Automation Enables Specialization: Field Evidence


Becker and Murphy (1992) proposed that task specialization raises productivity but is limited by the costs of coordinating workers. We propose that automation enables workers to specialize without coordination costs. To the extent that the cost of effort exhibits increasing differences, workers increase effort in non-automated tasks and productivity. The proposition is supported by a field experiment among supermarket cashiers. Conventionally, supermarket cashiers perform two tasks — scanning purchases and collecting payment. Cashiers exhibited increasing differences in the cost of effort: when they scanned faster, they took longer to collect payments. We rotated cashiers between the conventional job design and one in which they specialized in scanning. The new job design increased cashier productivity in scanning by over 10 percent. The faster scanning was not due to customer sorting or cashier learning. The proposition is also validated by a survey of taxi drivers. Drivers who reported that difficulties in way-finding affected their driving were more likely to use map apps.