The folly of specialisation

Don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say. Specialisation is a great thing. Modern society has evolved due to the specialisation of labour. People live longer as doctors and scientists have specialised in areas such as cardiology or neuroscience. It is a good thing to have a workforce where people’s particular skill sets are recognised and they can be their most productive.

But it is always possible to have too much of a good thing.

One of the things I have found moving from Wellington to London is the degree of specialisation is far greater in the UK. For example in a typical New Zealand communications team, there often are social media specialist roles. But people in these roles are likely to be expected to do other roles within the communications team, such as being the media contact or working on an organisations annual report. Far less likely (though it does happen) is it that a New Zealand organisations will have a team just dedicated to social media where the team members specialise in specific platforms such as Twitter or Instagram.

The personal struggle for me is that my CV and previous work experience includes a number of different roles. I have worked as an advocate and a representative. I have done research and analysis. I have set up and maintained social media campaigns or pages for organisations. I have been responsible for media campaigns dealing on a daily basis with journalists. I have worked the education, transport, trade union, government, private and NGO sector. I have been a member of governance boards. I have managed people and budgets. And I even use to drive a bus.

While I have been able to pick up contracts in London in my first 3 months here, the process of securing contracts can be slow. One of the challenges is that in London organisations rate specialist skills. So someone with 10 years specialist experience in social media is seen as an ideal candidate. Someone who has used social media in previous role, but also has wider experience  in managing the other functions of running a campaign or project may not be viewed as so qualified. I believe having that broader experience is incredibly valuable. Having someone who can see the bigger picture, or knows how their piece of the project interacts with the other departments or functions is vital.

Globally the trend is has significantly moved away from people remaining in the same job throughout their working lives. According to the Financial Times people in the workforce today should expect to change careers 5 times in their lifetimes. This isn’t a trend that workers in the UK are necessarily wanting to resist with nearly half of UK employees wanting a career change a 2015 study showed.

Changes to the world economy are going to perpetuate trends of people changing careers. In the UK clearly the changing economy when the country leaves the European Union will force businesses to change strategy, in a as yet  uncertain direction. But bigger shocks are on the way to the world economy than this. The development of driver less cars will result of millions of workers being forced to change careers in coming years. Responses to climate change, weather voluntary or reactively to climate disasters, will also cause massive changes to the workforce.

Significant changes to the workforce and people having multiple careers will not mean the end of specialisation. But people who display the skills of agility, adaptability and who can transfer specialist skills from one sector or role to another are very valuable to any organisation. Increasingly transferable skills and adaptability could will become just as important as having specialist knowledge.

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