The End of Specialization?

June 28, 2016 — Isles of Shoals,

Must the only way we achieve success in our selected domain or craft be by knowing more and more about less and less?

It is true there has been increased specialization in many academic and professional fields: science, medicine, law, and business over the last fifty years. But empirical scar tissue shows this has not resulted in a proportionate increased quality of knowledge or wisdom—in fact, just the opposite. Let’s distinguish data or information (raw, unsynthesized) from knowledge and understanding (synthesized, benefits from experience, intuition, judgment). Data has become more and more specialized. But understanding? Not at all. 

Ancient History. Since dirt was young, almost all human effort around knowledge has been expended to locate pertinent data and information, assemble it, sort it, and then, and only then, to analyze it, synthesize it, and (hopefully) make judgments from it. The repetitive tasks necessary to generate data and information about specific facts had naturally become more specialized in the name of speed of retrieval—productivity. But is that where value is really added today? The specialist’s research skill has been utterly eclipsed by technology and Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) databases. Today, locating information of any kind is instant—and free—on your smartphone. There literally are not enough hours in the day for you to try to duplicate the specialization of machine learning. Why bother memorizing lots of specialized content? Just look it up. That’s not the future, that’s now.

Understanding and ultimately… wisdom on the other hand, requires unification of knowledge, and the context in which it all is located. If you are only specializing in one domain, you have no hope to be able to really understand the rocks and shoals in that domain until you pull back the camera, increase your altitude and look at the whole chart, to see the larger patterns of information. Specialized individual ideas matter less and less compared to collaborating and the sparks that happen when everyone else’s ideas have sex with your existing ones. It’s not the specialization, it’s the ability to connect specializations that matter and are of greatest value. Personally, I don’t see this insight as merely a way to compete in the future… I see this decline of the importance of specialization as helping us to flourish and thrive, leveraging our uniquely human strengths. This is good news for creatives.

Artificial Cognitive Power. Our assumptions about modern specialization started in the first Industrial Revolution. Paraphrasing Kevin Kelly, in the first industrial revolution, we evolved from the world of agriculture by adding artificial physical power to man power which increased productivity. First we used horses or oxen (artificial animal power), then we used water power, then steam, and finally electrical (artificial) power to supplement human physical power. All this artificial power enabled us to achieve the steady linear increases in output yielding the magical economic surpluses since then, resulting in increased global quality of life.

During the next twenty years we will take all the things that have artificial power, and we will add artificial cognitive power to them (what some people call AI)—which will also increase productivity. Exponentially. Given the proliferation of cheap, simple sensors, coupled with the ubiquity of on-line connectedness, and the disruptive nature of AI (in the broadest sense), I cannot imagine why everything would not be smarter by being connected. Think of every piece of equipment that is in the field today which is dumb, unconnected equipment. Add some sensors and connect that existing equipment on-line and think about the increased data and information to the user and to the equipment provider. Think about the added value. That artificial cognitive power is not like human intelligence, it’s more like artificial power. Not consciousness or PHI, just artificial smarts. Kelly says it’s a little bit like today when you drive a car where you have 250 (artificial) horsepower; tomorrow by connecting AI, you will have 250 (or more) minds that will enhance your personal cognitive capability.

Career Myopia. Specialists suffer from near sightedness. An interesting piece in Harvard Business Review called The Specialist Discount: Negative Returns for MBAs with Focused Profiles in Investment Banking argues just how the last five to ten years of increasing specialization limited the value of recent MBA grads as specialization became rapidly commoditized as their specialty is easily substituted by technology. They argue that more specialized people are risk averse compared to people who have demonstrated talent across differentiated domains—and that leaders tend not to be specialists.

Millennials and Calling. I have heard a lot of chatterers talking and writing about boohoo slacker, loser Millennials as team members in organizations. I am not buying it. I have enormous optimism for these bright, self-directed, multiple-domain critical thinkers. Why? They have shown by their behavior that frequently they aren’t turned on just by being boxed into a traditional specialized “job.” Sometimes not even the promise of a “career.” Many of them will not settle for anything less than a “calling.” As a generation, they are refusing to be boxed into specialization.

Those Who Can… Do. Others Specialize? So, is it accurate that the only way that we can achieve success in our selected domain is by knowing more and more about less and less? That may have been true historically when a lot of our effort had to go to collecting data and analyzing data. Look, today doing research is for machines. Making judgments is for humans. To make judgments you must see the larger patterns of knowledge from multiple domains. Which you are absolutely blind from by specializing.

References and Continued Reading

Anderson, Chris. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. Print.

Deutsch, David. The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes—and Its Implications. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.

Ericsson, K. Anders. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. Print.

Fuller, R. Buckminster, and E. J. Applewhite. Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. New York: Macmillan, 1975. Print.

Kelly, Kevin. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. New York: Viking, 2016. Print.

Merluzzi, Jennifer, and Damon J. Phillips. “The Specialist Discount: Negative Returns for MBAs with Focused Profiles in Investment Banking.” Harvard Business Review 94.6 (2014): 32-33. Print.

Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. New York: Black Irish Entertainment, 2012. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. Education and the Good Life. New York: Liveright, 1970. Print.