Monday Mornings with Madison

Specialist or Generalist?

It seems that professionals and businesses alike are constantly pulled in two directions, like a rope in a game of tug-of-war.  On the one hand, intense competition and increased complexity beckons people and companies to specialize not only in a particular field, but to further specialize within that field to a subspecialty, and perhaps even a niche area within that subspecialty.  The specialist is the authority on a given topic, with a depth of knowledge that far exceeds most others.  The specialist may know very little about most things but knows practically everything there is to know about one particular thing.

On the other hand, because of the complexity of the world, there is also tremendous pressure to stay current with many different subjects.  The generalist has a wide body of knowledge.  While the generalist does not have deep expertise about any particular topic or area, he has a rudimentary (or perhaps greater) understanding of a great many things.   This broader perspective allows the generalist to see angles, connections, and big-picture implications that others might not see.

Which is better?  This constant battle between specialist or generalist occurs in all businesses and for all types of professionals:  accounting, law, finance, real estate sales, lending, finance, etc.  What makes the most sense for today’s marketplace?  Is it better for a professional to be a Jack-of-all-Trades or a Master-of-One?  Should a company try to be all things to all people, or should it zero in on niche specialties and do only that?  There are solid arguments for either position.  How does a person or company decide whether to generalize or specialize?

A Jack-of-all-Trades or Renaissance Man?

Today, being a ‘generalist’ is sometimes referred to as a ‘Jack-of-all-Trades’.  This is often meant in a derisive way implying that the person lacks expertise.  However, during the Renaissance period, from around the 14th to the 17th century, it was believed that a gentleman should be well-rounded.  To be considered a Renaissance man, the person was expected to be able to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, paint, and so on.  This was the ideal.  In fact, it was said that a Renaissance man should be able to:

“plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship (a nautical term meaning to direct the ship’s course), design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, speak well, sing, recite poetry, have proper bearing, be athletic, know the humanities and classics, paint and draw.”

All of this was supposed to be demonstrated without showy or boastful behavior. A Renaissance man was expected to have a detached, cool, nonchalant attitude.  The true Renaissance man was supposed to draw upon a number of different subject areas and complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.  A universal education was essential to becoming well-rounded.  Hence the word university was used to describe that seat of learning.  Universities at that time did not specialize in specific areas but rather taught students a broad range of sciences, philosophy, theology and the arts.

For centuries, the term polymath or Renaissance man was used to describe the great thinkers of those times such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Copernicus and Sir Francis Bacon.  Many of the founding fathers of the U.S. were deemed Renaissance men.  For example, Benjamin Franklin was an author, editor, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.  He helped start Philadelphia’s first fire department, lending library and university.   He was truly well-rounded, a generalist par excellence.  It was, indeed, considered a badge of honor for a person to be knowledgeable about a great many varied subjects.

Is Specialization for Insects or Mastery?

For centuries, specialization was seen as something only insects did.  If a person was knowledgeable about only one area or topic, he was viewed as ignorant, not learned.  This changed as the world grew more educated, industrialized, and complex.  Universal education gave a polymath (a person whose knowledge spanned a significant number of different subject areas) a grounding from which he could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a master of a specific field.  With the industrial revolution and the increasing complexity of everything from economics, banking and finance to the sciences, specialization became increasingly necessary.

In all cultures and societies, specialization increased in need and value.  In Mandarin, for example, the saying “All trades known, all trades dull” implied the same lack of expertise as “Jack-of-all-trade but Master of none.”  Mastery became essential.  Today, the dominant view is that specialization is essential to navigate and succeed within an increasingly dense world.  That may explain why liberal arts colleges and liberal arts degrees are disappearing, replaced by colleges and universities that specialize in narrow areas of study.  The greater the expertise within an area of study at a given university, the more competitive it is for students to gain entrance to it.  For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – renowned for its schools of architecture, engineering, technology, sciences and management – had 18,989 student applications in 2013 but accepted just 1,548 Freshman, a mere 8.2%.

