Generalist vs. Specialist – Part 1

Although an age old dilemma that seems to have its cycles of influence, the question remains.  “Is one skill set better than the other for executive management?”  This discussion is intended to relay other research and motivate you to investigate the applicability of generalists and specialists in your own organization, trends developing for each of these career labels, and how you see the future emergence of one, the other, or both over the next decade.  Today, we’ll focus on generalists.

When the notion of “managing” a business first came into being in the 1940’a with Peter Drucker’s idea of decentralization[1], executive management ranks were populated by individuals with general management backgrounds.  It was common for people to rise within an organization from the ‘ground floor’ so as to learn how the entire organization was run – what made it tick.  The belief was that, after entering management, the individual would have the knowledge of how the entire organization operated since they had experienced it personally over the preceding years.  The idea of having a well-rounded background with experience in each of the functional silos of a company was deemed necessary for properly leading the organization as a whole.

This general trend continued into the early 1980’s until the era of “high-tech” arrived.  This ushered in a gradual transition from generalists to specialists, primarily due to the specialized nature of the technology that was being developed.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the technology was primarily centered on hardware (HW) development – semiconductors, LCD’s, lab equipment, etc.  But in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, this was eclipsed by the entry of the world of software (SW) – different, but equally specialized in its development and applications.

However, there seems to be noise afoot that we may be transitioning back toward the world of generalists.  While SW and HW technologies remain complex and in need of their respective specialized engineers and scientists, the globalization of our economy requires people who are able to look beyond the technologies and encompass business and global issues necessary for growth.

“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences.  So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.  The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”[2]  (Steve Jobs, Co-founder of Apple)

While Drucker served industry as a valued consultant, the ideas he advocated would tend to appeal to someone having a wide range of experience.[3]  From supply chain, to HR, to management principles, to sales and customer support, to defined processes & MBO’s – Drucker introduced a wide variety of strategic and tactical disciplines intended to develop a well-rounded solution to the management of a company.

While having a diversified background would tend to convey knowledge on a wide variety of inter-related business issues and, thus, a higher probability of deriving effective solutions, the trend mentioned earlier tends to place generalists in a minority of executive positions.  However, given our expansion into a globalized society, is this a suitable position for companies to be in?  Should the current majority of specialists (or a portion thereof) become more “generalized” through education, training, and experience to be of greater benefit to their organizations?  Should generalists be sought out once again for key positions that afford them a greater probability of providing integrated and more time effective business solutions?

Tia Benjamin, writing on behalf of Demand Media, provided an excellent overview comparing functional specialists with management generalists.  She compared four attributes – technical expertise, adapting to change, consulting skills, and team success – and provided insight as to the benefits and drawbacks each skill set has in these settings.  In essence, she concluded that “both types can serve a purpose in an organization.  The styles are not necessarily mutually exclusive…” [4]

In an article written by Chuck Martin titled Specialists vs. Generalists[5], he states that “In these days of specialization, it can be more and more difficult for some to see and keep sight of the bigger picture at work.”  Survey respondents indicated that specialists seem to be favored over generalists by a rate of 2:1, thus accounting for greater advancement and rewards.  “The irony of corporate America is that while generalists drive innovation and long-term results, specialists are most often rewarded at the vice president level and below.”

In an article written by Meghan Casserly titled The Secret Power of The Generalist — and How They’ll Rule the Future[6], she creates an effective metaphor comparing attributes in the animal kingdom with like characteristics in specialists and generalists.  The nature of industry specialization has become extreme, producing individuals who have deep knowledge about a limited set of data.  When change occurs, this creates missing link in which, without generalists, there is no one who can “weave these [specialized] ideas in the broader fabric of understanding.” (Carter Phipps, author of 2012’s Evolutionaries).[7]  In essence, he states that private enterprise has become “data rich and meaning poor”.

This notion was bolstered by research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Phillip Tetlock.  He studied 248 professional forecasters over 20 years to determine whether specialists or generalists make more accurate predictions in their respective areas of expertise.  After collecting more than 80,000 forecasts, he concluded that the generalists were the best when measuring level of accuracy because they could more easily assimilate impacting factors. [8]  Why was this determined to be the case?  The solution might be that a single-minded person (specialist) can’t predict variables they don’t know anything about.  This is the strength of the generalist.









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