Tuesday, May 18, 2004

In defense of specialization

I found this post via the CotC.


What you do, what most people do, is based on the fact that some guy figured he could grow his company by creating a hierarchical, departmentalized structure... (How Alfred Sloan Chose Your Career). Educational Institutions feed this by having someone major in a certain subject, and b-schools, from what I understand, are supposed to give people a taste of all of them, with a focus on management.
In other words: The rise of specialists, the death of problem solving generalists.

And we all happily follow this neat and tidy little way of doing business. Marketers Market. Accountants Count. And so on.

Up to a point, specialization creates efficiencies which translate into profits. When firms all offer the same basic value proposition, efficiency wins.

In theory, a firm can offer a new, different value proposition. But it has to be one that customers really truly want (i.e. are willing to pay for) and that the company can deliver at a profit. Often, customers will claim they want better service or higher quality, but they are unwilling to pay even a little more for them. (Hence, the continued rise of Wal*mart at the expense of more "customer friendly" small store.)

As for the academy, i'll just note that Howard Gardner of Harvard believes that the development of scholarly disciplines (i.e. academic specialization) is the most important invention of the last 2000 years. As he puts it, "The disciplines represent the most advanced and best ways to think about consequential issues to human beings" and they turned what had been "idiosyncratic human functions" that occurred only in rare individuals into something that could be studied and taught thus dispersed more widely through the population.

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