As today’s professional world is adopting a knowledge-intensive culture, it is tough to find a right combination that covers the depth and the breadth of a specific area of knowledge. Conventionally, we relied on deep, explicit, documented knowledge as in the case of research and development projects. But in recent times knowledge acquisition has become broader because of mainly two reasons.
Firstly, technology has helped distributing information wide and far and power of knowledge has become evident in activities beyond research and development. People then needed to acquire knowledge from more than one domain and were restricted in the depth while expanding their breadth of knowledge. Secondly, people who followed the rapid advancements in technology made shallow impressions everywhere while spreading over larger area.
We have two sets of people now: the specialists and the generalists. Generalists existed even before the above-mentioned reasons forced many and that was because of personal traits – some people find it easier to deal with multiple subjects while others like to dig deeper in one subject. I find J Scott Armstrong’s description of specialists and generalists very striking. According to him a specialist is the one who knows more and more about less and less until eventually he knows everything about nothing! A generalist is the one who knows less and less about more and more until eventually he knows nothing about everything!
Today’s world needs both specialists and generalists, and the challenge is to find the right balance between the two. Certainly a team of generalists is not going to be of much help. A team of specialists may lack creativity or may miss out the inter-relationships between multiple parts.
There are various hypotheses and propositions on structuring a team with specialists and generalists. But I like to draw an analogy from sports in this matter. In all the team-sports, there are some people who are all-rounders or playmakers; though they are not many. A generalist holds this position in a project team. This is especially true when the environment/scope is not too small. Obviously in a very small team/project, specialists always dominate.