People attempting to enter virtually any field have long been told that the deeper their knowledge of a specialized area, the more likely they will be to continue to advance in their career. Specialization has been seen as a way to climb the corporate ladder at work, leading to increased pay and better positions. However, this way of thinking is becoming increasingly outdated. In the future, employers may be looking for a much different type of employee: the generalist. Often viewed as individuals who “dabble” in certain areas rather than focus on a specialized area, generalists have often been dismissed in the past. The perception is beginning to change.
The Generalist: A ‘T-Shaped’ Worker
The term “T-shaped” as used to describe an employee was either created in the ‘80s by McKinsey & Company or by the CEO of IDEO Design Consultancy (Tim Brown); it depends on whom you ask. Whatever its true origin, it is used to describe the depth of one’s expertise in a particular area of specialization (represented by the vertical bar) along with the breadth of one’s knowledge across other disciplines (represented by the horizontal bar). An “I-shaped” employee is a traditional specialist who possesses a significant depth of knowledge in a specific area, while a “T-shaped” employee would be what we would call a generalist who possesses some depth of knowledge in a specialty, but who still has the ability to connect their own knowledge with other disciplines and apply it more broadly.
Thriving in a Dynamic Work Environment
Rapid technological advancement has changed the workplace in fundamental ways. The new workplace is dynamic and full of change and uncertainty, offering employees little in the way of security. This situation can cause anxiety for specialists, creating a world of ambiguity and complexity where generalists can thrive. A person with more tools at their disposal, such as a generalist, is more likely to find a better solution to workplace problems. Specialists, although certainly valuable, have a tendency to only see things in their scope of expertise and may sometimes overlook the more efficient solutions that a generalist can develop.
Becoming a Generalist: How Can You Expand Your Knowledge?
The problem with this heavy focus on specialization is that we may not fully appreciate the importance of learning and expanding our knowledge of other related fields. For instance, if you specialize in the customer service side of the retail sector, you might consider learning about manufacturing and the distribution of products. These related areas can provide you with better overall knowledge of the industry and make you more marketable and better able to develop innovative solutions. Consider your own workplace, and explore related industries to broaden your expertise and make yourself more marketable. Once you have begun to expand on this knowledge, you will want to explore ways to apply it to your field. The ability to leverage your expertise across various disciplines is an invaluable quality in today’s ever-changing workplace.
Striking a Balance
The discussion about the benefits of hiring generalists should not be taken to mean that there is no longer a need for specialists, who remain an important part of any team in any industry. Discarding specialists in favor of generalists would reduce the ability to create and innovate on a deep level. Conversely, overlooking the benefits of generalists would leave you unable to capitalize on those innovations in practical ways. Generalists live up to their potential when paired with specialists who work alongside them. Without collaboration between generalists and specialists, companies can become stuck, overlook novel solutions, and witness a general lack of innovation in the workplace.
Since the percentage of specialists and generalists may vary depending on your specific industry, hiring managers should consider the implications of a different balance when hiring new employees. In some highly specialized fields, it might be beneficial to have a higher percentage of specialists with a smaller number of generalists working alongside them. In other situations, the opposite might hold true.
The Importance of Learning about Different Areas
The increased interest in generalists means that employees should seriously consider the benefits of continuing to expand their skills and knowledge. In today’s often complex work environment, it is not enough to only have knowledge of one specific area. Industries are interrelated in a number of ways that may not be obvious at the outset, and knowledge of relationships across different disciplines will make you a more effective and marketable employee. Generalists should become a greater focus of hiring managers. It is time to recognize their ability to make connections and innovate, as well as to find solutions that others might miss. With a well-rounded team of specialists and generalists working together, companies can set themselves up for success and prepare to become more competitive in the future.