Employers: Time to Make Room for Generalists?

We've written advice for candidates about the dangers of appearing to be a 'jack of all trades' and being perceived as unsuited for roles where a very specific set of skills is called for.

Now, we'll offer a different viewpoint: a call for employers to recognise that they could be missing a trick by overlooking candidates with wider skills and knowledge.

Why people like to hire specialists

In recent years, the job market has increasingly tended to favour specialists rather than generalists, with this trend spear-headed by the most competitive industries - technology for example. When HR and line managers are under intense pressure to deliver, it's understandable that they will tend to hire an employee with a detailed knowledge of a limited area: someone who will be able to deliver quickly within a fairly limited remit. To take on a generalist would be to take a risk on someone who might need to settle in rather than hit the ground running. In addition, filling a tightly defined role is (at least on the face of it) simpler - and it's usually easier to replace staff when you advertise for a specific skill.

The longer term risks attached to a specialist-only workforce

However there is a danger inherent in this approach: when companies end up being staffed with employees who work within very narrow disciplines, they may not understand how their role dovetails with others they work with. If there are potential conflicts of opinion on strategic direction, implementation and problem solving, who is able to then bridge the gap between these different disciplines? Poor communication and a blinkered workforce can lead to inefficiency and missed opportunities at all levels.

Strengths that generalists have

So consider the benefits that generalists can bring to your business...

  • Generalists are by definition flexible, which means that they can adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Generalists are more likely to be quick learners, and have a desire to try new things. Ask a specialist to do something outside their skill set and you could well be met with a blank look. Ask a generalist and they'll probably relish the challenge.
  • Generalists can serve as a conduit between different specialists, or break down jargon and complex subjects into easier to understand concepts for others.
  • Generalists have the ability to see the bigger picture, not just when working on their own tasks or fulfilling their own role, but when involved in multi-disciplinary projects. This can sometimes lead to startling insights and real opportunity.

Should you be looking further ahead?

Many industry analysts have predicted for some time now that in the future the companies that have a competitive edge will be those that hire at least some generalists to keep an eye on the big picture, and that far more value should be placed on those who know a little about a lot. In a global economy, things can be far more inter-connected than we might realise, and seemingly non-related developments in different industries can have a real knock on effect.

By way of an example, research undertaken by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and quoted in the Harvard Business Review showed that specialisation does not lead necessarily lead to insight, even in the subject specialised in. Philip Tetlock carried out a 20 year study of 248 professional forecasters, collecting over 80,000 predictions. His findings were that the non-experts made consistently better predictions. Why? His view was that generalists tended to draw "from an eclectic array or traditions" and, with the benefits of their wider perspective, had the ability to "accept ambiguity and contradictions" and take this into consideration.