The Generalist-Specialist Pendulum

The increasing value of specialization can be tracked in practically every professional career and industry.  Case in point.  In 1904, to become a doctor, a person would study medicine for two years and did clinical work for two years.  As more was learned about the human body, more education and specialization was required.  Some specialized in a particular part of the body, such as heart (cardiologists). Other doctors specialized in the particular age of the patient, such as treating children (pediatricians).  Over time, as technology made it possible to intricately see the body’s inner workings and even more was learned about disease, further specialization emerged such as treating a particular illness like cancer (oncologists) or epidemics (epidemiologists).  Today, to become a doctor, a person must earn a Bachelors degree for four years, complete medical school for four years, do a residency of three to eight years depending on the area of specialty, and possibly do a fellowship of one to three more years of specialization.  At the end of 10 to 19 years of post-high school education, a doctor might be a Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon specializing in Sports Injuries, with specific super specialization in patella repairs or a Board Certified Pediatric Neurosurgeon, specializing in brain tumors.  This is specialization on steroids.

However, today, there is also a case to be made for having more generalists again, even in medicine.  The family physician provides preventive care such vaccinations for babies, treats minor injuries such as stitches for a wound, writes prescriptions for medicines, and advises on how to deal with the occasional illnesses.  Families depend on the ‘family doctor’ to have a keen understanding of the families’ history and needs.  In rural areas and small towns, the generalist is able to provide the best support and ongoing care with the greatest convenience to the patients.

Some might argue that specialists earn more money than generalists.  For example, a cardiac surgeon or top neurologist earns more than a general practitioner.  Perhaps.  But the opposite could also be true.  In a world of narrow specialists, it’s the generalist who ends up running the show.  The CEO may not be a better accountant than the CFO or CPA, nor is he necessarily the most knowledgeable about the company’s products or services, and yet he is at the top.  Why? Steve Jobs wasn’t a better programmer than top coders at Apple nor was he most astute marketer.  Steve Jobs, however, did have a broad range of skills and saw the interconnectedness that others could not see.  As technology more easily and readily delivers information to anyone and everyone’s fingertips, it will be the big-picture generalists who will predict, innovate, and rise to power fastest. That’s why the top leader in the Army is called a General.

Ultimately, choosing one path or the other can be daunting.  As Henry Hazlit put it, it is a dilemma to decide whether to generalize or specialize.  He said:

The dilemma is this. In the modern world knowledge has been growing so fast and so enormously, in almost every field, that the probabilities are immensely against anybody, no matter how innately clever, being able to make a contribution in any one field unless he devotes all his time to it for years. If he tries to be the Rounded Universal Man, like Leonardo da Vinci, or to take all knowledge for his province, like Francis Bacon, he is most likely to become a mere dilettante and dabbler. But if he becomes too specialized, he is apt to become narrow and lopsided, ignorant on every subject but his own, and perhaps dull and sterile even on that because he lacks perspective and vision and has missed the cross-fertilization of ideas that can come from knowing something of other subjects.

As for a company deciding on whether to choose the path of diversity or specialization or a professional deciding on generalization or mastery, the question depends on the skills and talents of the organization or individual and the conditions of the marketplace.  Not every person has the patience, finances or dedication to endure 10-15 years of university education.  Not everyone has the ability to drill down into one topic and continue to study it at a microscopic level.  Not every company is able to carve a niche area of product or services that is so narrow yet profitable enough to succeed, or has the in-house experts to succeed within the marketplace.

Ultimately, the innate talent and marketplace demands can somewhat help guide the decision to expand or contract the products or services offered, or the individual’s specialization or generalization.  Every organization needs to have specialists who bring insight, talent and deep knowledge, and generalists, who can see the big picture and find the opportunities and pitfalls that others miss.  Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer… just the one that makes the most sense for the specific circumstances.  There is value to be found in either proposition, and finding the right balance is key.

Quote of the Week

“Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View life as a continuous learning experience.”
Denis Waitley


© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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