Staff Specialisation

How much staff specialisation is best?

People can become specialists in functions or project teams for a variety of reasons – it can be accidental or deliberate. A generalist may be seconded to do a ‘deep dive’ into a problem, for a prolonged period. They eventually emerge as a specialist – someone with current expert knowledge and skills. True story – I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of internal controls and then one day I joined an organisation that had just suffered a significant internal theft event. Some specialist forensic auditors were brought in to investigate. They identified 68 internal control weaknesses during their investigation and I was quickly given the task to fix them. By the end of that journey, I had become a specialist myself!

So is staff specialisation a good thing?

The Pros

  • Specialisation is efficiency friendly. Given the chance to specialise, staff can make faster progress on the learning curve. With continued application, an efficient state is reached sooner, especially if processes can be standardised.
  • Specialisation is innovation friendly. Inviting specialists to join project teams enables wider perspectives can be brought into the project, to create better design solutions.

The Cons

  • Specialisation isn’t resilience friendly for the organisation when BAU (business as usual) is disrupted. A business process is only as strong as its weakest link. If a key person (specialist) in the process gets hit by a bus, the process will suffer very quickly. See orange sections in the diagram below showing the trade-off.
  • Specialists can be hard to replace on a like-for-like basis. Just ask an academic researcher trying to hire the best people for their research team! Or a top level, sports team manager.
  • More coordinating time is needed. That usually means either more organisational hierarchy, or a wider span of control for the management layer.
  • As workload fluctuates across the group of specialists, it can breed resentment.

Should you develop a set of staff generalists and supplier specialists?

Having staff generalists is vital in start-up situations, where everyone needs to be a jack of many trades. As your organisation grows in size, you can start to bring more specialist functions in house. The rate at which this happens depends on staff capacity (working 0.5 FTE or 1 FTE is popular. Working a completely fluctuating set of weekly hours isn’t popular). It also depends on the set of specialist skills needed on a regular basis. And how closely the specialists need to work together.

With the rise of the machines, does creating more staff specialisation make sense?

A wise organisation should develop their Digital and Human Resources Strategies together, to aim for optimal use of both kinds of resources.  Where some combination of people and systems support business processes end-to-end, it makes sense to develop end-to-end workflow management too. That means system integration on a workflow management sense, not just a data management sense. Systems have the advantage that they can be as generalist or specialist as user demand dictates. If enough data fields are present, there is a lot of flexibility on the insights that can be obtained.    

The following diagram attempts to show where value may be greatest within the matrix of digital and human, specialist and generalist. Worth think about as you plan growth in your organisation?


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