Does the future belong to specialists or generalists?

Does the future belong to specialists or generalists?

With the fast paced changes in the technology, economic and social landscape, one critical question that begs a response is “are you better off being a specialist or a generalist?” There are robust arguments on both the side. But before I argue, let me offer a working definition of the two terms. A ‘specialist’ is a person who is better than others is specific, well defined domains. The two key operatives here are ‘better’ and ‘specific’. Whereas, a ‘generalist’ is one who is reasonably good on a large array of areas, but doesn’t have any significant expertise in any one of those. Here, the two key operatives are ‘reasonably good’ and ‘large array’. Now let’s talk about the arguments on both the sides.

The rate and unpredictability of change leads a person to being well placed while spreading the skills across a wider spectrum. It means that when the demand shifts, the person has some chance to lend a service. For instance, the generalist roles, which say B Schools produce, are more robust in changing times than a specialist role that an engineering college produces. The assumption here, however, is that generalists are more adaptive than specialists, which may not always be the case. Further, another key assumption is that the generalist is ‘good enough’ in the area in demand to secure an advantage. Now let’s talk about a specialist role.

A specialist is one with a superior knowledge and skills in some very neatly defined areas. These domains are most likely to stem from their formal education, work experience or even hobbies. However, in the domain of choice, the specialist has something very unique to offer, almost always. Under a changing scenario the specialist may run into the risk of rendering the specialization obsolete. Hence, people might argue that a generalist, with a theoretically hedged risk, is better off than a specialist. On the contrary, I believe that the future belongs to specialists.

Here is my argument:

Let’s take a simple example. Suppose you are looking for a carpentry job to be done at your home and we are talking of the good old days when there was no proliferation of telephones, let alone Internet. The dominant way you will spot the carpenter is to look around in your locality or through some references. As for the carpenter, the person would be better off by spreading the offerings into a wider area, such as masonry, electrical, plumbing, painting, and other traits, for two reasons. Firstly, it increases the person’s odds of getting spotted, as now there are multiple demands he can serve; and secondly, the person utilizes the ‘economies of scope’ to utilize his time and assets.

Speaking in economics terms, you and your carpenter faces a very high ‘transaction cost’, which necessitates the carpenter to be a generalist.

Now think of a scenario where the carpenter is listed on a local search engine and you can actually find several such people through a simple search on your mobile phone. So what search phrase do you use? Carpenter, of course. You are more likely to hire a person who is just a carpenter than the one who does ten other chores. Because, being just a carpenter indicates expertise. That’s how we fragment the market. We dine somewhere, have ice cream at another place, and possibly have coffee at a third venue; because only an ice-cream parlour reflects more authenticity than one which serves almost everything.

I reckon the same logic now applies to the professional world and the job-market as well. With reduced transaction cost, an example being your profile available on LinkedIn, people are more likely to engage you for specific aspects, whether on full-time or part-time basis. The cost of discovery is now reduced, for almost everything is out there, and it is up to you on what kind of signals you offer.

To sum up, you might be serving yourself well by sticking to a few things and doing them well, instead of spreading yourself thin.

About the Author

Dr. Pavan Soni is an Innovation Evangelist by profession and a teacher by passion. He is the founder of Inflexion Point, offering programs on Design Thinking, Strategic Acumen, and Consulting Skills.

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