Specialization versus complexity

The rationale I’ve expounded for collaboration hinges on the tension between professionals’ increasingly specialized expertise versus clients’ increasingly complex problems.  For example, here’s how I opened my recent HBR article on the topic:

“Today’s professional services firms face a conundrum. As clients have globalized and confronted more-sophisticated technological, regulatory, economic and environmental demands, they’ve sought help on increasingly complex problems. To keep up, most top-tier services firms have created or acquired narrowly defined practice areas and encouraged partners to specialize. As a result, their collective expertise has become distributed across more and more people, places, and practice groups. The only way to address clients’ most complex issues, then, is for specialists to work together across the boundaries of their expertise.  … In short, professionals need to collaborate with their expert colleagues to add the most value to their clients.”

Can you help with specific examples to back up or illustrate each of these points?  Or if you disagree with the premise, please tell me why!

  1. What kinds of complex problems do your clients face that require multi-disciplinary, cross-practice collaboration to solve? (e.g., “compliance” is a typical answer… but why? Which domain used to handle it versus how many are required to tackle it today)
  2. What examples have you seen of professional specialization? (e.g., the joke in the medical field is that we used to have “ear, nose and throat doctors” but now have “left earlobe doctors”… what’s the equivalent in your sector?)
  3. How does your firm (or client? or professional association? ) encourage you to specialize? Perhaps examples of a time a pitch or promotion was awarded to someone who could claim a very specific niche domain?  Or professional awards /rankings where the categories have gone from broad to very narrow?
  4. What are other signals of the need to specialize – especially early in one’s career? NYU Law School, for example, offers “professional pathways” to prepare students for a specialized career in areas like IP or civil litigation; the Wisconsin School of Business touts its “career specialization difference,” offering 10 “highly-focused” areas such as applied security analysis,  risk management and insurance, and strategic HRM.
  5. Acquisitions of specialist practice groups or professionals. Examples like an accounting firm hiring dentists to advise their healthcare practices, or engineering firms hiring psychologists to better understand their customers’ buying behavior, or …? 

As ever in this Idea Space, please leave your comments below.  If you have a sensitive or confidential example that you’d like to share, then please email me directly on hgardner@law.harvard.edu. And please check out prior topics in the Archive section at right.

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