The notion of specialists in the workplace is fairly well established. Indeed, the idea of specializing is at the heart of Adam Smith’s economic theories from way back when. This is even more so when you consider the information deluge most professionals suffer with today.
Think about your own field. If you allocate all of your learning time to topics in your own field, even that degree of focus and specialization will see you covering but a tiny percentage of all the material out there. When you can’t cover a field with the kind of depth that you’d like, then it’s inevitable that you begin to apply a tighter focus.
It all lends itself to increasing specialization. In other words, we increasingly know a whole lot more, about a whole lot less. As a result, generalists are becoming something of a scarce species. Even with the likes of IDEO promoting T-shaped skill sets, whereby the vertical stem is an in-depth and specialized knowledge, and the horizontal bar a wide ranging skillset, it is somewhat rare.
And that’s bad. IDEO and their ilk are such fervent backers of T-shaped knowledge because that is arguably the only way to ensure you can accurately apply your knowledge across multiple disciplines or understand topics outside of your core expertise.
The importance of filtration
Think about this in terms of the information deluge we are living through. The problem we face here isn’t one of not having enough information, the problem is locating the relevant information amidst the sea of irrelevant. Thus the ability to filtrate and curate information is invaluable.
An experiment conducted by Russell Ackoff emphasizes this point. He and his research partners pooled together hundreds of articles from the leading journals on the subject of operations research. The articles were sent to over a hundred researchers in this field, and they were asked to say firstly whether they had read the article before, and secondly whether they’d found it useful.
Overall, each article sent over received around 35 evaluations, with only four of the articles receiving unanimous praise. Here’s where things get interesting. These four articles, together with four articles judged to be below standard were taken by the research team and a team of professional science writers were asked to reduce the length of each article, whilst retaining its core message. None of the writers were informed as to the purpose of their activity.
The editing process was designed to turn each original into four versions:
- The original article reduced in length by 1/3
- The original article reduced in length by 1/2
- The original article reduced in length by 2/3
- The original articled reduced to just a 200 word abstract
Here’s where it gets interesting
After all of this editing had taken place, there were four versions of eight articles. Remember that half of the articles were considered top drawer, with the other half rather poor.
Before the editing took place, the author of each article was asked to design a test that would provide a quantifiable scale that could be used to measure the readers understanding of the article.
The articles were then put before a pool of participants, who were asked to read four of the articles, each of which was in one of the four different lengths. They were then asked to complete the test to gauge their level of understanding of each article.
It emerged that there was no difference in the understanding of the article for any of the first three types of editing. The only time a reduction in understanding occurred was when the article was abstracted to roughly 2% of its original length.
It emphasizes nicely the importance of filtering as a means of getting the message across in a much simpler way.
Introducing The Edge
It’s with this aim in mind that I’m working on my latest project with the good folks at the NHS Horizons team. We’re putting together a service called The Edge, which will aim to do a lot of that filtration for you. We aim to curate and find the best content on the web around areas such as transformational change, and curate that into a regular bulletin so that readers can gain an accurate and reliable sense of what to read and what not to.
In addition to the bulletin of top links, the site will also contain classic primers on relevant topics, discussions with thought leaders in the field, the latest online courses and events on the subject, and a bit more beside. It should be a fascinating project, and well worth checking out if you’re interested in making your organization better.