Friday, October 30, 2009

Is specialization a bad or a good thing?

Recently I've been reading The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow -- an interesting book partly about probability theory and partly about how our psychological makeup fools us into seeing patterns and purpose in a world where a lot of stuff just happens by accident.

What made me think of this question about specialization was Mlodinow's account of the life of Gerolamo Cardano. Cardano, who lived in the 16th century, was a mathematician, a physician, an astrologer, a professional gambler, and an important probability theoretician. And it was Cardano's professional breadth that got me thinking about the issue of specialization. Would a knowledge-worker with such diverse capabilities be likely to emerge today?

I believe history shows that specialization is made possible through technological and economic development. During the 19th and 20th centuries, specialization increased as mechanization and automation made it possible for more people to do something other than farming.

Today's world seems hyper-specialized. This makes it possible for one person to obtain exceptional skill and knowledge in a particular area, and to contribute that knowledge in an organizational setting. So, for example, an anthropologist versed in ethnographic research can be used by a company to study its target customers, and the knowledge gained can be used to create products more suited to customers' needs and to better market those customers.

While such specialization is undoubtedly valuable in many contexts, I can't help but wonder what might be missing in a world with so many specialists and so few people with crossover capabilities.

AB -- 30 Oct. 2009

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