An argument for the specialist

This joke is pretty old but it works…

“A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman below replied, “You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You are between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”

You must be an engineer,” said the balloonist.

“I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist, “Everything you told me is, technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help so far.”

The woman below responded, “You must be in Management.”

“I am,” replied the balloonist, “But how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “You don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you are, due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”

It got me thinking. Are we over specialized in the workplace? Are there enough people around that know enough about the whole process to be able to see something through from beginning to end?
This specialization in the workforce is not new. Some note that the shift was back around 1920 when the United States went from being “the most committed to the omnicompetence of the ordinary citizen” and somehow “embraced the specialist and sanctified the expert with an enthusiasm unmatched elsewhere.” (You can read the whole article appearing in the John Higham collection here, or read a quick review of it here.) There is much debate on whether this a good thing or not.
And then I realized that I was so far off the back on this subject that it was hardly worth writing on. I don’t think I can add anything new. I don’t know enough about it to add something new.

So there’s your argument for the specialist.
The “omnicompetent” will never dig into something so deeply that the real marrow of the issue is released. He’ll learn just enough to get the job done. Not a bad thing but rarely will that push an industry or idea to its fullest. Only in the person that is willing to specialize in the details will we truly amaze.
The rest of us know just enough to be inspired by the genius of the specialist so that something might become of the inspiration. It becomes one of the most basic partnerships in business. If one is diminished in favor of the other we risk stagnation.

Stagnation is not an option.


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