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The Death of the ‘Average’ Worker

Herbert A. Simon, who was awarded the 1978 Noble Prize in Economics, brought up a very valid point about proverbs—simple statements that express a general truth based on common sense or experience—the effective ones occur in mutually contradictory ways.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. 

And it’s this contrast that just might lie at the heart of organization’s continual difficulty of balancing man and machine.

Consider specialization. Administrative efficiency is assumed to increase as the degree of specialization increases, but as Simon noted, it’s not always clear which or what type of ‘specialization’ will add value and, moreover, how many or how much specialization is required. This sense of clarity can take on numerous lenses, such as moral and economic.

Questions of Specialization

Imagine you are elected the head of a national school board and, notwithstanding, the school system is in desperate need of restructuring.

Do you allocate specialization per district, classroom, subject, or student? Must you account for the fact that the futures of many young children ride on this decision?

The head of a large automobile manufacturing firm grants you full license to revamp this rather stagnant industry.

Do you assign expertise per model? Move away from SUVs and toward crossovers? Heeding to sustainability concerns, make a bold shift from gasoline-powered engines to diesel-fueled ones? Convert the entire production line to specialize in electric vehicles?

These, of course, are not easy questions to answer and they undoubtedly carry heavy weight. The federal public service has, in fact, come under fire recently for its ‘generalist’ approach where management is misguided or arrives at premature outcomes based on the lack of technical expertise required to execute sound decision-making.

On the flipside of this, over-specialization is also worrisome. Let us survey 4th year Ph.D. students and see how many are able to jump-start a car. Subject mastery is the springboard to innovation, but it is not all-encompassing.

Be Valuable

Seth Godin announced the death of the “average worker” quite some time ago, and by today’s standards, 8 years ago is a lifetime. The key, here, is locating the optimal balance between generalist and specialist, tuning it to your personal goals and keeping current with the job market—what employers demand. Don’t let your skills atrophy and remember, it’s about expertise, not experienceexperience ages.

1. Simon, H. A. 1946. “The Proverbs of Administration.” Public Administration Review 6(1): 53–67.

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