Multi-Specialists – Winning the Specialist Vs Generalist Debate

by Shweta Handa-Gupta

Top Reasons Why Being A Multi-Specialist Pays

In this world of specialists is the Renaissance Man dead? Is Da Vinci – painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer still relevant in the modern world? Generalists have often claimed him for their own especially in battles with specialists but I do not think Da Vinci was a generalist or even a specialist. He was multi-talented and definitely a multi-specialist.

Specialists have been defined as people who have in-depth knowledge and expertise in one area or discipline. Whereas generalists are those who have basic knowledge in a wide number of disciplines without the depth and expertise of the specialist. Promoters of specialization still insist that since specialists concentrate on only one discipline they are more knowledgeable and experienced and the generalists claim that they are the masters of integration and will always be the ones leading the pack.

So who wins this battle between generalists and specialists? In my opinion, neither suffices to be successful in today’s scenario. While specialization is important since depth of knowledge is essential to excel in any field but as Elaine Morgan said “The trouble with specialists is that they tend to think in grooves”. So can Generalists be the integrators, the leaders? I don’t think so because this generation of specialists demands leaders of a different calibre.

The successful leader of today has to be multi-talented with mastery over more than one area. No longer can the generalist with only high level knowledge be a commander of the specialists, neither can a dogmatic specialist break through the ranks with only depth in one area.

Here are the top reasons why it pays be to be multi-specialist:

  • Enhanced ability to cope with change – Limiting yourself to one area of expertise only can slowly lead to a sense of complacency and also cocoon you so firmly in your comfort zone that change would be very difficult for you to handle. In my experience, I have often found multi-specialists find it easier to move out of their comfort zone and embrace change.
  • More effective as a manager/ leader of people – The manager today needs knowledge of more than just his discipline to be an effective leader. He needs to be an effective communicator, facilitator, analyst, counsellor, change manager, innovator et al.
  • More valuable for the organization – Mastery over more than one area makes you more valuable to the organization since that would make you easier to deploy, redeploy and effectively utilize. Not only that, it also makes economic sense for the organization to have a multi-skilled workforce.
  • Pre-requisite for being a successful Entrepreneur – Successful entrepreneurship essentially requires multi-skilling. If you can’t understand the various aspects of your business, chances of success aren’t very bright.
  • Increased chances of getting promoted to the higher echelons – It is the Multi-specialist who will break through the upper ranks of the organizational hierarchy. To cross over to the top management levels, you need to understand the cross-functional requirements of the whole business and you definitely need to understand how each area impacts the bottom-line.
  • Flexibility – Multi-specialization offers a lot more flexibility to you as an individual as well as to the organization you are part of.
  • Lack of intellectual stimulation can kill brain cells while mental stimulation improves brain function and protects against cognitive decline. The human brain can achieve mastery over any discipline in a fraction of a person’s career. After that, it can often be repetitive and rarely challenging.

Look around you, most of the successful people are multi-specialists. For everyday examples, look at the small entrepreneurs who are often masters of all trades at their workplace; the one-man-armies in your office; the manager who always gets promoted because he is ready to take on projects in new areas and master them even if he’s never done it before.

Copyright ©2010 Shweta Handa-Gupta. All rights reserved.

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