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A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert Heinlein

Universities bear some responsibility for its extinction. Classical Greece, Renaissance Italy and Victorian England all revered and rewarded generalists, for whom today universities have little or no space or patience. Enclosed departments in discrete spaces, with their own journals and jargons, are a legacy of lamentable, out-of-date ways of organising knowledge and work.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Times Higher Educational Supplement, March 2015

Since the time of Adam Smith it has been a truism that specialisation enhances productivity.

There is, it is said, no human alive who knows every step in the manufacturing process of even the humble pin.

Segmenting that process and assigning different components to specialists not only makes it possible, but improves it's quality by goosing the expertise each agent one brings to its specialised task. Just as a decathlete cannot expect to compete with event specialists, a generalist responsible for mining, ore extraction, metallurgy, manufacturing, quality control, book keeping, distribution, marketing and sales, of a pin, will not conduct any of these tasks awfully well, and certainly not as well as a specialist.

But just as there is a sweet spot for the Laffer curve, so there is for specialisation. Human beings are not instruction-following automatons. Their special skill is is the ability to narratise. To imagine. Humans are problem-solvers, not instruction-followers.

That sweet spot falls where an individual’s expertise, imagination, and problem-solving abilities are optimised: there is enough depth to to test and stretch them, but not so much width that they snap.

We should specialise — but only to a point. That point is passed when when the meatware is bored.

A task sufficiently articulated as to be boring should be assigned to an agent who is fast, accurate and not easily bored, but incurious and unimaginative.

There are such agents: we call them “machines”.

Conversely: if a task cannot be automated, then back it up to the point where it is challenging and concentrated enough, to be demanding and requiring of expertise.

That this may involve greater cost is not the only consideration. There are hidden meta-costs — “wastes”, in fact — associated with segmentation. It carries a lateral cost: every hand-off generates waste, requires supervision, involves engaging superstructure which would not otherwise be there if the decision lay within the person’s remit.

Segmentation not only encourages jobsworthism, but mandates it. The theory is you are not competent to make decisions beyond your delimited role. “Taking a view” is a kind of formalistic negligence.

From credit, you may have a strong sense that the process in operations is idiotic, and the poor school-leavers in Bratislava expected to carry it out have no hope of succeeding, but there is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, from saying so.

Better to observe the sacred oath, keep trap shut, and tut sadly when, as surely it will, the operations process spontaneously immolates causing a $30m loss.

See also