Diminishing specialization

Cal Newport writes on a study by Peter G. Sassone, a Georgia Tech economist, started in 1985 as computers were beginning to come into wide use in the office. The effects of the machines were not what was expected; principally, manager productivity decreased as those whose roles required the greatest degree of creative thought and specialization took on administrative tasks enabled by the machines. Newport writes:

Deploying a technique called work value analysis, Sassone measured not only the amount of work conducted by his subjects, but also the skill level required for the work. He found that managers and other skilled professionals were spending surprisingly large percentages of their time working on tasks that could be completed by comparably lower-level employees.

He identified several factors that explain this observation, but a major culprit was the rise of “productivity-enhancing” computer systems. This new technology made it possible for managers and professionals to tackle administrative tasks that used to require dedicated support staff.

The positive impact of this change was that companies needed less support staff. The negative impact was that it reduced the ability of managers and professionals to spend concentrated time working on the things they did best.

Surprisingly, Sassone found that hiring more administrative staff and reducing the number of managers could yield the same outputs:

This rebalancing works because more administrative support means the higher level employees can spend more time working deeply on the activities that produce the most value. Because the former are cheaper to hire than the latter, the result is the same work for less total staffing costs.

This touches on something I think we all have felt with our machines, which is that, yes, on the one hand we can do more than ever before, but on the other, it feels as if we’re sometimes or often accomplishing less in significant and concrete terms.

I’d rather more of us be generalists than specialists when it comes to the quality of our thought, the depth of our attention, the ranginess of our curiosity, and the value of the humanities to harmonize our often unordered experiences into a meaningful whole—but for purposes of corporate performance, Sassone’s study is important.