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Generalists vs. Specialists: Who Owns The Future?


Who’s more valuable to your organization: Someone who can ‘wear multiple hats’ or someone who’s very talented at one thing?

How would you advise a student looking at college options: Pursue a degree that exposed her to a range of disciplines and taught her to think critically in different contexts, or pursue a degree allowing her to leave university with a specialized set of knowledge and skills?

The answer to these questions always seems to be “it depends.” Along with such eternal debates as Security vs. Liberty or Chocolate vs. Vanilla ice cream, the Specialist vs. Generalist debate seems to have no clear consensus. Every month I read articles that weigh in on one side or the other, emphasizing the importance of being either a Specialist or a Generalist, depending upon the author’s point of view.

Two worthwhile contributions to this debate recently came from an Economist Special Report on the impact of technology on jobs, and an article in The Atlantic by Tamar Jacoby on the German apprenticeship system and what that might look like in the USA, if it could be transplanted at all.

Here’s my take on Generalists vs. Specialists:

Generalists will find it harder and harder to get hired.

A friend and b-school classmate of mine put it succinctly a decade ago: “Companies tend to hire Specialists, not Generalists, from outside the firm.” That’s even more true today. Much has been written on the rise of the freelance workforce, but less attention gets paid to the fact that the overwhelming number of freelancers are Specialists (programmers, designers, etc.) These days, why buy a Specialist when you can rent one, ever-more-efficiently and cheaply?

A mainstream hiring approach today is ‘Let’s bring on an external Specialist to build/fix/launch/analyze this, and when the work’s done, either send them on their way or figure out a way to keep them longer-term.’ Recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed in huge numbers, yet companies report they can’t fill millions of open jobs due to a shortage of Specialist candidates. In short, we’re facing a glut of Generalists.

Specialists are under threat from software and robots.

The Economist article compared the introduction of the first automobiles to the forthcoming introduction of ‘self-driving’ cars. In the early 20th century, when cars and trucks replaced horse-drawn carriages, carriage drivers were able to switch from holding horses’ reins to holding a steering wheel. The introduction of automobiles changed the driver’s job, but did not eliminate it. But what will happen when the 21st century’s self-driving, software-controlled cars begin carrying passengers and cargo? Answer: Huge numbers of drivers will lose their jobs. I’m certain that ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft won’t mind replacing their freelance drivers with self-driving cars, ferrying nighttime revelers home more cheaply and safely. (Goodbye Designated Driver, Hello Designated Robot.)

Perhaps a few of you are thinking, “Being a driver isn’t a Specialist job.” True, but I’ll bet you $5 you know a Specialist whose job was displaced or radically altered by technology in the past 5-10 years. Finance? Stockbrokers are being replaced by programmatic trading. Law? Software today can review documents faster and cheaper than paralegals and junior associates. Healthcare? Technology enables non-doctor specialists in developing countries to review x-rays faster and cheaper than doctors in the rich world. Due to the quickening pace of innovation and the tech media’s favorite 10-letter word – disruption – few Specialist jobs look safe in the long term.

Two types of people will own the future: Generalizing-Specialists and Specializing-Generalists.

Imagine you hired a Specialist who was great at one particular function, and over time you found out he or she was also good at handling a broader range of duties, and eager to grow? You’d be thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time. Now imagine you had in your organization a Generalist who wore multiple hats and could handle a range of duties, but who also spent time acquiring greater proficiency in certain specific skills? You’d be equally thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time.

Let’s call the first person above a Generalizing-Specialist, and the second person a Specializing-Generalist. Each person starts out as one type, but realizes he or she needs to become the other type as well. I’ve hired and managed each of these hybrid types, and if you’re lucky, so have you. These people tend to be the MVP’s of their organizations – the people everyone deeply appreciates, no matter how junior or senior their roles. Hopefully you’ll recommend them for promotions (although their shoes are hard to fill) and likely you’ll lose sleep over your fear that they’ll jump to another organization.

How did these people become MVP’s? They made themselves that way. Starting out as either ‘broad’ or a ‘deep’, they sought opportunities to learn more, either horizontally or vertically, and in so doing, increased their value significantly.

To conclude: Rather than settling the Specialist vs. Generalist debate with the answer “it depends”, the better answer is: “Since we need both types, each of us needs to be both types.” In order to get hired and stay employable in the future, we’ll need to BOTH broaden AND deepen our skills. Unfortunately, actually doing so is a bit harder than settling the Chocolate vs. Vanilla debate by having one scoop of each in your sundae.

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