While it aids efficiency, job specification isn’t compatible with today’s ever-changing workplace.
Specialisation is a common differentiation strategy in the business world. Finding a niche market and dominating it with specialised products or services has been an effective competitive strategy for over a century. Marketing gurus since the 1980s have preached the virtues of specialisation. Employees have been told a similar story: Develop a specialised skill-set to ensure job security.
There are numerous examples of successful companies that specialise, like lending institutions specialising in home loans. But there’s a downside.
A business striving to corner a niche market may sacrifice their capacity to be agile. These companies segment and organise the enterprise around functions or clusters of activity. This division of work is not dissimilar from the Ford Motor Company assembly line 100 years ago. while undoubtedly efficient, forming people around specific functions creates challenges in flexibility, responsiveness, and adaptability.
A barrier to agility is job specification. While narrow and clearly defined job design is about controlling the process and output of the worker, restraining the work of employees means they can perform limited tasks, albeit efficiently.
What is an agile workforce?
An agile organisation has a workforce with these three characteristics:
- highly skilled
- a high degree of flexibility
- continuous honing and improving of skill-set.
Job specification hinders these fundamentals, particular the last two. Learning skills beyond the worker’s position description isn’t encouraged, and is even discouraged.
An alternative approach is flexible deployment, which doesn’t abandon job specification altogether. Flexible deployment means accumulating a range of experiences and retrofitting skills and competencies outside the scope of a worker’s job specification. A professional public speaker, for example, can now diversify into giving presentations online. Or a mechanic can work with customers to sell more merchandise, leveraging off their product knowledge. In both cases, the specialist is deploying their current skill-set in different contexts, which broadens their capacity.
Flexible deployment doesn’t, however, mean becoming a jack-of-all-trades. It isn’t about transitioning from specialist to generalist.
Where did job specification originate?
Scientific management was the genesis of job design. Specialisation has its origins in Frederick Taylor’s scientific management philosophy. Taylor broke the assembly line up into a series of specialist tasks and treated each component separately in his analysis of how performance could be boosted.
The driver for specialisation was reducing waste and increasing efficiency. Taylor studied each job in the factory to determine the least amount of time and effort required to complete it. Each job on the assembly line would be meticulously planned in advance, and employees were paid to perform particular tasks in the way specified by management.
The present-day people management practice of job specification originated from Taylor’s job specialisation. There are several obvious advantages to designing work around a job specification. Breaking tasks into small elements with clearly defined repetitious processes lessens the skill requirement of the job itself. Training timeframes are short and standardised, recurring tasks are broken into simple parts, and the success of the learning experience is likely to be high. This means costs are kept low. But job specification has drawbacks in the transformed workplace we now work in.
Breaking a job into small, repetitive, and simple components can make the work dull and repetitive. Boredom can lead to lower levels of engagement and higher levels of absenteeism. Job specialisation is also ineffectual in dynamic and unpredictable marketplaces. In these volatile environments, the workforce need to adjust its approach to respond quickly to changing circumstances. Selling products or services in a new market with an different cultural, for instance, requires agility. A ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work.
Specialisation restricts adaptive behaviour. Job specification hampers agility and puts invisible blinkers on the job-holder. Engaging people in repetitive and dull work is challenging. People can’t see the forest for the trees. Flexible deployment is the antidote to these problems.
Dr Tim Baker is an international consultant and author.