Are you special?

Work in Progress New Working Environments New Ways of Working

Just a general question: are you special? Is what you do special? You will probably be inclined to answer this question with a resounding Yes! Of course, because specialisation is all the rage. Any self-respecting person specialises in something – whether professionally, academically or in any other area.

At the start of our new Bene Office.Info series “Work in Progress”, which will be all about special job profiles, we will take a long and careful look at this...

The specialisation of specialisation

Specialisation is an engine of civilisation which drives progress, and drives knowledge. Specialisation is one key, if not THE key, for managing both the floods of information which descend upon us daily along with the requirements of everyday life. Particularly in the 21st century, specialisation seems to be the absolute guarantee for success. Specialisation is … but let’s slow down a bit! We should take a closer look at this. After all, there is one thing we certainly don’t want to do as we look at what is special and at specialisation: to generalise! 

The special thing about specialisation

When we talk about specialisation, we usually mean focusing on a particular specialist area, a topic or an activity. By definition therefore, specialisation represents a conscious restriction, where someone moves away from the higher-level context and dedicates their attention exclusively to a particular part of an item. In this sense the act of specialising is a conscious setting of limits, corresponding with movement from the general to the specialised.

There is a reason why the concept of specialisation derives from the Latin term specialis, which is best translated as “specific”. To this extent specialisation is concerned with what is specific and pursues a mechanism which involves going into depth. The home of specialisation is the niche. 

The paradox of specialisation

The distinctive thing about this is the fact that this process of specialisation can never be complete. And there is one very simple reason for this: each specialisation can be specialised even further, in order to experience yet another specialisation at a subsequent stage. This development model most closely resembles a fractal pattern - with branches that branch off even further ad infinitum when you zoom in. It ultimately implies that no area of knowledge can ever be thought through to the end, particularly because each sub-area always allows for further specialisation. And so on and so on … This reveals the paradox which is inherent in specialisation: conscious limitation opens up brand new areas of thought precisely as a result of the restrictions in place. And that, dear readers, is specialisation.

The birth of specialisation

Historically there has always been some kind of specialisation. The everyday life of the human being has always been determined by division of labour – in other words: specialisation. This is fully in line with the principle that everyone specialises in the area they know best. As such specialisation is quite simply an effect, a consequence of living together – or maybe even a necessity.

Adam Smith already noted here that restricting the relevant actors to activities which they are best placed to carry out increases productivity. This sounds logical, and we all know enough examples of this from everyday life. Yet that is not all: specialisation not only represents a clear benefit in terms of efficiency, it also most closely matches the notion of the human as an individual. Because in the end people should not just do the things that they are able to do well, but above all those things which most closely reflect their beliefs, desires and goals. And since we all know that beliefs can be very specific, we also need the option of being able to work in an area which is as specific as possible. 

Does this mean specialisation is not merely a necessity but rather actually promises the realisation of social-utopian approaches? Just a minute, we don’t want to be too naive here. After all there are two sides to every coin.

The rise of specialisation

Milan Kundera once asserted that Goethe was probably the last person who understood everyday life in all its aspects. What he meant by this was that Goethe lived at a time when it was still possible to deliver pioneering intellectual work without a fancy education or years of specialised training. He claimed that we just need to remember that Goethe even worked in an area such as natural science at a level where he was able to keep up with the greats of his era. Goethe knew how the telescope worked when he was observing the stars through it. He knew how the letterpress worked when he had one of this books printed. If he’d decided that he wanted to make a carpet then - you’ve guessed it - he would probably have built the loom himself.

Kundera probably wanted to highlight the fact that scientific progress has been accompanied by one thing in particular: a body of knowledge and need for specialisation which a single person can no longer keep track of. In other words: there has been a distinct turnaround in the development of human knowledge which has inevitably meant that the time of the universal genius is irrevocably over. What’s next? A time of expertise. A time of specialisation. Welcome to our world.

The crux of the problem

In itself we might now agree that there is something profoundly reassuring about specialisation in the sense that there is a specialist available for every problem that we will ever encounter. Just think about it: what do you do when you have a problem, whether it is of a technical or medical nature? Obviously you call on an expert, i.e. a specialist!

However, for all the benefits, we have to hope that increased specialisation does not reach levels of confusion which become absurd. More specifically: that one thing is not lost through increased specialisation in all areas: i.e. a general overview. A sense of the whole picture.


Marlon Schuhfleck