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Employers Want To Do More With Less. Where Does That Leave Expertise?

A city office employee works into the night as darkness closes in on October 10, 2005 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
A city office employee works into the night as darkness closes in on October 10, 2005 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

With Jane Clayson

With organizations asking employees to do more with less, does it pay to be an expert anymore? Maybe not.


Jerry Useem, contributing editor at the Atlantic magazine.

Erica Volini, global human capital leader at the consulting firm Deloitte. She is focused on helping leaders and organizations navigate the future of work through times of change. ( @ erica_volini)

Laszlo Bock, CEO and co-founder of Humu. Former Google Senior Vice President of People Operations. ( @LaszloBock)

From The Reading List

The Atlantic: “ At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor” — “In the faint predawn light, the ship doesn’t look unusual. It is one more silhouette looming pier-side at Naval Base San Diego, a home port of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. And the scene playing out in its forward compartment, as the crew members ready themselves for departure, is as old as the Navy itself. Three sailors in blue coveralls heave on a massive rope. ‘Avast!’ a fourth shouts. A percussive thwack announces the pull of a tugboat—and 3,000 tons of warship are under way.

“But now the sun is up, and the differences start to show.

“Most obvious is the ship’s lower contour. Built in 2014 from 30 million cans’ worth of Alcoa aluminum, Littoral Combat Ship 10, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, rides high in the water on three separate hulls and is powered like a jet ski—that is, by water-breathing jets instead of propellers. This lets it move swiftly in the coastal shallows (or ‘littorals,’ in seagoing parlance), where it’s meant to dominate. Unlike the older ships now gliding past—guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, amphibious transports—the littoral combat ship was built on the concept of ‘modularity.’ There’s a voluminous hollow in the ship’s belly, and its insides can be swapped out in port, allowing it to set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.

“The ship’s most futuristic aspect, though, is its crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of ‘hybrid sailors’ who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized ‘legacy’ ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.”

IT Jungle: “ As I See It: Paper Or Plastic” — “Technology managers often grapple with a thorny employment dilemma: Do they hire for specialization or suppleness; specific or general knowledge; narrow but deep, or broad but shallow. It’s the quandary of expert versus generalist, and it’s like deciding whether you want to buy a hot car with no utility, or a utility vehicle with no hot.

“Some of the ambivalence arises from the fact that both are contextually useful and necessary. A handyman by definition must be a generalist; but you probably don’t want a handyman performing your bypass surgery.

“Yet according to Jerry Useem, things are shifting noticeably in favor of the generalist. The high price of expertise, coupled with the rapidly changing face of technology, has companies scurrying to grow a flexible, hybrid workforce capable of multitasking and on-the-fly adaptation.

“Writing in The Atlantic, Useem cites the U.S. Navy as a prime example. The squids are bucking 240 years of tradition in their recruiting and staffing practices by favoring smaller crews of sailors who show a propensity for problem solving and rapid acquisition of skills, rather than relying on single task specialists, redundancy, or sheer numbers.

“As in IT, the need for people with the ability to quickly assimilate a variety of competencies is driven by the pace and diversity of emerging technologies. The Navy now has hybrid ships whose ‘insides can be swapped out in port, allowing it to set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.’ It’s not practical to have a different crew for each contingency. Forty sailors, each performing multiple tasks, are asked to do what 200 sailors once did.”

TechCrunch: “ ‘Grit’ author Angela Duckworth on working smart versus working too hard, when it’s okay to pivot, and the impact of tech on grit” — “Today, in San Francisco, at a gathering of roughly 400 women organized by the young AllRaise — a growing group of female funders and founders who aim to accelerate the success of their peers — we sat down with Angela Duckworth. Ducksworth is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and has gained fame in recent years though a TED talk about grit that has now been viewed more than 15 million times, and a follow-up best-selling book titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

“Duckworth’s biggest finding is that though success has many features, including raw intelligence and adaptability, the most crucial ingredient may be hard work over sustained periods of time, or grit. She also maintains that grit is not as fixed as are some other inherited traits, even while how gritty we are has a lot to do with our biology. In fact, Duckworth said at today’s event that she didn’t always think of herself as gritty.

“‘When I was growing up in a bedroom community in South Jersey, not practicing piano when I should have been, I had a father who would literally out of the blue say things like, “You know, you’re no genius.” ‘ (After Duckworth was awarded a MacArthur Genius Fellowship in 2013, she laughingly told attendees, she ‘got to show up at his apartment 40 years later and say, “Actually, I am, officially. Officially, I am a genius.”‘)

“Given the nature of the audience, Duckworth spent much of her on-stage time talking about how VCs and founders might evaluate potential prospects — not by IQ scores or gender of other widely accepted predictors of success — but instead by trying to gauge the passion and perseverance of the people who come into their orbits. She also shared some ideas on how to ‘cultivate’ grit.”

Adam Waller produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.