Generalist or Specialist
When I started my career in the 1970s, large corporations valued generalists. In my 22 years of working for IBM, they let me take a variety of career paths. It also suited my personality, because I have a lot of varied interests. After a few years in a job, I would get bored and wanted to do something new.
IBM allowed me to work with a lot of leading-edge technologies that are still around today. Some of these included:
- Word Processors – I worked with early word processors even before the IBM PC was released.
- 3D printing – I was working with early 3D printers in 1989.
- HTML and Internet Applications – I was designing Internet applications in the 1990s, long before it was common.
- Advanced Router Design – When I left IBM in 2000, I developed curriculum to teach major equipment manufacturers how to design next-generation routers and switches.
- High Definition Video – In 2007, after spending a couple years teaching high school math and working in the non-profit arena, I went to work for an HD video conferencing startup developing a training and certification program.
I am a generalist. I have enjoyed working with a lot of different technologies and methodologies. My challenge was that I got bored about every three years and wanted to move on to something different.
A fundamental shift started about twenty years ago. As technological change sped up, the need for specialists increased. Starting in the mid-1990s, I saw many of my colleagues move on to become specialists—and they were generously rewarded…for a while. If you developed skills and became a specialist in an area that was in the early adoption phase, you could make a lot of money, again, for a while. That was only true until others developed those same skills. The key was to identify correctly which skills would be desirable to have a year or two ahead of the demand.
This is easy to see in the world of technology, but does it apply elsewhere? YES!
In the world of Human Resources, you could be a generalist or a specialist in recruiting, compensation, benefit programs, diversity, HR IT, etc…
In the world of sales, you could be a generalist or a specialist in B2B or B2C, Internet sales, Channel sales, etc…
The challenge is that, if you are a specialist, your skills may not be valued in 5, 10 or 15 years. Let me give a few examples of skills that have become obsolete:
- Experts in direct mail (snail mail) marketing – With the exception of credit card offers, what industries still market through direct mail?
- Travel agents – When was the last time you talked to a travel agent? Fifteen years ago, this was still a valued skill.
- Specialists in the complex process of laying out newsprint for your daily newspaper – When did you last pick up a paper newspaper?
- Photo-Journalists – Why have photo-journalists when everyone has a camera?
These were all valued skills just a few years ago.
What If I Am a Generalist?
Generalists are typically more valued in smaller organizations. Small organizations typically cannot afford to hire a lot of specialists. I have a client who is a marketing generalist. She likes to write press releases, e-mail marketing, social media, direct mail, the creation of collateral… You will be more valued in smaller organizations who need their employees to wear a lot of hats.
Many generalists may also be multipotentialities. I am one of these, where I have so many interests that I get bored with a job after 2 to 3 years and want to move onto something new. What I do to keep things interesting and fresh is to purposely make a change every year. In 2016, I launched the Repurpose Your Career podcast which continues to grow every week. I am now launching the Career Pivot membership community. Both endeavors are to help the community but also to keep things interesting and new to me.
I can do this because I work for myself. What if you work for someone else?
What If I Am a Specialist?
Specialists need to stay on top of their areas of expertise and be willing to move when their expertise becomes a commodity or obsolete. This requires vigilance and the willingness to move with industry trends. You must be aware of disruptive trends in your industry.
I had a discussion several weeks ago with a gentleman who has been a contract project manager for Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system projects. For the last 5 or more years, business has been brisk and when one project ended he was able to pick the next very easily. The wave of EMR projects has crested. Most hospitals and clinic have now implemented EMR systems and suddenly he is having trouble finding work.
Another person I know jumped on the Ruby on Rails train. Just a few years ago to have Ruby on Rails programming knowledge you were a hot commodity. This person jumped on the train just as the demand was cresting. Now to be in demand you have to know how to program Ruby on Rails but also have multiple years of experience. She is struggling to get established now that skills she worked so hard to attain are not hot any longer.
Specialists have to stay on top of their game if they want to stay relevant in the ever-changing world of work.
Creative Destruction is Accelerating
New technology is being introduced at an ever-accelerating pace along with the opportunity to destroy entire professions and industries but also creating new ones.
The world of automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics is changing everything. I claim that if you think your career is immune to these factors you are smoking something and you are inhaling.
If you are not careful you could end up just like a couple of my clients who I wrote about in the post Living in a “Career Disaster Area” at the Age of 65. One of these individuals I would consider to be a generalist and the other was a specialist.
Whether you are a generalist or specialist you have to stay on top of things.
Give it some thought.
Are you a generalist or specialist?
Are you prepared for the creative destruction that is coming?
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