How does an organization maintain its competitive advantage during
economic turmoil and a transformational market environment? Our
newest research shows that one of the most critical keys to success
is deep specialization.
Deep specialization refers to an organization's focus on building
high levels of expertise, experience, and judgment in critical
skills areas. As we all know from our own careers, it takes many
years (and some would argue decades) to develop world-class skills
in any functional area. Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, two of the
world's most skilled athletes in their field, stay on top of their
games by a continuous focus on deliberate practice, coaching, and
learning. Today's highimpact organizations are using the same
Consider the productivity of your top salesperson or IT developer.
In some cases, top performers outpace average employees many times
over. These employees aren't born superstars through an accident of
genes. While they may bring some intellectual advantages to the
job, they develop their expertise through years of learning,
experience, coaching, feedback, and development.
Such focus delivers benefits beyond productivity. These experts
have judgment and decision-making skills that can bring significant
advantages to your organization. When your engineering team has to
evaluate a major investment, who best understands what will work
and the likelihood of development success? Who is likely to know
where to place the business bets? Your experts, of course.
To understand how to build deep workforce expertise, we have been
studying companies such as Accenture, Intel, Qualcomm, Cisco, GE,
IBM, and others. Our research shows that these expert-driven
organizations behave differently from those that simply train their
workforce to perform. These companies have a wide range of
developmental programs in place to build, reward, and share
For example, Accenture is undergoing a worldwide focus on
identifying the critical skills needed in each of its consulting
positions. The company is assessing all individuals against these
skills, and providing a wide range of development solutions to
enable any consultant to master specific skill sets. Accenture
recognizes that it is more advantageous to have consultants with
deep specialization - say in systems applications and product -
rather than individuals who know a smattering about enterprise
resource management and associated solution providers.
Such skills development programs go far beyond training and
assessment. At Intel, 80 percent of all worldwide staff are
technical. Engineers are encouraged and expected to regularly move
into developmental assignments associated with new projects and
programs. While engineers have specialized areas of technical
expertise, each knows that to succeed, she must also work on a wide
range of projects to build overall experience and judgment. Leaders
are regularly rotated from position to position, giving them the
opportunity to enrich their skills in program and project
management, leadership, and technical risk assessment.
Beyond Traditional Training
When it comes to leadership, these enduring organizations go far
beyond the traditional approach to leadership development. Many
expect leaders to be deep technical experts. For example, at
Qualcomm, most of the program and project leaders have PhDs and
multiple patents. The company builds and rewards technical
excellence at all levels of the corporate pyramid. These
organizations also allow specialists to advance in professional
career ladders, which provide similar levels of pay and recognition
as those provided to employees in managerial tracks.
Deep specialization programs go beyond traditional training to
accommodate the continuous learning needs of senior experts.
Companies such as Exxon and Accenture regularly bring in college
professors, external experts, and outside business leaders to give
experts an even deeper understanding of their technical areas. Some
companies even encourage their experts to take sabbaticals and work
in external organizations, just so they can bring new perspectives
back to the workplace.
Finally, building deep specialization demands a particular type of
culture and management style - one in which employees are given the
time and freedom to focus, explore, and learn. Experts must be
rewarded for coaching and mentoring others. Top employees must be
rewarded for technical expertise, not only managerial prowess.
Any company has the potential to build deep specialization. Think
about those job roles that define your company's competitive
advantage. In most, these roles are in research, engineering, or
manufacturing. Start here - and ask your business leaders to define
what an expert really is. Study these people and use them as models
to build deep specialization programs for others.
The recession has forced us to do less with less. In some ways,
this is a blessing because it gives us the freedom to cut resources
from low priority learning programs and focus heavily on programs
that build deeper and more meaningful skills. Our research proves
that those companies that make the time and effort to build deep
specialization programs are much more likely to endure.