The road to digital transformation is paved with innovation. Or, at least, the acceptance of an innovation mindset. 

Some of our clients call this “intrapreneurship” and some follow the Google 10% model, where time is set aside specifically for ideation and exploration of new products and approaches. Failure is often rewarded. In fact, one of our financial services clients has a “fail fast goal” that is measured as part of performance goals.

One risk is to allow that innovation mindset to become stagnant, which is the common paradox of specialization. Let’s explore how this can happen, despite the best of intentions.

The specialization paradox

Transformation is a blend of ideation (mindset, culture, vision) and implementation (skills training, attitude, organizational structure, process improvement). 

Ideation is challenging work, and even so, is only half the battle. Identifying the end goal, quantifying the gaps in current practices and skills, and mapping the competencies that are required for modern marketing are essential steps in business transformation. Today, this process also needs to be agile and responsive to market and customer behavior changes over time.

Implementation can be even harder. We have to recognize two different kinds of knowledge: first, developing a set of compelling statements to convince, mobilize and motivate a new team of skilled modern marketers and practitioners. 

Why are we transforming to customer first/digital first/mobile first or some other theme? How will that change make a difference in our business goals?

Second, producing testable propositions about the business reality, namely how to meet customers where they are – digitally and otherwise – using the technology available and with creative solutions that interest and engage people. These practices and procedures have to be achievable and inspiring… and become the proof points that excite marketers to jump on board and add their own successes to the story.

The logical output of those two kinds of knowledge is to specialize – letting experts in each area of marketing innovate from deep knowledge and experience, exposing new, strategic ideas and motivating others across the organization to embrace new opportunities. 

Is it a good idea to specialize in only one area?

Specialization is a good business strategy. Good companies tend to specialize over time – usually because of competition as well as for productivity and cost reasons. The interdependency of marketing activity naturally leads to specialists doing some of the expert production work to streamline costs, advance technical and data management techiques, and strengthen consistency of brand alignment.   

Over time, specialists – often located in a Center of Excellence (a hub-spoke model favored in of agile methods) – become themselves enmeshed in their own set of practices and processes. It’s hard to innovate from a position of comfortable procedure.

Thus emerges a paradox of specialization that must be recognized and addressed if marketing organizations want to continuously improve. A reliance on specialists can actually limit the amount of disruption or innovation happening in marketing teams.

Marketing organizations need a wide set of skills and resources because any radical innovation requires the exploration and utilization of new/different knowledge and resources than are current being used. This gap between the specialist teams and the need for general or different knowledge and approaches is a real business risk. The gap is bridged through an ongoing, diligent effort at maintaining the innovation mindset that led to the specialization in the first place.

A business must organize for specialization, but at the same time maintain capacity for radical innovation. 

  • Reduce the gap as much as possible, partly by re-conceptualizing (making the new more similar to the established), and partly by simplifying and removing some of the novel elements proposed.
  • With a smaller gap, we can define the role of generalists more specifically, even hiring or partnering with outside teams, or connecting new resources in creative ways.
  • Maintain a wider knowledge base, and developing bridging mechanisms so that specialization models do not simply become a “new normal” and thus resist change.

The same passion that inspires change and leads to transformation of a marketing organization must be nurtured continually. Specialization often seeks to converge and simplify an organization’s efficiency. Transformation leaders must guard against divergence of the innovation. 

What do you think? Does your organization have a commitment to continual innovation, beyond specialization?

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