Generalist vs Specialist; whom to choose?

An age-long debate as to which is better? A specialist -who is the master of a particular field or a generalist who is the jack of all trades but master of none! Though each has its advantages and disadvantages and can be pitted against one another, choosing one also depends on job role and requirement. Hiring the right talent is of utmost importance for a company so that they can not only address the tasks provided to them but can also overcome challenges and perform better. So, which profile is better in today’s competitive, dynamic and interconnected world? Let us have a look.

What is a generalist?

A generalist has a broad range of skill sets and is not confined to the walls of some specific knowledge. They can analyse things from a broader perspective and can look at things from various angles that a specialist cannot do. Generalist is someone who has a little knowledge about all the domains and might help you provide a balanced opinion on the issue at hand. Generalists can multitask and also work cross-functional.

What are the pros and cons of a generalist?

A generalist also has many pros and cons attributed to it. From having little idea in all domains to having no in-depth knowledge about any particular thing, a generalist harbours all these qualities.

So, some of the strengths of a generalist are:

  • Multitasker: Having a wide range of skills, a generalist can quickly put them to use and work on multiple things simultaneously. Navigating through a list of different tasks efficiently is a generalist’s forte, and this skill comes in handy in sticky situations.
  • An easy set of transferable skills: Since generalists do not have subject matter expertise on any one subject, their skills can be easily transferred to different domains and can work on diverse projects very quickly. This is the reason they are very well suited for leadership roles.
  • Navigate through uncertain situations: With the skill to face varied challenges at different times, a generalist remains calm in the face of uncertainty and can deliver efficient results when faced with one. Thus, they remain productive and can motivate other employees to follow suit.
  • Solve a broad range of issues and offers flexibility: The ability to work with different domains as and when required makes a generalist flexible. Knowing all the domains gives them the ability to solve a vast range of issues.
  • Provide alternate solutions: In a client-facing role, they can easily modify solutions based on the client’s needs and demands and provide solutions from different perspectives.

Some of the weaknesses of a generalist are:

  • Which is the key skill: Since generalists have so much knowledge to dabble with, they often lack having a key area of expertise. When the company isn’t sure about a generalist’s key potential, it becomes tricky to promote them to leadership roles.
  • Short-term skillset: Not having in-depth knowledge about any particular domain, no need arises for them to remain updated with the current trends. Thus, they possess a short term skill set that often becomes outdated.
  • Longer training times: They are easily flexible, but if a project requires them to have detailed knowledge regarding a particular domain, they take longer training sessions to deliver the detailed kind of work required.
  • Risk of losing a job: Hiring a short-term specialist rather than keeping a generalist for a more extended period seems like a viable idea from the firm’s point of view. Thus, generalists suffer from the risk of losing their jobs.

What is a specialist?

On the flip side of the coin lies the specialists. As the name suggests, they are the subject matter experts in their chosen fields. Having in-depth knowledge in a particular area is a specialist’s forte and with the trend increasing towards companies becoming more specialists, hiring a specialist seems like a better deal. In simple words, a specialist is a person who hones a particular skill and is superb at it. They focus all their energy on developing that special skill and be updated with the trends and happenings in that specific domain.

What are the pros and cons of a specialist?

Becoming the subject matter expert also comes with its own sets of advantages and disadvantages.

So, some of the pros to being a specialist are:

  • Expertise in a particular domain: Specialists may not have a range of skill set, but they specialise in one set, and they are the best at it. They are much better equipped to provide a sound solution for any issue in their area of expertise and easily handle challenges thrown at them.
  • Streamline work processes: Along with the knowledge, specialists also have a huge amount of experience of doing the same work again and again, and thus they tend to make lesser mistakes, work more efficiently and streamline their entire work process.
  • Higher salary and more dependency: Since specialist’s roles are clearly defined, firms generally have a smaller number of specialists on board, and thus they tend to charge more for the kind of work they provide, and thus the entire firm depends on them to perform all those specialised work in their particular field.
  • Solves high-level issues: Generalists can only solve small problems of every domain, but to provide a solution for some high-level issues, it’s a specialist’s job. They are much better at providing such solutions based on their expertise.

Specialists are also prone to cons. They are:

  • Limited abilities: If any other work apart from their skill set is provided to them, it can be a huge challenge. They are generally hired for a particular set of tasks, and anything other than that can be a burden to them and the company.
  • Not suited for multitasking: Asking a specialist to move in between projects simultaneously, which does not fall under his/her area of expertise is a big NO. Thus, they lack a very important quality of multitasking and thus cross-domain functioning.
  • Not easily adaptive to changing situations: Being set in their ways of working and approaching problems, a specialist often finds it difficult to adapt to changes. So, this is a drawback of working with specialists.
  • Risk of non-cordial relationships with the workforce: Specialists are generally unable to answer questions outside their purview of knowledge, which can irritate their co-workers. They may come off as having very limited knowledge and not being able to get much on the table.

So, whom to choose?

No firm can thrive only with a workforce of either generalists or specialists. The correct answer to this question is an optimum mix of both in the workforce, which will help to facilitate a diverse range of tasks. Choosing one and rejecting the other is highly dependent on the task at hand and the kind of skills required to get the work done. Seeing today’s competitive world, a hybrid model must be followed where people who are inclined to be both must be hired and given a chance as these people will have knowledge regarding many domains and can provide the expertise of a specialist too.

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