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.


3 thoughts on “Specialization versus complexity

  1. Companies even more are looking specilizitaion, but the executives must have a broad view of the área or the sector. For example, logistics: pharmaceutical companies are looking for professional with large experience with pharmaceutical channels ( direct or inderect), knowlodge of the dinamic of the sector but, on the other hand, the understand that professional with other experience, for example Consumer Goods is very importante for their business, because pharmaceutical sector is even more “talking” directly with the shopper directly.

    Other example is in recruitment subsystem. Companies looks for employees with specialization in one or other sector, but also with business accumen . Sector understanding is important, expertise understanding is important too…but bring the new, the out of box requires a generalist experience!


  2. This topic is very apt and speaks to a very present and growing challenge for professional service firms particularly law firms like ours. We have a plethora of first hand experience even as late as this very morning. I,ll set out specific examples of our first hand experience in different areas for various clients in which we have had to reach out across multi disciplinary professionals outside of other law firms to be able to meet our clients complex needs. First is a client who suddenly discovered that a hospitality group is planning to put up a hotel on sixteen floors! two doors away from her home located in a hitherto serene and very low density congestion free street. They already have planning permission and the challenge is what is her next best option if we cannot get a court order to stop them. To be better able to advise her and resolve the problem,I had to consult an Architect who we incidentally have helped out with professional legal advise in the past where some complex issues of law intertwined with his Architectural and urban design brief! He gave a lot of insight on the steps to follow including requesting ‘a schedule of conditions’ from the company and engaging Structural Engineers and Surveyors at the developer,s cost to assess the possible adverse effect on our client,s home including nuisance. I quickly reverted and sounded like a G when I was reeling off the steps we were going to take to our client. In a lot of other cases we have had to reach out to professionals in the Banking ,Accounting,Energy, Shipping and Maritime sectors to assist in resolving complex technical issues arising from our legal briefs.It,s heart warming to know that most if not all of these are done on a reciprocal-collaborative basis. The sense of camaraderie engendered by the increasingly multi disciplinary acknowledgement of professional firms need for each other,s support sooner than later to resolve the issues Heidi has pointed out is very reassuring as we rest in the firm knowledge that we have each others’ backs.


  3. Perhaps one of the most interesting challenges facing law firms today. We are currently see a plethora of ‘mega firms’ appearing, with what appears once again to be the constant struggle to be ‘the biggest’, the firm with the most coverage across the globe.

    Of course, large corporates these days tend to be global entities, so there is a clear driver for being able as a firm to say to your client that you are present in every jurisdiction in which that company operates. But the problem, as you highlighted above Heidi, is big doesn’t alway mean best (in fact, insert ‘rarely’ in there….).

    I spend a lot of time talking with General Counsel and Heads of Legal at FTSE100 and smaller companies, and the consistent message I hear is ‘yes, it’s nice if one firm can service all of our needs globally, but in reality we will go with whichever firm is best in the relevant area’. In fact, one of the key features in choosing panel law firms for GCs currently is how those firms evidence that they can work with each other when necessary.

    Slaughter & May is an interesting example of a way to achieve the balance. The most profitable firm in the UK (at least in terms of PEP), they have long had a policy of not establishing overseas offices (with a couple of exceptions), but instead partnering up with the leading local law firms in each jurisdiction – their message to clients being ‘instruct us and we will make sure that you have the best lawyers in the world working on your deal/case, whether they are part of our firm or not’. Certainly not saying this is the perfect answer, but it does seem to support the view that the most successful firms recognise the need to collaborate – even if that collaboration is with an external source.


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