The Future Belongs to Generalists—Some Thoughts

On the HBR Blog Network, Vikram argues that the age of the specialist is over, and that the generalist should be more important in the next age:

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.

But what if this approach is no longer valid? Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark. There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.

His main points are:
– In many disciplines, experts (specialists) are the most powerful.
– As the world becomes more interconnected, a broader view is useful. Generalists who cast a wide net will see more of the bigger picture.
– Specialists aren’t always right. They “see” things that the data and reality don’t support.
– Generalists are better at navigating uncertainty. Vikram says, “In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.
– The emphasis on job-specific training is disturbing. It would be better if people trained more broadly.

As I write this, there are 128 comments on the blog post. It’s pushed a button for many people.

Here’s my thinking about what Vikram is saying:

1. Extremes are usually bad. Studying “bark” and “missing the trees” is an extreme example of specialization, and depending on what contribution the bark specialist is supposed to make, could be good or bad. On the other hand, knowing a little about everything, but not being able to tie it together in a cogent analysis is the extreme of generalization – and that would be bad too. Too much rambling, incoherence, and wasted time for everyone involved. We’d tell such a person to focus.

2. I agree that a broader view – more tree, less bark – is useful, but I wouldn’t want to see that happening at the expense of the specialization. Making it a habit to read outside of your discipline is a good practice to get into. Making it a regular event to read the broad business magazines – such as BusinessWeek, Fortune, INC, Fast Company, and The Economist for a wider-than-business-purview – is also a good practice.

3. While specialists aren’t always right, sometimes it takes a specialist to “see” that last piece of data that ties a whole lot of lose threads together. But equally, sometimes it’s someone from outside the field who brings that integration – by seeing the data or problems in a domain from a new perspective.

4. I’m going to shrug my shoulders at the notion of “job specific” training. So what? It makes perfect sense for the organization at that moment in time to train people for a specific role. But what’s not right – and I see this as the individual’s responsibility – is that the individual become a passive learner, only taking what the “organization” deems is right for them to learn. Where are the people capable of independent learning, who love learning, who invest their evenings reading and conversing around big ideas instead of parking themselves in front of their TV or game console?

6. My view of the “ideal future” is that each person is a mix of generalist and specialist. As appropriate, people develop the specialist skills they require to do the work they need to do (for the contribution they’re making), but to that is added a layer of collaborative skills for working with others, exploring other viewpoints, identifying needed relationships, and knowing enough about the bigger picture so as to contextualize their expert/specialist knowledge in other domains. But that’s a collaborative future – and people will have to get ready for that.

6a. Actually, perhaps there’s a role here for an eclectic generalist to act as the group facilitator, to draw people out, to convergence/diverge thinking as needed, and to help the experts in the room build a shared view / perspective. Either way, a degree of humility and a willingness to listen to others will be essential.

7. Personally, I’m impressed by experts more than I am by generalists. I love seeing people who have invested their life in “a big idea,” and have put in the hard yards to understand all that’s possible to know. Equally, I’m turned off by arrogance, a lack of willingness to learn something new, and an aversion to seeing it from someone else’s perspective – they can be the downsides of what we call expertise today.

Finally, as a lecturer at Yale University, an author, and with a PhD to his name, Vikram is an expert. I wonder what strategies he will be following as he transforms himself into a generalist?

2 Comments on “The Future Belongs to Generalists—Some Thoughts

  1. I think there are some fair comments here, however the reality is that there will always be the specialists, some people don’t function well with broad spread knowledge and paper thin depth. I for example, consider myself a generalist but I need to go back to specialists in some instances to answer very specific questions or to get very particular problems solved. I agree with you, I like talking to specialists or SME’s but that’s because, if I can relate to their topic, I can probably learn something, so the sponge in me, scores.
    The advantage of the generalist however I believe really stems from their ability to be relatively, process, procedure and technology agnostic. They’re often easier to talk to and comfortable about talking about topics that would often be outside of the comfort zone of the specialist. This puts them in a tremendously advantaged position when they walk into scenarios where the discussion topics are vague or ambiguous and where discovery is the objective. Specialists can sometimes go down a very tedious and boring rabbit hole and their audience may become incredibly jaded about having conversations with them, especially if the topic is not one of their pet topics. my 2c..

  2. It’s the old and familiar story of mutuality & reciprocity.
    Specialists need generalists to celebrate & link their insights and what would generalists use to generalize about if specialists weren’t beavering away at their specialties & sharing their insights?
    Our education systems have valorized specialisation over the ability to generalize.
    And what Uploadsap said above. I too consider myself to be a generalist – call myself a freelance generalist but started out as a grade/primary school teacher. Surely generalist needs to be in the job description of this profession.
    I love enthusiastic specialists, invited them into the classroom as often as possible but when they went the kids needing the skills to connect, integrate and construct using the gifts left by the specialist.
    And to quote Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes”, and have a few specialsts lurking about amongst that crowd.

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