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Generalized Experience vs. Domain Expertise June 10, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Product design, Project management, Quality.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Despite some occasional hiccups it seems the worldwide economy is picking up steam again, although for many this still seems like a jobless recovery. Whether it’s job search or job mobility, people are looking for new positions. Applicants, recruiters, HR departments and hiring managers will consider whether it’s better to have specialized domain expertise or more generalized skills, if they can’t have both. I’ve written about this a couple of times before (See Leopards and Chameleons and Job Search Paradox), but recent events have inspired me to re-visit the topic.

Just to clarify, in my world of hardware and software development I define generalized skills to include people management, program management, product development, lifecycle management, supplier management, and quality engineering that enable successful commercialization of products. Specialists include mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and software developers who actually design successful products.

Companies need both kinds of people. It’s great when you have someone who can do both, but I think that’s unusual. People tend to focus on one career track or the other. Many jobs don’t require a person who can do both, but technology companies prefer people who are already familiar with the technology and can quickly contribute with a minimal learning curve. For example, a company that makes network-accessed storage devices will tend to hire engineers and managers who have experience designing and working with network-accessed storage devices or similar products.

My concern is that generalists are often automatically weeded out during applicant screening for leadership positions because they didn’t choose to be specialists. I understand that some domain knowledge is beneficial, if not necessary, in a leadership position. However, companies who follow this practice are denying themselves access to a valuable pool of resources.

Last week there was a great post to the Harvard Business Review blog called “All Hail the Generalist” from Vikram Mansharamani (June 4, 2012) at http://www.blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/06/all_hail_the_generalist.html. Here’s an excerpt:

“A collection of specialists creates a less flexible labor force, one that requires ‘retraining’ with technological developments creating constantly shifting human resource needs. In this regard, the recent emphasis in American education on ‘job-specific’ skills is disturbing. Within a company, employees skilled in numerous functions are more valuable as management can dynamically adjust their roles. Many forward-looking companies are specifically mandating multi-functional experience as a requirement for career progress. Finally, individuals should manage their careers around obtaining a diversity of geographic and functional experiences. Professionals armed with the analytical capabilities (e.g. basic statistical skills, critical reasoning, etc.) developed via these experiences will fare particularly well when competing against others more focused on domain-specific skill development.

“The time has come to acknowledge expertise as over-valued. There is no question that expertise and hedgehog logic are appropriate in certain domains (i.e. hard sciences), but they certainly appear less fitting for domains plagued with uncertainty, ambiguity, and poorly-defined dynamics (i.e. social sciences, businesses, etc.).”



1. Fred Schenkelberg - June 10, 2012

I just might become a regular follower of this blog series. I agree, being a generalist and able to ask meaningful questions is often a good place to be in the world. Once I was asked to an important review meeting based my ability to ask question that no one else in the room could.

Constantly learning and growing – just how does one interview for such a person?

2. Larry - September 22, 2012

I think there is a very unique problem created when the majority within an organization decide or become convinced that being a generalist is the “preferred” career track. From an individual’s career perspective the generalist route may be the most effective. However, from the organizational perspective, when the majority of people are generalist, the organization will lack the excellence in a core competency required to be competitive. This problem with the generalist versus specialist argument is that most people do not have good definitions of either generalist or specialist. A new liberal arts major graduate is certainly a generalist but after 10+ years working in entry level jobs in the same business and the same industry by definition they have developed a domain specialty. Specialist are not simply people wearing lab coats and looking through microscopes. Kotter (1980) quite a long time ago studied general managers at major corporations and found that while they all claimed to be generalist who could manage any organization, they were in fact highly specialized within a company and an industry and that most of their expertise was not transferrable to other industry contexts. More recently Gabarro (1987, 2007) Hayes and Abernathy (1980, 2007) found that the generalist manager who can be dropped into any organization and manage successfully was a myth…existing only in textbooks and the classroom. Organizations need BOTH generalist and experts; individuals need both generalized leadership, management and functional knowledge and skills as well as some uniquely valuable expertise. The magic is in the mix of generalists and experts for both organizations and individuals. The organizations and individuals able to develop the right mix will win and those who do not usually lose. I just happened onto this blog post and as you can tell this is my primary area of research and practice. [33 years service USAF, Colonel Ret., Munitions, Maintenance, Logistics and EOD…currently a teacher & consultant, PhD and lifetime student. Cheers, LSC.

Tim Rodgers - September 22, 2012

Larry, thanks very much for the thoughtful and well-researched comments. I completely agree that companies need an optimal mix of both generalists and specialists. My concern — based in-part on my recent experience as a frustrated job-seeker who happens to be a generalist — is that it’s tough to be a generalist these days. The rejections I’ve been getting make it clear that I don’t have sufficient specialized experience, and my track record of successfully applying my generalist skills in a variety of industries and functional areas either isn’t valued or just doesn’t outweigh.

I don’t know if choosing the generalist “career track” was ever a deliberate choice on my part, or if there was ever a point in time when it was “preferred” in any of the organizations I worked in. The organizations I worked in didn’t discourage the development of generalized skills, and in fact gave me opportunities to move horizontally into new domains. I admit that I made choices to leave specialized domains that seemed to be in-decline and move to other domains that I thought would provide more job security. Now I’m not so sure.

Maybe not all generalist managers can manage successfully in any organization, but I’ve seen it, and I’ve been that manager. I hope to soon have the opportunity to show that I’m still that manager.

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