Don’t discount generalization. Build a strategy of integration from multiple supporting specialties.
I began writing an introduction and synopsis of my academic and professional career to date, which was initially intended to be a single document and page on Levii.com in the effort of filling some gaps in information and completing a profile of my personal brand. Doing so carried a secondary goal of sharing my perception and insight of what I’ve observed to be a typical path from a young & “geeky IT weenie”, through the disciplines of technology, and into the application of that background into the various domains of business.
Of course there are differing approaches, skills and background needed for strategic planning, business development, management, negotiation, etc. that are required to grow beyond “simply IT”, and within IT there are often very good reasons not to generalize beyond a specific discipline. IT is, however, foundational to the modern enterprise, and for IT professionals planning options for growth; a pragmatic perspective of the art of the possible, and appropriate places for technology to support the business plan, are essential skills to learn. These skills necessarily require a degree of generalization outside of technology, and provide opportunistic basis to strategically develop multiple specializations over time.
I would, by no means, marginalize the achievements and value that specialists afford in every industry, and in virtually every organization that’s grown beyond a small(ish) size. While I unfortunately can’t provide empirical evidence or models of staffing profiles to generate an optimum balance of specialists to generalists; I can generalize from observation, provide some stories and cases of interest, and infer anecdotal evidence from successes and failures covering 15+ years of review. My background, and therefore this discussion, focuses on the value of strategic generalization.
Pigeonholing Specialists, and Discounting Generalists
For whatever reason, the role of the generalist has developed into the false dichotomy between specialization in a targeted domain, and the application of critical thought and skills across a broad spectrum of problems. Even a google search for related terms returns virtually no discussion of the concept, and debate and perceptions that these must be either-or is a logically fallacious non sequitur.
Before I’m accused of arguing against fallacy with a different fallacious argument (presumably this one), I encourage anyone interested to consider the great minds of the ages. The concept of the learned gentleman certainly fell out of popularity with the aristocracy, and it’s understood that many fields require a lifetime to master. Admittedly, the notion that a single person could know all that was known in their chosen field, while also having a more than a hobbyist’s knowledge of the arts, philosophy, math, sciences, etc. is nonsensical in the modern age of knowledge creation.
Even so, the polymaths of the renaissance aren’t unheard of, and a similar capacity for ingenious connections and creation isn’t impossible to achieve today. I’d argue that it is instead something that should be encouraged, and for anyone capable and willing to put the necessary time and effort into achieving that goal; it can be a rewarding experience.
While reviewing the lists of lessons learned, brainstorms on current research, and trying to develop roadmaps for technologists to identify where some of the most effective opportunities and areas might be; I found it necessary to further define the scope and nature of organizational structure and behavior to chart this better for those I mentor. Since I place a focus and challenge each of them to develop a broader set of skills and to become generation of leaders to follow, I had to address what are near-constant reminders on how “computer people” are perceived. How then to address the empirical argument that it’s far more common to move from business into IT management than it is to successfully move from IT into business management?
As many times as I’ve seen this trend, and through participation in numerous discussions and panels that fielded questions about roles; it remains clear to me that it’s far more effective to have a smaller, but highly talented workforce. Projects and programs with personnel that are multifaceted with a broad spectrum of subject intelligence and skills tend to complement each other, develop specialty where none existed before, and reach out when necessary to request the support of true experts within a specialty.
It’s an odd finding then, that while useful and valuable when overall firm success is used as a measure; the increased horizontal perspective and specialist level-of-depth in select areas aren’t necessarily seen as valuable, and often lead to perceptions of over-qualification. It should be realized that this nature of favoritism and need to pigeonhole expertise leads to larger and more narrow focus, decreased innovation in process and product generation, and an organization with a footprint that is greater in cost than is ordinarily necessary.
The rationale isn’t too hard to find often coming down to the overlapping areas and relevancy of the generalist’s expertise. With pattern matching systems used for HR databases, a generalist is easily overlooked, and given the limited space and non-descriptive task-based requisition; it’s difficult for an organization to see where a role might emerge that combines multiple positions into some functional subgroup that numbers less, but brings more to the table. Of course there’s a human factor involved on both sides, in forming a recruitment & staffing process that takes abstract generalities and redefinition of need into account, and in a candidates ability to “sell” themselves into a role, rather than a job.
Focus on the need, not the specific skill
Consider technology, where roles have emerged that may or may not be associated with a specific job title or skill. It is often the role of the architects or the abstractionists to tie competing concepts together into a viable solution to the problem at hand. In more cases than not, this requires expertise and experience spanning multiple domains which were developed as a grouping of specializations over time. I’d argue that this is a specialization in its own right, and often one that’s expensive to acquire (for both the entity needing the skill, and for the person providing it). While the currency of labor at the lowest-level of implementation tends to be lost; those are often commoditized areas of positions requiring “butts in seats” best classified as jobs, and not positions, where what is provided is labor, and not the creation of value.
Of course, not all organizations, thinkers, or leaders fall into this either-or trap; but it remains the language by which it is typically discussed. There are a number of arguments that can be made against specialization, and supporting models for when it makes sense. For my money, I’ll take a team of T-Shaped people that have access to expert specialists, as necessary, any day.
To sum this whole misconception up, popular sayings on tools can be readily applied to skills. In both cases they overly simplistic, and incomplete.
- Use the right tool for the job.
- The more tools in your toolbox, the more options you’ve got.
What should be added to the discussion, and find its way back into the mindset of leaders, professionals and practitioners, is the value afforded when we bridge the gap between commodities and specialties. We need to realize that it’s not an either-or situation, and introspectively look across our organizations to determine roles and capabilities to fill the needs in meeting overall objectives rather than the jobs that fill up available time by creating work over value.
- If you’re missing tool that will be used frequently, consider getting it.
- If you don’t have a tool that is difficult to borrow when you need it, consider getting it yourself.
- If a tool is specialized, expensive, or won’t be used frequently enough to be worthwhile getting yourself; work with the person that already has it.
- If the tool is inexpensive, infrequently used, but common enough that it’s easy to borrow, work with the person that already has it.
As with anything else there’s a cost/benefit associated with each scenario. When you need something frequently, absorbing the cost isn’t difficult to rationalize as a necessity; and occasionally having a tool is important for no reason other than the difficulty or cost of finding it in the time constraints it is needed.
Whether specialization in staffing is effective, or if a truly generic workforce will suffice … how many varieties and combinations of all-in-one tools are sensible, or whether outsourcing of labor (commoditized, specialized, or otherwise) is the more effective scenario; and to which degree the mix is optimal remain unique to each case.
To evaluate some of these, the rest of this series will focus on some instances from my own background, combined with a smattering of research and retrospective analysis; where abstract and special reasoning, combined with both breadth and depth of knowledge really are their own unique tool in the toolbox.
As always, I look forward to a continued discussion and any insight or commentary you have in any of the forums you find me.
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