The Sense and Nonsense of Specialization

Are the consequences of specialization good or bad? Yes, it depends on tasks; and yes, it depends on people. However, maybe the general discussion about job rotations and organizational structure can benefit from a historical example: Local autonomy of the knights of St. John in Malta.

The knights of this order were born in different countries (pre-national regions) of Europe. When the order came to Malta in 1530, there were eight so-called “languages”: Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, England, Germany, and Castile—including Portugal. Each of these groups (or rather, sub-organizations?) had their own building, or auberge, as a meeting space and welcoming point for new compatriots. Every “language” as a division was responsible for a certain subject in the administration of the whole city, sending the head as a minister to the city government under the Grand Master, who was appointed by the order. For example, French knights were responsible for medical care and hospitals, Brits were responsible for maritime defense, and German knights were responsible for the army (ironically though, the Auberge d’Allemagne in the former capital city of Malta, Birgu, was destroyed by German forces in the second world war).

Unfortunately, we have no chance to interview the knights about the benefits and “dark sides” of such a structure. Fact is, the structure was stable (for 300 years), and there were highly educated and experienced experts in each area of governance due to the “predestination” of new members and maybe cultural “strains” and long-term experience. But, such a structure did exist on the island for the isolated cities by being “sponsored” by old Europe, and in the end, destroyed in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte—better known as the generalist!

“Nothing is new under the sun!” as King Solomon said. The specialization in the last decades in our industry and in education reaches its limits of innovation and effectiveness. Perhaps the (undoubted!) benefits of deep specialization are losing against general approach and interdisciplinarity once again nowadays?

Foto: Which talent is hidden here?

Source: Wikimedia Commons: Armour of Jean Parisot, La Valette Palace Armoury Valletta

Please read in German about benefits of interdisciplinarity:


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