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Welcome to the Era of Hyperspecialization

An argument for hiring individual experts — or Super Specialists — instead of global consulting firms to solve your company’s most pressing problems.
The era of the super specialist
photo by flickr user Sarah G

What is “hyperspecialization?” It’s a fancy way of saying economist Adam Smith was right: Divisions of labor result in lower costs, greater efficiencies, and higher quality. It was true in the pin factories of 1776, and it’s true in the knowledge factories of today.

It’s also the premise of a 2011 Harvard Business Review article by Thomas Malone and Robert Laubacher of the MIT Sloan School of Management and Tammy Johns, a senior vice president at ManpowerGroup. “Today, thanks to the rise of knowledge work and communications technology, this subdivision of labor has advanced to a point where the next difference in degree will constitute a difference in kind,” they assert. “We are entering an era of hyperspecialization — a very different, and not yet widely understood, world of work.”

The public outcries that followed were as predictable as they were passionate. Cries of Marxism and assembly-line subjugation dominated the discourse. But not everyone predicts a depraved new world.

“Superspecialization is not only a boon for workers with specialized skills who they can now market globally, but also a potential benefit for companies looking to be more efficient in performing specific tasks,” write Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner in their book, The Rise of the Naked Economy.

“Companies now have more freedom than ever to tap into talent markets for ‘supertemps,’ specialized workers who can perform one narrow job without a long-term commitment from either side. And the economics of such a situation drives both companies and specialists to find each other. A specialist can be paid a handsome fee and, compared with the costs of training full-time employees or the costs of bringing in a big consulting firm, the company can still come out ahead.

Coonerty and Neuner tell the story of Business Talent Group, an independent consulting group that matches specialists with organizations that have very specific project needs. BTG’s clients are, for the most part, midmarket companies for which hiring a big-name consulting company would be prohibitively expensive — and probably pretty inefficient. According to the book, BTG projects cost “is in the neighborhood of six figures, while the typical cost of an engagement with Bain or McKinsey can run well into seven or even eight figures.”

“Companies are breaking down the work that needs to be done, and this is the key thing that has to happen for the Super Specialists to really take charge,” Jody Greenstone Miller, founder and CEO of BTG, tells the authors. “They have to [learn to] say, not ‘I need a head of marketing’ — they need to say, ‘I need someone to come in and undertake the highly specialized task of, say, redoing a loyalty program.’ They need to break down the work into doable, measurable work products, and as they do that, project-based work will explode.”

So, if these Super Specialists are available faster than new hires, with deeper experience in target areas, and for less money than a consulting engagement, why aren’t more companies using them to solve very specific problems? Coonerty and Neuner suggest that outdated ROI assumptions are to blame (“companies often feel like they’re not getting their money’s worth unless they’re spending a lot of money”) and that management teams thinking beyond FTE will bring greater talent to bear on strategy execution.

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THE PLUS

To read a counterargument, you don't even need to leave our site. As we captured in our article Why Generalists May Soon Rule the Day," Carter Phipps wrote in Forbes: “A rise in specialists in all areas—science, math, history, psychology—has left us with tremendous content, but how valuable is that knowledge without context?"

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