Ever since humans moved out of caves and started settling and building civilizations, more and more professions have evolved to serve the needs created by advancements and aspirations. Did you know that most of the professions we know today are only about a 100 years old?
Till about the first half of the 20th century, Generalist was King. The person who had the widest range of competencies and most number of skills had the ‘guru’ status. They held all the key positions, they had the respect of the world. They ruled.
Then a shift took place.
Gradually a growing band of specialists emerged – people who had intricate knowledge in a particular field, could unravel the most subtle nuances of that craft, but had blinders on for pretty much everything else.
Actually generalists and specialists have existed in every civilization, era and geographic region. Only, earlier, specialists were few and under the radar. But with the advent of the information age, they stepped into the limelight and began to be recognized for the value they bring to the world.
However, now a new phenomenon is already germinating and will grow in the coming decades.
It’s the class of the Specialized Generalist.
The specialized generalist is a professional with deep expertise in one particular area and above-average skills in a few other related aspects that surround his core expertise. Thus, not only is he a master in one trade, but also has the chops in 3-5 other competencies that enable him to craft a leadership position in this chosen trade.
Take for example a physician. If all a doctor does is work on his clinical abilities, he will still be regarded as a physician par excellence. He will rise to the top echelons in his chosen specialty.
But compare that with another physician, who in addition to polishing his clinical acumen, spends time developing skills in research, quality improvement, teaching & mentoring, and admin/ management. This professional will create a unique space for himself by having a deep central skill surrounded by a few satellite skills – a constellation of abilities that are becoming increasingly pertinent, if not essential, to the furtherance of better healthcare.
All things being equal, it’s the latter who is better placed to take up a leadership position in healthcare. Granted, the former physician, by way of his one-pointed focus on one skill at the expense of all others, is better positioned to reach the top 1% in his field. The latter, given his division of focus to a few other areas in addition to his core trade, will at best get to the top 5%, not 1%.
But he ends up being more valuable overall to the healthcare ecosystem (as against one particular specialty). Why? Because having a central skill that falls in the top 5%, with some satellite skills where he is placed in, say the top 25%, he now has a unique “skills-portfolio” that has little to no competition.
When you focus on only one competency to become a master of, it’s a long journey to get to the top 1%, constantly trying to become better than all others who are in that same space competing for the top position.
Whereas, if it’s a combination of skills, you get to choose what permutation is valuable to the ecosystem of your profession, which blend you are most suited to pursue (and most interested in pursuing). The resulting skills-hybrid will be one-of-a-kind that is not easily replicable. Thus you are far out in the “blue-ocean”, extremely rare and valuable.
What drives the Specialized Generalist?
Two phenomena are here to stay at least for the next century – the exponential growth of information and pace of disruptive change. To make sense of these two phenomena and ride it successfully, our society requires a class of cutting-edge professionals – individuals with highly detailed skills and knowledge in key areas – niches in which they have deep mastery, coupled with a broad understanding of a large number of interrelated skills and information that are part of the surrounding ecosystem. They must be able to dive deep into their chosen calling, but also swim comfortably on the surface of other disciplines.
Take any industry, and we can realize the truth in this –every field demands 2-3 generalized knowledge domains. Take the software industry as an example – engineers today increasingly need marketing and business development skills along with the core coding/ programming chops.
Generalized specialists will be in demand in the future. If you want to come out on top and succeed in your profession, you need to do 2 things:
- Identify your niche
- Identify the critical factors in the ecosystem
- Make sense of the trends – where things are headed.
- Generalize in this ecosystem
“Specialize in your niche, and generalize in the ecosystem”.