Wednesday, February 17, 2010

To Survive, Specialize

One of the unmistakable realities of evolutionary biology is that most species who adapt and survive do so because they find a way to specialize in the vast web of life. Nature is a hostile and competitive place, and as a general principle, the more specialized an organism is, in terms of its diet or habitat, the more likely it is to survive. Unless of course, environmental shifts wipe out the species' food source or habitat. One reason generalists survive is because they can avoid exactly that type of catastrophe. The actinedid follicle mite only infests (and finds sustenance in) human eyebrow hairs. If we all shaved our eyebrows the species would disappear. Sharks, though, have survived across many eras, outlasting the dinosaurs, because they eat almost anything.

But I've drifted too far from my point. When looking at the prospects of employment in Human Resources, it seems clear that generalists are dying off and specialists are thriving (although choosing your specialty might be vital for long-term survival). Consider these U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics (taken from HR Magazine):

The thing to notice is this: the things HR managers once did - compensation and benefits, payroll, and training and development, narrowly defined - will only generate a few thousand new jobs between now and 2018. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be available in more specialized areas - recruitment and placement, talent analysis, and training and development geared toward cultivating the next generation of leaders who will fill the seats being emptied by retiring baby-boomers.

The other key trend - not mapped out in this data - is a move toward using more carefully defined metrics, to identify the talent needed to meet the organization's objectives, to inventory the organization's existing talent, to put a time estimate on how long specific types of talent will be needed and what the most cost-effective approach is to getting that talent. This is all stuff that departments and divisions across a firm do sloppily, using past experience, rules of thumb, and guesswork. Often department managers fold acquiring staff into an overall effort to try to maximize the resources under their control - more influence, more space, more funding for projects, more people. But in today's economy - in fact in any sane and rational system - a department's value is measured by its work product: is it effective in helping the organization achieve the things it needs to achieve? If this is the measure, then departments need the right people in place, not an army of people. And this points to a new, or perhaps newly significant requirement for HR personnel: they need to function as internal consultants. Directors, managers, and department heads don't know how to assess, recruit, support, and develop talent. Or at least they have imperfect ideas about all of this, and need specialists to help them.

So, perhaps in this case, specialization won't just help those of you working in HR to survive, but maybe it will help your firms survive too.

If you work in Human Resources, you need to enroll in our Strategic Talent Management and Organizational Design Certificate, which helps map the move from service-orientation to strategic partnership. And from generalist to specialist.