Generalists v. Specialists: New Findings

Since the rise of modernity, humans have been specializing at what appears to be an ever-increasing pace. But could it be that the generalist is once again–after a 500 year hiatus–on the rise?

pexels-photo-103123-largeA great Renaissance education was informed by the principles of humanism. The humanists believed that “man” (this was long before gender equity in education) should have a well-rounded education and know a bit about everything–physics, philosophy, music, poetry, biology and the list went on and on. It was not unheard of during this period to be both a mathematician and rhetorician (Ramus) or artist and inventor (da Vinci). By the end of the Renaissance (thanks to the printing press) there were too many books to read and the idea of that one could or should read and know about everything had been abandoned. It was also the beginning of the scientific revolution, and people were recognizing that the specialist may hold a specific value, especially in terms of driving scientific knowledge production. By the 19th century, the specialist was firmly entrenched in Western society. Scientists studied one specific niche within the broader scientific field and likewise, rhetoricians stuck to language and more specifically, one sub-field of rhetoric.

New Study Finds that in Some Contexts Generalists are Better Off

While one may think that not much has changed over the past few centuries when it comes to the value of specialists versus generalists, a new study by business professors Jennifer Merluzi and Damon Phillips suggests that generalists are in fact thriving on the current job market. Could it be that the “Renaissance man” (who may now also be a “Renaissance woman”) has returned? And if so, what’s driving the return of the generalist in our current economy?

To begin, Merluzi and Phillips acknowledge, “In the past decade a growing number of studies have pointed to a positive association between the degree of specialization of a producer and its evaluation by critics, clients, or customers…Advantages go to producers that focus as specialists and represent clear members of the focal category.” Yet, their own research suggests this may not be the case–at least not in all contexts. Indeed, they suggest there are at least three contexts in which it is much more advantageous to be a generalist rather than a specialist.

summer-office-student-work-largeFirst, Merluzi and Phillips found that “specialization is likely to be discounted for job candidates in labor markets in which the hiring firm’s screening process produces a strong indicator of quality.” They further observe, “Labor markets with strong screening processes can diminish the advantage of a focused candidate by minimizing evaluators’ uncertainty about candidates’ quality, effort, commitment, and reliability, which past studies have emphasized as grounds for privileging candidates who are more focused or specialized.” This may hold true somewhere like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here, the initial screening process looks for so many different factors, outstanding candidates for specific jobs may be screened out long before they ever reach consideration by an actual hiring committee. This not because they are unqualified for the position in question but rather because they fail to meet the secondary criteria being used in the screening process.

Second, as Merluzi and Phillips emphasize:

Focusing may have a negative outcome in a market in which the candidate is perceived to have agency over his or her past experiences, skills, and educational choices that make up the profile presented to potential employers, as these choices constitute the career history directed by the candidate rather than having been exogenously determined.

What does this mean? A highly specialized candidate may simply look too driven by their individual needs, wants and desires. In short, excessive specialization may give one the appearance that they are not a team player.

Finally, Merluzi and Phillips remark, “In markets in which specialists are common rather than rare, specialization can become akin to commodification rather than a scarce, coveted resource that employers find costly to substitute.” Said simply, in some contexts, specialization is just too common. That’s why a computer coder who not only knows many different computer languages but also has a background in, let’s say, data architecture may be a more desirable candidate than someone who is just a coder.

How Much Better Off are Generalists?

Merluzi and Phillips not only report that generalists may be better off in specific contexts but also observe that the demand for specialists increases the higher one goes up the corporate ladder. Using MBAs in the banking sector as a focus, they discovered:

The premium for generalist CEOs is higher for those hired to perform complex tasks such as acquisitions or restructurings and in industries and firms experiencing shocks that require adaptability in leadership.

What does this mean? It suggest that not only can being a generalist help one get into an organization (e.g., get past an initial screening) but also help one obtain higher-level positions later on in their career.  Thus, while we may not be returning to an era when it was common for doctors to also be artists and for physicists to also be poets, we may be experiencing a renewed appreciation for the generalists.


May 29, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016      

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