Monday, April 27, 2009

Specialization or Diversification?

Assembly line photo found here

I often find myself lamenting the pressures of specialization. The social structures we have created, and indeed the capitalistic society we live in, reward specialization of tasks and skills.  After all – it was specialization that made Smith’s Wealth of Nations such a hit and sent the industrial revolution into overdrive with assembly line processes. However, I hate to think that I am only of worth to my country or economy if I possess high levels of specialization in one limited skill set. It makes for an unbalanced individual and certainly does not mesh with my personal goal of embodying a renaissance woman. 

But today I began to question my own grim view of specialization. As I strolled the aisles of my local mega-grocer, where I could fill my cart with baby formula, cut roses, imported stuffed green olives, reading glasses, rat poison, and even a firearm (should the poison not do the trick I suppose), I began to yearn for more specialization. Thinking back to my time abroad in Athens, Greece, I remember the small, specialized shops and have yet to find stores in the US that offer the same high quality goods.  For example, a short walk would take you past the baker, the pharmacy, the outdoor produce market, the sweet shop, and the paper store. Because each shop was so specialized, you could be certain that every minute of work went into perfecting the specific, if not somewhat limited, line of goods offered. The result? A far cry from the stiff baguettes, bruised tomatoes, waxy chocolates, and generic stationary filling our “one stop shops”. 

While there are some convincing arguments for diversification (it is convenient to find such a breadth of product offerings in one location and may provide a company with increased financial stability), there are also many downsides. Think about the mediocre dining at one of many Asian fusion restaurants. In theory, you can sit down to a dinner of Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai items that satisfy whatever your appetite calls for that evening. In reality, you wind up eating an okay-at-best-meal in which no one cuisine is prepared to its full potential. When one institution attempts to excel at offering such an extensive product line, one, and more frequently all, of the goods produced will suffer.

Maybe specialization is not so bad after all. 



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