Generalist vs. Specialist – Part 2

In Part 2, we’ll look at the specialist and their value to the organization.

Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” and, later in his life, considered knowledge worker productivity to be the next frontier of management.[1]  Most would infer this to be a nod toward specialization.

In an article by Vikram Mansharamani (“All Hail the Generalist”)[2], published in the Harvard Business Review Blog in June 2012, he states that “We have become a society of specialists.  Business thinkers point to “domain expertise” as an enduring source of advantage in today’s competitive environment.  The logic is straightforward: learn more about your function, acquire “expert” status, and you’ll go further in your career.”

Mansharamani goes on to state that the prior trend of soliciting individuals who were highly knowledgeable about a specific degree of specialization has been infused into our workplace and university settings.  However, while the application of their expertise in their respective fields has contributed greatly to those specialized areas, it has also given rise to a potential inability to decipher any interdependencies that may occur between these specialties or the application of these skills on a broader global or societal scale.

This creates a potential dilemma.  On the one hand, there is a great demand for specialists in various fields to ensure a leadership position in research & development, scientific advancement, and technology.  On the other hand, there may be an absence of macro-scale understanding of how these advances and breakthroughs can be socialized on a global scale or how changes in one sector can serve as a catalyst for unexpected changes in another.

Mansharamani also points out that specialists are “deep” in their area of expertise.  Their approach is one of applying standardized methodologies and disciplines to the advancement of their field.  However, ambiguity creates conflict and uncertainty.  In essence, what serves as a strength for scientific study, the discipline of applying commonly accepted practices, also inhibits the specialist’s ability to deal with unexpected issues that are contrary to their learned discipline.  Generalists, on the other hand, seem to be more capable of readily adapting to ambiguity.  As Mansharamani puts it, “In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.”

In an article titled “Is It Better to Be a BA Generalist or Specialist?”[3], appearing on the website www.realworldba.com on December 8, 2010, a comparison was constructed between generalists and specialists.  With respect to specialists, the author pointed out that they bring in-depth knowledge to a specific area of expertise that otherwise might take years for someone else to learn.  However, as we saw above, while their knowledge and focused understanding of unique issues makes them a valuable asset, it also can prevent them from understanding interdependencies between functional areas or the global application of their expertise to changing client or market requirements.

Summary

Each organization needs to determine the proper balance between generalists and specialists, based upon their business model and customer requirements.  While no two companies may have the same percentage distribution of personnel, progressive firms will understand that maximizing company value first occurs with the right blend of the two disciplines, thus achieving both technical and business advantage.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Drucker

[2] http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/all-hail-the-generalist/

[3] http://realworldba.com/ba-generalist-or-specialist/

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