Specialists vs. Generalists

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.

By Chuck Martin
Thu, April 05, 2007

CIO — The drive toward even more specialization in business continues, with the majority of business leaders saying their department or organization would be more effective if more of their subordinates were more specialist than generalist.

More than half of senior executives and managers say that over the past several years their organization has favored specialists over generalists, based on a global survey by NFI Research. And when it comes to advancement and reward, the majority of businesses have given more to specialists than to generalists.

However, generalists are favored in almost a third of organizations, and 20 percent say their department or organization would be more effective with more generalists than specialists. "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," said one survey respondent.

Of course, the level of a person in the business or a specific job can play a significant role in whether specialization or generalization is required. "More specialized knowledge and experience becomes less important the higher your position," said one respondent. "Executives need exposure and knowledge of a breadth of topics, while lower levels need more detailed knowledge of a narrower range of topics," the respondent continued.

"This is one of the most challenging issues facing individual contributors and low- to mid-level managers as they look at their career goals: How do I continue to do my job effectively while being exposed to more ideas?

In certain areas of business, such as information technology, the needs of specialist vs. generalist can be obvious. "In IT, everyone has to be something of a specialist but really needs general knowledge and understanding of technology," said one manager. "In fact, this is what is lacking in many cases. Younger people have no experience with mainframes or mini (mid range) machines but view computers like their video game units or PCs—a black box."

Said another: "As part of IT in a large organization, I have witnessed strange phenomena: First, bunches of generalists were hired as project managers.

"Second, every one who was not part of operations became a discretionary resource available to a project.

"Third, discretionary specialists work only on projects where they are assigned.

"The result: We have a very short-term focus and specialists are not used to the best of their abilities. I predict disaster in the future."

While a person may find himself in a position of specialization, it is important to keep in touch with areas outside that area of specialization. "In order for organizations to remain lean and flexible, there is a push to ensure that all personnel (including managers) have a broad perspective and a broad range of skills," said one respondent. "Employees who refuse to broaden their skill set or take on assignments outside of their area of expertise are valued less within our company's ranks."

Businesspeople should avoid too much specialization. In today's environment, more employees need to be able to see the big picture.

Chuck Martin is a best-selling business author whose latest book, SMARTS (Are We Hardwired for Success?) (AMACOM/American Management Association), was just published. He lectures around the world and can be reached at chuck@nfiresearch.com.

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