Generalists vs. Specialists, Part II


I was doing some more research into the topic of Generalists vs. Specialists today and found some additional interesting information. Several articles that I read presented the idea that as technological innovation increases, generalists will become more and more important in our society and economy.

“Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay “The Fox and the Hedgehog” contrasts hedgehogs that “relate everything to a single, central vision” with foxes who “pursue many ends connected…if at all, only in some de facto way.” It’s really a story of specialists vs. generalists.” — Harvard Business Review, “All Hail the Generalist”

One interesting point made was that generalists tend to navigate uncertainty better than specialists. While a specialist (like the hedgehog) has earned his or her stripes by focusing on the minutiae, we find that generalists (like the fox) are able to see the “big picture” and their breadth of perspective allows them to make connections and more smoothly transition from role to role, task to task, etc. Breadth is the key word there – where generalists’ knowledge is broad, specialists’ knowledge is deep.

“The declining returns to expertise have implications at the national, company, and even individual level. A collection of specialists creates a less flexible labor force, one that requires “retraining” with technological developments creating constantly shifting human resource needs. In this regard, the recent emphasis in American education on “job-specific” skills is disturbing. Within a company, employees skilled in numerous functions are more valuable as management can dynamically adjust their roles. Many forward-looking companies are specifically mandating multi-functional experience as a requirement for career progress. Finally, individuals should manage their careers around obtaining a diversity of geographic and functional experiences. Professionals armed with the analytical capabilities (e.g. basic statistical skills, critical reasoning, etc.) developed via these experiences will fare particularly well when competing against others more focused on domain-specific skill development.” — Harvard Business Review, “All Hail the Generalist”

Does this mean that expertise is dead? Surely not. While the number of generalists may be rising, and the number of *true* experts may be shrinking, specialists are driving the innovation that may eventually lead to their own replacement. Think about it. We have some incredible specialists working in the tech industry – people who are in the business of making computers do more and more of our work for us. They’re changing our world, but it’s possible that as they change our world they might eventually create a world where they’re no longer useful. That’s a weird thing to think about.

This all connects with my first post on the subject which highlighted the need for Generalizing-Specialists and Specializing-Generalists. There’s a balance to be had. If a specialist can, over time, become more broad in their knowledge and skills then they are a valuable asset to be had. And similarly, a generalist who, over time, becomes deeper in certain knowledge and skill sets certainly has a place in most industries.

For me, a dedicated generalist, the struggle is trying to figure out which tactic to embrace. My own career has grown first through generalization and then through specialization. My generalist skills got my foot in the door, and when an opportunity for specialization presented itself I took it and have been successful. When additional areas of specialization are offered, do I take them and deepen certain knowledge and skill sets or do I stick to my generalist roots and look for additional breadth? That’s the part I haven’t figured out yet.


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