Work specialization


Early in the twentieth century, Henry Ford became rich and famous by building automobiles on an assembly line. Every Ford worker was assigned a specific, repetitive task. For instance, one person would just put on the right-front wheel and someone else would install the right-front door. By breaking jobs up into small standardized tasks, which could be performed over and over again, Ford was able to produce cars at the rate of one every 10 seconds, using employees who had relatively limited skills.

For demonstrated that work can be performed more efficiently if employees are allowed to specialize. Today we use the term work specialization, or division of labor, to describe the degree to which activities in the organization are subdivided into separate jobs.

The essence of work specialization is that, rather than an entire job being done by one individual, it is broken down into a number of steps, with each step being completed by a separate individual. In essence, individuals specialize in doing part of an activity rather than the entire activity.

By the late 1940s, most manufacturing jobs in industrialized countries were being done with high work specialization. Management saw this as a means to make the most efficient use of its employees’ skills. In most organizations, some tasks require highly developed skills and others can be performed by untrained workers.

If all workers were engaged in each step of, say, an organization’s manufacturing process, all would have the skills necessary to perform both the most demanding and the least demanding jobs. The result would be that, except when performing the most skilled or highly complex tasks, employees would be working below their skill levels. And because skilled workers are paid more than unskilled workers and their wages tend to reflect their highest level of skill, it represents an inefficient use of organizational resources to pay highly skilled workers to do easy tasks.

Managers also saw other efficiencies that could be achieved through work specialization. Employee skills at performing a task successfully increase through repetition. Less time is spent in changing task, in putting away one’s tools and equipment from a prior step in the work process, and in getting ready for another.

Equally important, training for specialization is more efficient from the organization’s perspective. It’s easier and less costly to find and train workers to do specific and repetitive tasks. This is especially true of highly sophisticated and complex operations. For example, could Tata Motors produce even one hundred cars a year if one person had to build the entire car alone? Not likely! Finally, work specialization increases efficiency and productivity by encouraging the creation of special inventions and machinery.

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, managers viewed work specialization as an unending source of increased productivity. And they were probably right because specialization was not practiced; its introduction almost always generated higher productivity. But by the 1960s there came increasing evidence that a good thing can be carried too far. The point had been reached in some jobs at which the human diseconomies from specialization—which surfaced as boredom, fatigue, stress, low productivity, poor quality, increased absenteeism, and high turnover—more than offset the economic advantages. In such cases, productivity could be increased by enlarging, rather than narrowing, the scope of job activities. In addition, a number of companies found that by giving employees a variety of activities to do, allowing them to do a whole and complete job, and putting them into teams with interchangeable skills, they often achieved significantly higher output, with increased employee satisfaction.

Most managers today see work specialization an unending source of increased productivity. Rather, managers recognize the economies it provides in certain types of jobs and the problems it create when it’s carried too far. You’ll find, for example, high work specialization being used by McDonald’s to efficiently make and sell hamburgers and fries, and by medical specialists in most health maintenance organizations. On the other hand, the Tata Group of companies had success by broadening the scope of jobs and reducing specialization.