Generalist or Specialist – who is valuable?

By cielhrtech | June 6, 2016

generalist vs specialist

Job seekers, students and career advisors have always been challenged with this question – who is more valuable for an employer, generates more wealth for oneself, earns more name and fame?

A research conducted on 400 students passing out of top MBA schools in the US in 2008 and 2009 reveals that the generalists did better than the specialists. This is surprising, right? We all know that we go to specialist doctors, lawyers, electricians, drivers, plumbers and so on to get our specific jobs done. So, specialists are valued, right? Hence, the results of the research are a bit confusing. Let’s deep dive!

We also know that skills and professions have been evolving over a period of time as technological innovation and socio-cultural environment has been transforming. For example, cameras have become affordable and the technology has changed so much that people do not visit photo studios to create memories. A few decades ago, transportation was largely by horse carriages and there were specialists who knew how to breed horses, take care of them and use them in a carriage to ferry people and goods. As technology evolved, automobiles replaced horse carriages and hence, the society needed drivers with a different skillset. As technology changes further, driverless cars will be the order of the day and many drivers will become jobless. Possibly, we will need many people who can service the cars. Artificial intelligence, robotics, analytics, big data, renewable energy, multi-purpose machine tools, new materials, energy efficient engines, rising incomes, declining disparities in social equity, aging population and many more such trends are changing our life. Thus, there are pockets in the world where blue collar workers such as cleaners, helpers, drivers, electricians, gardeners, farmers, plumbers, nurses, technicians, housemaids are in greater demand than engineers, lawyers, doctors and bankers. All of these jobs call for specialised skills and specific qualifications. However, some of these skills could be in greater demand than the others because of shortage of supply in them. In many parts of India, we see many many unemployed engineers with qualifications on one hand and on the other, we see shortage of skilled electricians, fitters and cleaners. We find people who have acquired some of these specialist skills in a half-baked manner and are in great demand. So, some specialist jobs are in great demand while some are not. Hence, it’s not right to paint a general picture branding specialists to be better than generalists or vice versa. It depends upon the demand-supply situation of skills.


Secondly, we find that specialists and super-specialists are always in demand if they carry out a few tasks that are hard to replace by automation or use certain specialised knowledge and insight that can only be acquired out of experience. If someone has a skill to weld two pieces of metal using a tool, he is a specialist. However, this job can be performed by a robot possibly! And to do this piece of job well, one does not require a huge amount of insight and experience. On the other hand, an eye surgeon uses a lot of her experience and insight apart from the specialised knowledge. Thus, she will always deliver great value for her employer and as she gains more experience, she will gather more insight and can potentially deploy that at work to deliver greater value. So, she can create greater wealth and fame for herself. Hence, be a Specialist where you bring to the table a skill that is hard to replace by automation and you can deploy the insight gained along the way!


Last but not the least, generalists have a low risk of failure because they bring a huge scope to the table. They can wear multiple hats; deploy their generic skills of managing people relations, finances, customers and work processes. As employers try to squeeze out inefficiencies, they need more and more generalists. They are valued in the large corporates for the leadership skills that they exhibit and the adaptability that they demonstrate. Again, like the specialist doctors, lawyers, designers, analysts, researchers, teachers, these managers gather a lot of insight along the way and deploy them in their decision making and people relations. They are highly valued in the industry. They lose their sheen if they fail to deliver incremental value along their journey and thus, become easily replaceable by their subordinates. So, it is important that the generalist, the ubiquitous manager keeps delivering value to the employer organization on a continuous basis and keeps taking up multiple roles in regular intervals.

So, everyone is a Specialist; she is valued as long as the skill is in demand, it is expensive to automate the job and while performing, she delivers value while deploying the insight gained over time.

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