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Real world needs? Specialists or generalists

, November 23, 2014, 0 Comments

real world specialists generalists-MarketExpress-inIn most universities, students are educated to become specialists in a certain field. These discipline-centred institutions tend to teach subjects as if they were encapsulated in isolated boxes in the belief that it is beneficial for students to get foundation training in a discipline, before exposing them to interdisciplinary studies at postgraduate level.

Whilst there is an increasing recognition that interdisciplinary approaches are critical in professional life so they should be integrated into undergraduate education, institutions have been slow to pick this up [1]. And, as not everyone gets a chance to pursue postgraduate studies, it is only fair to suggest that narrow-minded monopaths (over-specialised individuals who focus on a limited scope or area) remain a natural product of our education system.

By definition, innovative entrepreneurs are polymaths

The disciplinary leaning of most academic establishments is rooted in the old industrial model, where compartmentalisation was considered the best way to organise work in business. Ironically, Adam Smith – who championed the idea that division of labour is the engine of capitalism – was far from being a monopath himself. He wrote on many subjects; economics, philosophy, law and astronomy, to name a few.

There is little doubt, however, that industrial-led division of labour runs counter intuitive to creativity. As Steve Jobs once put it, “creativity is just connecting things”. Innovation comes as a result of cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives, by venturing outside the walls of one speciality to tap into the premise of another. In the business best-seller The Innovator’s DNA, the cognitive ability of drawing connections among seemingly unrelated fields is labelled ‘associational thinking’.

Richard Branson is a living example of an innovative entrepreneur with a track record of associational thinking. He has founded more than 400 companies whose operations span diverse industries. Historical examples of great thinkers include Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Ibn Khaldoun and Ibn Al-Haytham – all of whom excelled at several fields across science and the arts. In describing such highly-gifted individuals, the fifteenth century polymath Leon Battista Alberti coined the term ‘Renaissance Man’. Another related concept is ‘generalist’, which is in contrast to the so-called ‘specialist’. Generalists have an urge to break down silos and make connections from various fields with an extraordinary capacity to see the ‘big picture’ and improvise with what is at hand.

Unlike traditional discipline-centred universities, a number of institutions have emerged recently with the explicit aim of developing our generalist abilities [2]. Unfortunately, these initiatives are having a hard time shrugging off the negative stereotypic connotations that are often associated with being a generalist, e.g. “Jack of all trades…Master of none”.

Will somebody fetch me a…specialist?

Let’s admit it; we live in world that rewards ‘specialists’ more than ‘generalists’. A widely given piece of advice for young people is to “pick one thing and stick to it”. Credentialed specialists are likely to make more money because they are usually viewed as more knowledgeable and trustworthy than everyone else.

Sooner or later, many people realise that this view is not quite watertight if you want to run your own business or rise through the corporate ranks.

In order to thrive in today’s corporate world, the notion of ‘lifetime learning’ has taken over the idea of ‘lifetime employment’ as the old ways of solving problems are becoming obsolete. To address the increasing complexity of problems in an ever interlinked world, we need more generalists who can adopt a creative and holistic approach to problem solving.

The 5 ‘S’ factors demystified

Given that creativity is often regarded as the number-one leadership competency in today’s global environment [3], it would make sense to assume that being a generalist – able to wear many hats – is one of the traits needed to make it to the corner office. But, there are five factors which are critical in deciding whether or not a generalist should lead a company. I refer to these as the ‘S’ factors:

Size: A small start-up company is more likely to make use of the multi-skilled generalists who can take on multiple roles.

Structure: Clearly defined corporate structures will enhance a firm’s attractiveness to potential investors, but may limit the room for multi-tasking generalists.

Seniority: All other things being equal, the more senior the post is, the less the need for technical know-how. Technical tasks are mostly delegateable and savvy executives know well that they have to ‘delegate or die’. Yet, people-skills and financial literacy seem to be the fundamental assets that every candidate for the top job should possess.

Sector: The qualities needed in CEOs seem to vary a great deal depending on the maturity and industrial structure of the sector in which the company operates. Nascent industries tend to be characterised by a relative ease of entry and a fundamental role played by entrepreneurs. This is where the merits of a generalist can be treasured. Mature industries, on the other hand, tend to be dominated by large firms in which many executives make it to the top by spending several years working in the same sector, if not the same company.

Last, but certainly not the least, is the element of Serendipity. This is not trivial because no matter how hard one tries to come up with theories to define successful innovative leadership, there will always be outliers. Quite often, the success of the innovative leaders depends not only on their personal skills but rather on things that fall beyond their direct control, e.g. market conditions or their team dynamics.

So, should we all aspire to become generalists?

The short answer is ‘NO’. This may pour cold water on the hype and excitement of recent years over the importance of developing generalist skills and traits; but think about it! Not every executive is Steve Jobs and not every start-up is a game-changing entrepreneurial company that offers unique value to the market. Yes, there is an increasing need for innovative generalists to occupy certain leadership roles but they are not a panacea. As much as the world needs generalists who see the big picture and are able to connect the dots, it also needs specialists who can work on the nitty-gritty element of the solutions. So, it is not a matter of one or the other, but rather how you envisage the trajectories of your career and business plans.