantages to designing work around a job specification. Breaking tasks into small elements—with clearly defined repetitive processes—lessens the skill requirement of the job itself. It also decreases discretionary effort in the execution of the tasks and therefore lessens costs. Training timeframes are short and standardized, recurring tasks are broken into simple parts, and the success of the learning experience is likely to be high. But job specification has drawbacks in the transformed workplace we now work in.

Breaking a job into small and simple component parts can make the work dull and repetitive. Boredom can lead to lower levels of engagement and higher levels of absenteeism. Job specialization is ineffectual in dynamic and unpredictable marketplaces. In these volatile environments, the workforce needs to adjust its approach to respond quickly to changing circumstances. Selling products or services in a new market with a different culture, for instance, requires agility. A ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work.

Taylor’s philosophy of scientific management paved the way for automating and standardizing work, virtually universal in today’s workplace. The concept of the assembly line—where each worker performs simple tasks in a recurring fashion—is Taylorism in action. Job specialization eventually found its way into service industries, too. One of the biggest success stories of the application of scientific management principles is the McDonald’s franchise operation.

McDonald’s was the first fast-food restaurant to incorporate the divisions of specialization; one person takes the orders while someone else makes the burgers, another person applies the condiments, and yet another wraps them. With this level of efficiency, the customer generally receives a product or service with reliable quality.

If specialization can be applied successfully in McDonald’s restaurants and is now a feature of many fast-food franchise systems, how is it problematic for agile performance?

Specialization encumbers adaptive behavior. Job specification hampers agility. Engaging people in repetitive and dull work is challenging. The job specification puts invisible blinders on the job-holder. People can’t see the forest for the trees. Flexible deployment is the antidote to these problems.

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Dr Tim Baker, http://www.winnersatwork.com.au is the author of seven books, including his latest: Performance Management for Agile Organizations.

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