Repurposing Skills: How Hyperspecialization in One Field Drives Innovation in Another
Two popular themes on this blog and in the greater innovation landscape are hyperspecialization and repurposing. Hyperspecialization, as described in this recent Harvard Business Review article, refers to the development of skills in response to the extreme division of labor possible in an information economy. Repurposing is something we’ve discussed as an innovation driver, and is for example the focus of Andy Boynton’s and Bill Fischer’s The Idea Hunter.
With respect to hyperspecialization, because it’s an extension of division of labor and reminds students of history of the assembly line, it also reminds us of the problems that arose in the assembly line days of the industrial revolution. Specialization improved productivity, but the requirement of capital restricted mobility of labor and the repetitive tasks and other working conditions caused other problems for laborers. In the linked article from HBR we see “digital sweat shops” listed as one of their concerns. While we feel that the difference in industrial (centralized high capital and localized control of the work force) and information age (distributed workforce with many choices and a low entry point and self control of the means of labor, namely a computer and an Internet connection) are more likely to follow inverse paths, we certainly appreciate those concerns. Beyond the economic reasons, there is another reason to be optimistic and that is repurposing. Or more specifically, innovation is often the result of experts from one field repurposing their expertise in a near field. A great example of this (as well as a more detailed discussion of innovation and near field expertise) is available in this NASA video.
(Go watch the video, I’ll wait.)
Now in case you didn’t watch the video I’ll summarize the story about the longitude problem. Basically without knowing the time it was very hard to know the longitude on boats, where longitude navigation was based on dead reckoning. (Latitude was an “easy” already solved problem.) The English parliament wanted to solve the longitude problem, and with good reason, they had lost their entire fleet due to a dead reckoning gone wrong. None other than Sir Isaac Newton famous for the apple, calculus, and of course astronomy told the English parliament, that astronomy was the way to solve the longitude problem. So parliament put money into astronomy based solutions. Unfortunately astronomy offered only a feeble solution based on lunar positioning (doesn’t work well in the day.) The solution was instead provided by a carpenter who specialized in making better clocks than other people. John Harrison was a common man without formal education in the sciences, but his experience in carpentry and especially making durable clocks, gave him a different view on the problem. Rather than try to star gaze, if you kept time from shore accurately, you could use your local time to determine how far away you were. Using his expertise he built a series of improving clocks that could keep very precise time even on-board a sea vessel. Of course the solution was so good parliament didn’t believe it and it took King George III to finally pay out the full prize.
While watch making and the longitude problem may seem far away, the methods of innovation i.e. an open challenge to solve a stuck problem, and the means of innovation, i.e. taking expertise from your field and applying it to a near field, are both highly relevant to how we will work in the information age.
The career ladder of a hyperspecialist may look something like this in the information age:
- Direct Application – The specific skill they master can be used (and if it’s a high demand skill there can be lots of opportunity.) At TopCoder members can apply their skills into a whole range of tasks across a product’s lifecycle, including: creative design and information architecture; analysis, architecture, and specification; QA and testing; software development and integration; and maintenance and support.
- Generalist – What can be overlooked is that the ability to master a skill is in and of itself a skill, as this skill is re-applied a specialist becomes a generalist. TopCoder members with this skill are called Copilots and they help customers get more done with TopCoder.
- Repurposing – Often the challenges of one task, and the ability to solve them can be re-applied to innovate in another field. At TopCoder members who fall into this category often compete in innovation challenges like the 100 Apps in 100 Days and the marathon match algorithm competitions run by the NASA Tournament Lab.
As the division of labor becomes more acute and the hyperspecialized skills required to produce in the information age heighten, so too will the opportunities to repurpose those skills in a highly innovative manner.
Thoughts to add on repurposing as innovation? Please do so in the comments below.
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