Generalization, the Graveyard of the Specialist?

The premise of this article is from a piece in Professional Manager, “Jacks of all Trades Damaging Business” (Winter 2014:14), and asks the question, are we as employees destined to be generalists despite our specialisms? It would seem so; bosses are increasingly asking workers to take on more generalised tasks that they are not qualified to undertake as part of their ongoing workload, despite specialist skills and knowledge and experience.

In a survey conducted by PageGroup, workers revealed that their specialist skills were being weakened within 2 years of starting a job because of the generalization of the role. This suggests that specialist skills are not only being neglected, but are slowly being consigned to the wasteland due to lack of use. 51% of those surveyed said that they now considered themselves generalists, despite their specialism – a worrying prospect for business!

Is being a “Jack of all trades” really damaging business as a whole? According to the PageGroup survey:

  • 52% stated specialist skills are needed to improve problem solving;
  • 25% said generalism is damaging their motivation;
  • 46% said specialist skills lead to increased innovation.

Therefore, are generalists affecting economic performance and damaging business? Arguably, there is a business case for the generalist; and in many situations the higher within an organisation you progress, the greater the need to have a “wider” purview as a whole. But in this case, is this a more generalised role/function, or is it versatility?

Let us be clear, being versatile is not the same as being generalist. Versatility is the ability to adapt to many different functions and/or activities, whilst maintaining a specialism. Whereas, generalists undertake different functions and/or activities, moving away from, or never having, a specialist skill set.

We must be mindful of the need, nay, the requirement to be versatile in this ever changing and increasingly high pressured business world, this is especially true for Small and Medium Enterprise (SME). There is a need for generalists, but a word of caution, if you generalise for too long, you may lose the competitive edge your skills once gave you!