My wife and I were first-time homeowners in 2010, a house built in 1881 that we will be renovating for years to come. Having to deal with life without a landlord to call on for the first time, we quickly adopted my uncle Eric as our unofficial handyman, handling everything from mowing the lawn to fixing the sinks and showers. Along the way, I inquired about redoing a floor and specifically tiling the floor.
"I'll help you with the floor," Eric said, "but I don't ever want to learn tiling because, once I do, I'll be doing it for the rest of my life."
This story came up earlier this month when I had the pleasure of being asked to speak at the Social Media Club of Louisville's monthly gathering. It was a lively crowd, with ringleader Jason Falls (and his trademark "heh") overseeing the festivities. I was there to talk about the spreadable media project I have been working on for the past couple of years with Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and my cohorts at the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. That particular story came up after the talk, as I discussed the dangers of specialization with a few of the many keen minds in attendance: Brian Moore from Humana; Nick Huhn, a digital strategist who formerly worked for Yum! Brands; and others.
We were discussing the reluctance we all sometimes have to learn skills or else to publicize skills that we have because of a fear that such knowledge would become an albatross. As job advice gurus preach to everyone that the best way to stay marketable is to specialize in ways that set your resume apart, that differentiation is also a double-edged sword. Employees end up set aside as the go-to person for creating "decks" (PowerPoint in the business world; actual decks in my uncle's case), the "social media guru," or the proofreading expert and soon may end up either feeling locked in a silo.
One of the skills in highest demand these days that runs this risk is fluency in Spanish. On the one hand, such a skill in communication and marketing can be invaluable for organizations. On the other, the fear arises that a person's career goals were curtailed because they were typecast.
We all occasionally encounter this issue on both fronts. Sometimes, we may be the expert who feels like our work is interrupted by colleagues who ask for the same types of things repeatedly, and we eventually end up downplaying what we know or are else sluggish to update our knowledge in an area in fear of becoming a resource to people without what we feel is proper compensation. Perhaps as often, though, we may find ourselves hitting a barrier or in a jam that we know our colleagues can quickly solve, so one call helps us to remember how to do "that thing in Excel" we seem to constantly forget.
For an organization to work optimally as a cohesive unit, we have to find our way past these roadblocks. Just because someone has a skill doesn't mean they should be defined by it. We have to ensure that a person's career goals are kept in mind and that she or he is positioned to grow holistically rather than be stuck in the niche we inadvertently put them in. And, if we have a skill, we have to think about how sharing it might help our colleagues. And we also have to consider how we can teach others something as we help them and remember that no good comes from making what we do a mysterious black box to those we collaborate with and that doing so won't render us obsolete (as long as we continue to grow).
Most of all, rather than turning to the same colleagues with the same question again and again (as I do with poor Ray Carroll in Peppercom's office every time I can't remember someone's phone extension, for instance), we should take the extra time to learn how to do it ourselves. It doesn't mean they won't remain our go-to expert, but we should embrace one another as fellow teachers and mentors, rather than outsourcing work to others that would be more convenient for all—including ourselves—for us to do. I learned early on when entering the public relations space that, while I will never consider myself our primary expert in writing a press release or developing a messaging script, it was a hindrance to myself and others not to learn traditional PR work, if nothing else to better ensure that what I do is of maximum use to my colleagues and our clients.
There's one thing I know for sure: it will be impossible for any of our organizations to innovate if we are reticent to learn new skills, lest it derail our career goals in the process.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.