Over-Specialisation Nation!

Is it is possible to become too specialised?

The dramatic events of last week on the financial markets are one example how, I believe, specialisation can cause major problems. The ever increasing (so called) ‘sophistication’ of financial instruments have become so complicated that they can’t be understood by enough people, certainly not the financial regulators, and therefore the products that end up having no bearing on genuine economic reality, leading to the recent bubble and subsequent credit crunch.

Similarly, I have long felt frustrated at specialists in academia or industry who are so narrowly focused on their narrow niches that it is practically impossible to understand what they say and what they are working on, and only a handful of other people can even question them let alone understand them.

Don’t get me wrong. Without question we desperately need well trained and educated specialists who understand complex issues in great detail, be it financial or philosophical. The world is a complicated place, and I’m not for one moment advocating a retreat to creating renaissance men and women, however appealing a romantic notion that may be. It’s simply not possible for individuals to be sufficiently knowledge about a breadth of issues or disciplines as it once was.

However I think when swathes of business and academia get so specialised and riddled with jargon that they become practically incomprehensible, then I think we’ve gone too far and need to take a step back. I think businesses, academia and governments need to create more space for specialists to interact with larger groups of people across traditional boundaries. This is what we try to do with our NESTA Connect programme. As I’ve said previously this space might be provided by talented people who span multiple disciplines themselves, or organisations that act as intermediaries.

This excessive specialisation is a global phenomenon, and yet the UK is interesting in that a) it has one of the most specialised education systems in the world, and yet b) the opportunities open to graduates of a particular discipline tend to be wider here compared with Germany, and possibly the rest of Europe, for example.

So in conclusion, I believe we should no longer tolerate the uber-specialist who talks to no-one but their immediate micro peer groups. Else we run the risk of losing the ability to discuss, debate and question other people, leading to the ludicrous situation that precipitated the recent crash in financial markets.


  1. I like the sentiment if not the conclusion Roland!I think the current financial crises goes beyond understanding & communication; those in power knew what was happening re poor lending, securitisation, lack of transparency etc but preferred to ‘ride’ the positive economic wave these practices created rather than contain them; they are as guilty as the investment banker’s and probably more so than their stooges, the regulators’.

  2. I completely agree with what you’re saying … but there’s a possibility that it’s a bit of an illusory thing to rail against, because I think the tide turned against those uber-specialists some time ago, didn’t it? I tend to assume that these days, interdisciplinarity is embraced and people are valued for being able to think across different fields. That may sound like I’ve fallen for somebody’s hype, but actually I do think in reality that the notable and successful academics, the ones who people think are interesting and cool, they are the ones who do this, aren’t they? Whereas people in silos or super-niches don’t really get anywhere. That’s just my impression, but I believe it to be true. This comment only relates to academia of course. And I should emphasise that I totally agree that there are still a great many narrowly specialised people. My point is, though, that they are perhaps not as highly regarded, or powerful, as Roland’s post suggests. Interested to know what anyone else thinks…?

  3. I agree with David. In my world of Primary Education we have been creating space for multi-disciplinary and multi-agency working for some time now. Some of the most interesting work on community cohesion in Rochdale, for example, centres around local authority housing executives working with primary schools (pupils and staff) to develop creative solutions to regenerating local housing estates. Innovative projects linking tennants with policy makers and primary pupils have sprung up as a result. This multi-agency approach does exist, and, i think, quite distinctly in Primary Edcucation. Perhpas the opportunity exists in most businesses and academic institutions. The real innovators however may be those that can see the space for it when others cannot.

  4. I think the industry climate, in the digital media industry at least which I know most about, is heavily stacked in favour of the specialist. Having a fairly broad range of experiences within, essentially one niche (digital content production) does me no favours as a consultant, contractor or potential employer. Most business dont want to employ thinkers to work in new fields of these new industries, they want technical people who have already delivered, effectively a safe pair of hands. And given the increasing flexibility of the marketplace, they can indeed get the specialist the require.
    The danger for the specialist is that the digital industries evolve so rapidly that any job involving technical specialism (and most do, to a certain extent) can so rapidly become outmoded. And the second consequence is a lack of opportunities to gain real senior management and leadership expertise within an increasingly bizarre narrowly defined roles.

  5. Thanks all for your comments. Not surprised by your experience Susi and it’s all too often the case. By starting with an over-specialist it’s almost impossible to take a step back and look at other solutions or technologies that might be more applicable.
    David/Stephen – I’m really pleased to hear of your respective experiences of multi-disciplinary education/academia, but I still think there is a long way to go to make this more mainstream. Steve your final comment is bang on too.
    Brendan – Quite right that there were other huge factors and as you, and others have said, there is a lot of blame to go around for the current financial crisis, but I still feel the proliferation of products and services in the financial services is deliberately designed to confuse. Possibly a case of inaction due to too much choice!

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