Adaptability and the dangers of specialization

If you are a part of an empowered work environment, or seek to cultivate empowerment in your business, I encourage you to check out James Scott’s new book, Two Cheers for Anarchism. It’s an astonishingly (and perhaps unintentionally) relevant business book for people who seek to foster decentralization, freedom, openness, and accountability within their businesses. From the fourth chapter:

…static conditions are the exception rather than the rule. …the larger the repertoire of skills a worker has, and the greater her capacity to add to that repertoire, the more adaptive she is likely to be to an unpredictable task environment and, by extension, the more adaptable an institution composed of such adaptable individuals is likely to be.

When we’re speaking with prospective employees about joining the GuildQuality team, we look for three characteristics: Friendliness, Commitment, and Resourcefulness. Friendliness helps us to get along and makes it easier to provide great service for our clients. A committed team engenders trust. And resourcefulness reinforces and cultivates our organization’s adaptability.

Contrast the organization filled with adaptable people to an organization oriented around specialization (aka Fordism). I’m beginning to think that specialization brings only short-term benefit to organizations and workers, constrains the options of the specialized worker, and hampers the flexibility and nimbleness of the company as a whole. In order to be flexible, the company with specialized workers must either be able to quickly retrain or repurpose employees or they must inevitably fire people en masse. In order to be retrained or repurposed, workers must be open to change and willing to adapt. If a worker has prospered from doing the same thing over and over again for several years, she may find it difficult to change, no matter how much encouragement she receives from her organization. As a result, companies confronted with changing landscapes must fire their specialized workers. Firing people then makes it harder to hire the people they actually need, which in turn hampers the long-term health of the organization.

In contrast, a worker with broad skills and willingness and interest in cultivating new skills will always be able to make a living and enjoy her work.

An important note: A specialized person is not the same as a person who has specialties. In order to prosper, people need to develop specialties without shedding their adaptability. The Valve employee handbook refers to these people as “T-shaped.” Companies filled with T-shaped workers are more likely to prosper over the long haul while providing each worker a fulfilling environment in which to continue their cultivation of skills.

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