Teams and Specialization

By Marc Resnick:
I read an excellent white paper yesterday on the pros and cons of having teams specialize in particular skills.  The example they studied was searching through knowledge databases, but I think the findings are relevant to all kinds of specialization.
The basic idea of the study is that you have a few people in a team specialize in a specific task (in contrast to having everyone do the task on their own), there are positive and negative consequences.  On the positive side, these people get very good at the task, so they tend to do it quickly.  The speed of the team’s progress increases.  Using the example in the white paper, when one person becomes a specialist at searching through the company databases, she gets good at creating sophisticated queries navigating through the database, and understanding what content is available and what isn’t.
BUT there is a downside.  If you ask this person to do your search for you, he/she may be good at searching, but won’t get as much out of the search as you would have.  First, she may not understand the context of the problem you are trying to solve.  So she may miss the most applicable solution while looking for one that seems better from her limited perspective.  Also, there may be gaps in the communication back and forth, so part of the question or part of the answer may be lost or misunderstood.
They also looked at the effects of teams that are either geographically dispersed or working in highly dynamic environments.  These kinds of teams need to use the organizational database more.  But they are hurt more by this specialization because the problems of misunderstood context or communication are even bigger.  There is less sharing of information when team members are geographically dispersed.  And shared information may no longer be accurate or relevant in highly dynamic environments.
To take a completely different kind of example, imagine you have someone on the team who specializes is visual design.  By getting more practice and experience, this person may develop a lot of skills in knowing what colors go together or how to arrange objects on a screen to promote symmetry and balance.  But when you ask this expert to do the visual part of your design, she may not understand the message you are trying to get across in your design.  What are the tradeoffs between speed and accuracy?  Friendliness and professionalism?  Brand consistency and task effectiveness?  You can tell her, but she won’t really know it as well as you do.  The design will be done faster, but perhaps not as precise for this specific situation.
Imagine if you have one person in a clothing store who develops expertise in dealing with difficult customers.  Whenever a customer is difficult, you bring in the ‘expert.’  By getting all this practice, the expert gets really smooth at calming people down. But by not knowing the exact problem as well as you do, there is more chance of a misunderstanding.
Team management is a particular interest of mine, so I found these findings to be very important.  Did you??
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