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The dilemma of career specialisation

Rob Livingstone
August 21, 2014

From an evolutionary perspective, omnivores will be more successful than those species who can only survive eating only a specific food type. A well known example includes the giant panda, whose existence is threatened by a loss of a specific bamboo habitat.

Question is: In your career thus far – do you consider yourself an omnivore or a panda?

We need specialists

The concept of specialisation implies, by definition, that a set of deep and distinct skills in a specific domain of knowledge are acquired by a comparatively small number of individuals. Specialisation is a much needed attribute for both organisations and societies as it maximises efficiency, leads to optimal outcomes with the lowest probability of error, and is entrenched on our modern societies.

Specialist careers deliver all types of services on which our daily lives depend. Examples include airline pilot, intensive care nurse, brain surgeon, software engineer, soil scientist, entomologist, physicist, statistician or special needs teacher. Specialist organisations staffed by specialists also deliver important services, such as pharmaceuticals, satellite geospatial service providers, jet engine manufacturers, weather forecasters.

If you become a specialist as a project manager, how do you see the following factors having an influence in your career prospects?

  • Drop in demand due to the next wave of innovation. Your specialisation has been rendered outdated due to new technology, process or product innovations.
  • Lock-in: Depending on your specific situation, having skills in a small, yet specialised domain of knowledge may mean that you feel unqualified to do anything else. Additionally, the re-skilling and re-certification effort to switch to another or related area of specialisation may be a deterrent, further increasing the effect of being locked into your specialty.
  • Geographic shift in the supply of your area of speciality. The demand on your time may fall due to the provisioning of similar services from overseas that is faster, better, lower cost and offered on a 24x7x365 basis.
  • Embedding and leveraging specialist knowledge into systems. This can occur in a number of ways, from the codification of your expertise into equipment using technologies such as expert systems, predictive analytics, and real time decision support systems.

Your specialisation’s half-life

New, emerging and disruptive technologies have resulted in an explosion in the number of career choices. At the same time the half-life of some specialised careers that are dependent on technologies in one form or another are reducing.

Consider the following specialist careers:
Brain surgery: In investing the considerable amount of time, effort and money in training to be a brain surgeon, you can be reasonably confident that brain surgery will still be needed for the remainder of your career. Additionally, it is highly unlikely that it can be outsourced to a low cost country, however robotic surgery over the internet may have some bearing on your role at some point.

IT specialist: You are a highly regarded, well respected IT specialist in a specific technology. Given that this technology is unlikely to be in widespread use past the next five years, the risks to find meaningful, financially viable and sustainable employment over the longer term may be limiting.

The question you need to ask is: What supplementary and complementary skills and experience should I start acquiring to add to my career being resilient?

This post was originally published as a Rob Livingstone Insight column.

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Rob Livingstone
Rob Livingstone is the owner of Rob Livingstone Advisory Pty Limited. He is a highly respected and experienced CIO, with more than three decades of professional experience in the corporate world, including a number of multinational companies. He is the author of 'Navigating through the Cloud'.
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