Ever since Frederick Taylor suggested applying Adam Smith’s principle of the Division of Labor within the production and industrial engineering industry, to increase worker productivity, employee engagement has gone down and employee turnover spiraled up.
Henry Ford was one of the first to apply Taylor’s scientific management theory and the effects were detrimental: employee turnover rose to 370% – in 1913 Ford had to hire more than 52.000 men to keep a workforce of only 14.000.
Even so, it took another ninety years before managers acknowledged that specialization, following Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick, wasn’t the holy grail after all.
Semler’s book inspired me in 1993 to think differently about the organization of work; even before I became part of the business culture. It had a profound impact on my career.
Everywhere I went, Taylorism ruled. Not just in production but in every part of the organization. For instance, as a salesperson, I often had to convince programmers to make small adjustments to the software to meet specific customer demands. However, as they kept refusing to make any such adjustments, often without an explanation, I began to disregard customers that had special requests.
Specialization causes the fragmentation of an organization into separate groups; each with its own classification system of the world around them. I found that it drove people into believing that other groups posed a threat to their success, or at least felt they were engaged in some kind of internal competition. This behavior seems counterproductive and even foolish, yet, this is actually happening throughout most organizations today.
During my study for ROUNDMAP, I began to realize how detrimental siloization is to collaboration. As it is hampering creativity and thereby stifles innovation, often driving companies to their early demise.
According to investor Peter Thiel, academies around the world are still coercing students into choosing a single discipline, turning them into specialists, while strongly discouraging (even cautioning students) them to study multiple domains simultaneously.
The fact of the matter is that our educational system fulfills business demand; similar to how a business needs to fulfill customer demand. And businesses demand more specialists. Generalists are dismissed by default because their contributions can’t be quantified plainly through performance KPIs.
Innovation happens at the interfaces
Harvard concluded: “As innovation hinges more and more on interdisciplinary cooperation, digitalization transforms business at a breakneck pace, and globalization increasingly requires people to work across national borders, the demand for executives who can lead projects at interfaces keeps rising. Today the vast majority of innovation and business development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices, or organizations. In short, the integrated solutions that most customers want, but companies wrestle with developing require horizontal (i.e. cross-functional) collaboration.”
Digitalization at the interfaces
Due to the rapid rise of digitalization, the demand for generalists, polymaths, and multipotentiality will rise accordingly, as they ─ contrary to specialists ─ know how to connect the dots from having both a breadth of perspective as well as the depth of expertise.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that you should fire each and every specialist and hire generalists instead. All I’m saying is that, for your business to survive and thrive in the digital age, it needs a healthy amount of generalists too, to increase the value that needs to be created across the functional, mental, and data silos, and to make genuine progress.
I hope you’ll enjoy the following TED talk by Emilie Wapnick. Her story will help you understand that the idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and that you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it, isn’t normal. It just became the norm because we didn’t know any better.