Saturday, April 7, 2012

Specialists Versus Generalists: A Dangerous Balance

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The notion of the broadly-trained "renaissance man" has been growing increasingly rare, especially in the western, industrialized nations during the course of the the last sixty years, or so as of the date of this writing.  Up until the early nineteen sixties, education included a tremendous variety of subjects, whether or not directly relevant to one's choice of career. A varied, well-rounded "liberal arts"- based education was treasured, as it encouraged exploration of many fields of endeavor, many special lexicons, the origins of many idioms, a truly vast palette of experience, exposure and perspective.




An education was thought to be an experience in the science of study, learning to learn, the acquisition of a massive databank of diversified material from which to draw examples and analogies and to foster an appreciation of the knowledge, scholarship and nature of the work and accomplishments of others.

Being a generalist at first, and gradually evolving or finding one's true calling was a part of maturation, and a means for persons who ultimately sorted themselves into all different fields to better understand and communicate with one another. It encouraged cross-pollination of ideas and studies across specializations and a natural propensity toward the recently rediscovered strategies of collaboration, diversity and crowdsourcing. It was an integral part of the cohesion of civilization.

In brief, this broad base of generalism in education and even in career paths (a bit of the Horatio Alger "strive and succeed") helped breed societies of people who could work and socialize much more easily together. The occasional fortunate fusion of fields made for some massive discoveries, and technological breakthroughs.

In the interest of allocating scarce resources and being "efficient," we now tend increasingly to 'teach to pass the test' (and not necessarily to learn or to enjoy the feeling of acquiring new knowledge), to choose specializations as early in our lives as possible, and to omit any serious study that deviates from what our ultimate specialization will require. Our shrinking general knowledge bases, technical lexicons, and perceptions are creating a "tower of babel" effect, where individual skills are (hopefully) maximized, but no single individual can seem to see the gestalt, or larger picture of how he or she relates to the Community of Humankind. We find it increasingly difficult to relate to cone another -- which would seem paradoxical in a time where communications technologies are so fast, efficient and inexpensive.

In upper-level management, government, academic or applied research and in simple problem solving, a greater base of knowledge, appreciation, and perception are critical for a comprehensive situational analysis and to cite and solve problems, or to orchestrate social or business operations.

An Example: Your primary healthcare provider cannot seem to do much for you except order a few quick tests, and forward the results (and you, the patient) to the appropriate specialist. Each of us is becoming insular to his or her own narrowing field of specialization and less effective in dealing with those in other areas of endeavor.

Another Example: If you've spent you whole career performing one function on an assembly line in an automobile factory, it is very unlikely that you could build a car yourself. You are so distanced from the end product (except for your commute) that you can barely relate to all of its complexities.

As we accelerate the sifting process into specialization and limited the educational process to a laser-focused skill, we are becoming more and more like drones and robots, carrying out our programmed missions, without a broader perspective. An article excerpt regarding GE from the Wall Street Journal follows which should raise a few eyebrows.

We need specialists, but they must have a more diverse background in order to handle a greater number of situations with a more diverse group of interactive team players. 


GE plans to train managers as industry experts
General Electric is changing its management training to create leaders who are industry experts, rather than jack-of-all-trades generalists. "The world is so complex," said Susan Peters, who leads executive development at the company. "We need people who are pretty deep." The Wall Street Journal (3/7)
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In the very near future, businesses will become increasingly needful of managers, negotiators, leaders and consultants who are "jacks-of-all-trades" to hold organizational structures together. There will be a shortage of multi-skilled, holistic Humans who can see beyond their microscopes and understand what they are seeing when they look through a telescope.

I would predict, being a Global Futurist, that organizational generalists with diversified experiences and very broad educational and experiential backgrounds will become a specialty in great demand. Ironic? Yes. Inevitable? Yes.

Douglas E. Castle for The InfoSphere Business Alerts Blog




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