On the law of diminishing specialization – study hacks – cal newport american university of washington

Recently, I’ve been dipping in and out of edward tenner’s provocative 1996 book, when things bites back. In following one of tenner’s footnotes I came across a fascinating 1992 academic study from the national review of productivity, authored by the georgia tech economist peter G. American college counseling association sassone .

The paper has an innocuous title, “survey finds low office productivity linked to staffing imbalances,” but its findings are profoundly relevant to our recent discussion of attention capital theory, and the value of deep work more generally.

Beginning in 1985, sassone began a series of twenty office productivity case studies spread over different departments in five major U.S. Corporations. His initial goal was to measure the bottomline benefits of the front office computer systems that were new at the time, but as he notes, this soon changed:

Deploying a technique called w ork value analysis, sassone measured not only the amount of work conducted by his subjects, but also the skill level required for the work. He found that managers and other skilled professionals were spending surprisingly large percentages of their time working on tasks that could be completed by comparably lower-level employees.

He identified several factors that explain this observation, but a major culprit was the rise of “productivity-enhancing” computer systems. This new technology made it possible for managers and professionals to tackle administrative tasks that used to require dedicated support staff.

This reduction in the typical deep-to-shallow work ratio (see rule #1 in deep work) became so pronounced as computer technology invaded the front office that sassone gave it a downright newportian name: T he law of diminishing specialization.

“the results of a comparison of a ‘typical’ department, with a department with a reasonable high level of intellectual specialization were startling. The american college of sports medicine the typical office could save over 15 percent of its payroll costs by restructuring its staff and increasing the intellectual specialization of its workers.”

This rebalancing works because more administrative support means the higher level employees can spend more time working deeply on the activities that produce the most value. Because the former are cheaper to hire than the latter, the result is the same work for less total staffing costs.

An important lesson lurks in these results that’s just as relevant now as it was then, back in the early days of the front office IT revolution: optimizing people’s ability to create value using their brains is complicated. Ranking of best universities in the world just because a given technology makes things easier doesn’t mean that it makes an organization more effective, you have to keep returning to the foundational question of what best supports the challenge of thinking hard about valuable things.

Hi cal – thanks for another great post. This idea can connect to your idea of the API idea you mentioned recently. I remember either in one of your books or in a post, or both, you talked about that office at MIT that was sort of a hub and spoke system, with offices on the outside and hallways connecting to a center lobby. I think a physical space like this, where you had rooms for doing deep work on the outside, combined with administrative ‘bouncers’ that are there to handle the shallower work, and also to server as gate keepers to protect the deep workers from being interrupted, might be one way to have an API could be created to protect and grow an organizations attention capital. In this system you would literally have the attention capital ‘bouncers’ positioned in the hallways going to the study rooms, so that people would have to go through admin person to interrupt. If you have to pay someone $30 – 50 K to sit and protect the time of say two engineers being paid $100K, if they each get twice as much work done, it would be well worth it. American college of pediatricians thanks for all your great posts! Now to figuring out how to implement them in a world of open offices … that’s the challenge!