According to The Atlantic 2019-07, the US Navy has been piloting a new way of manning its Littoral Combat class ships, which are modular by design. The crew are all multi-purpose, with several roles onboard and always learning new tasks. They operate with one-fifth the crew size of a regular ship. Specialization is a thing of the past for these crews. One reason for this is that specialized knowledge has an increasingly shorter lifespan, so generalists who are good learners can make for a more flexible, or agile, crew. This approach also has its downsides, such as fewer redundant positions onboard to mitigate combat losses, and lack of deep knowledge for some complex problems.
The key question from the article is whether this is the way of the future. Is a neo-generalist a better fit for modern workplace conditions? It’s a good question that will only be answered with time.
“Minimal manning—and the evolution of the economy more generally—requires a different kind of worker, with not only different acquired skills but different inherent abilities. It has implications for the nature and utility of a college education, for the path of careers, for inequality and employability—even for the generational divide. And that’s to say nothing of its potential impact on product quality and worker safety, or on the nature of the satisfactions one might derive from work.”—The Atlantic
Finding the right balance will take a lot of experimentation. Organizations should start testing out new models now. Learn from the Navy and others who are trying new ways of organizing work. For individuals, the ability to ‘flexibly shift’ may become a critical work skill. It’s what I call ‘perpetual beta‘.
“Everybody I met on the USS Gabrielle Giffords seemed to share that mentality [constant learning of new skills]. They regarded every minute on board — even during a routine transit back to port in San Diego Harbor — as a chance to learn something new.” —The Atlantic
The article provides a lot more detail on the ship’s routine and how different sailors are employed. It’s well worth reading. Consider what Nancy Dixon had to say about changing organizational structures.
“For the first time since the industrial revolution, organizations are changing at a fundamental level. The change is very much a work in progress in most organizations. But we now have many examples of organizations that are fully functioning in an entirely new way — that is, new ideas about how the organization is designed, about how work gets done, how people relate to each other.” —Nancy Dixon