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Transcript: What hyper-specialization means in an age of knowledge work

People may become very specialized in the work they do in this age of the knowledge economy.

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, with Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to Thomas Malone who is a senior professor at MIT.

Good afternoon, Thomas.

THOMAS MALONE – Good afternoon, Karl. I am happy to be here.

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KARL MOORE  – Thomas, one of the very interesting things I have read of your work is hyper-specialization. What do you mean by that and how should we approach this as a worker?

THOMAS MALONE – Well Karl, several hundred years ago Adam Smith wrote about the benefits of the division of labour. He talked about a pen factory where, what used to be a craft job of a single worker was broken into about 20 different jobs done by 20 different people – each of which was specialized in a tiny part of what used to be one big process. We have seen, for the last several centuries, the economic benefits of that approach – especially in manufacturing and many other things like that. But I think that we are on the verge of an era when we are about to see a new way of division of labour, not just for physical work but also for knowledge work, or information work. It is now possible, and in fact increasingly practical, to send information almost anywhere in the world almost instantly and almost free. So that means we can take a single information process, that used to be done in one room by one or a few people, and divide it into pieces done by different people all over the world and get global economies of scale in that process for anyone almost anywhere in the world.

KARL MOORE – When you think of the Taylor System, one of the great scenes in comedic history is Charlie Chaplin – if it was bad then, it seems that under hyper-specialization it's only going to get worse. Isn't this dehumanizing?

THOMAS MALONE – That's an excellent question and one that we need to think very carefully about but I think in some ways our intuitions, that are based on the world of division of labour in physical tasks, aren't really the best guides for us in thinking about how this is going to work for information tasks. One big difference, for instance, is that when you are doing a physical task, like doing one station on an assembly line screwing a screw in thousands of times a day, there is basically nothing else you can do. You are in one place, with one thing to do, and no other opportunities around you. But if you are doing an equally specialized piece of information work, say sitting at your computer at a beach in Aruba or something, you can work on that task for a while but there is no real barrier for you stopping that anytime you want and working on another task, and then another task, and another task. So you might spend some of your time solving a difficult scientific problem on eCentive and then do a little mindless transcription of audio on Amazon Mechanical Turk and alternate with other kinds of things too. So each individual worker, in this hyper-specialized knowledge economy, has an opportunity to create their own potentially highly personalized portfolio of the different kinds of specialized tasks they want to do to satisfy whatever intellectual or other desires they have during a day.

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