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Specialization vs. Flexibility

Specialization vs. Flexibility

When organizing the work that needs to be done for production in your business, there are two basic approaches. “Specialization,” which organizes work into specific production activities, and “Flexibility,” which organizes work into broader groups of production activities.

Specialization — Here, one worker performs one specific task or narrow group of tasks as part of a larger production system. In general, a specialized working environment tends to promote…

  • A quicker learning curve, due to repetition and simplicity.
  • Faster production, due to increased efficiencies.
  • Reduced labour costs, due to lower wages and faster production.

On the negative side, however, jobs that are too narrow can become tedious resulting in higher turnover.

Flexibility — Here, one worker may perform several tasks in the same production process, or they may rotate, performing different tasks at different times. They may even complete the entire production process themselves, with their co-workers doing the same. In general, a flexible working environment tends to promote…

  • A happier, more dedicated workforce, due to reduced tedium.
  • A more educated workforce with the ability to multi-task when necessary.
  • Reduced hiring and training expenses, due to lower employee turnover rates.
  • Reduced overtime expenses, due to more flexible working schedules.

On the negative side, flexible employees must often be paid more due to their increased knowledge and skill base. Also, more internal training may be necessary. Nonetheless, multi-tasking is often a financial necessity for smaller firms because certain positions may not warrant a full-time employee.

Of course it doesn't have to be an either/or situation. Think of specialization and flexibility as two ends of a continuum and decide where your organization fits in. For example, a pulp and paper mill may sit near one end while a marketing company may sit near the other, but a retail-clothing store may sit someplace in- between. Especially if employees have their specific job descriptions, but occasionally the sales people must handle the till and the managers must occasionally make deliveries.

If your employees find the work in your production process to be excessively tedious and repetitive, you may be able to improve the situation with one or more of the following techniques.

Job rotation — Consider rotating employees through different production jobs on a predetermined schedule. This can work especially well in a manufacturing company where the various tasks are not too complicated. This will break the monotony of overly simple and repetitive tasks. It also gives employees the opportunity to expand their skill sets.

Job enlargement — This is the horizontal expansion of the number of different tasks performed by each worker. In a restaurant, for example, consider having the hostess take drink orders or having the waitresses prepare salads. The additional responsibilities may help to alleviate boredom while giving the employees an opportunity to expand on their skills.

Job enrichment — this is the vertical expansion of a job by involving workers in various related aspects of the production process. These are specialized workers performing flexible tasks, or skilled specialists. For example, a machinery operator may also become responsible for the inspection and maintenance of his equipment, as well as the quality control of his output. This is the most challenging technique because it often requires an increased level of authority on the part of the employee and an increased level of trust on the part of the employer. As an added bonus, however, it helps employees to feel part of the entire process more directly than either of the other techniques.

Do your production needs lend themselves to a more flexible or a more specific working environment? Where do you fit on the production continuum and why?

How might the principles of flexibility and specialization impact your employees?

"Rotating people and letting them work in different assignments is an excellent way to enrich and develop the employees' skills. It's a pity that it isn't practiced more broadly.”

- Andrew S. Grove

How might a more flexible or more specific workforce benefit your company?