Modern saga “The Fox and the Hedgehog”: generalists vs. specialists
About 2,700 years ago, Archilochus wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Taking that as a starting point, Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay “The Fox and the Hedgehog” contrasts hedgehogs that “relate everything to a single, central vision” with foxes who “pursue many ends connected … if at all, only in some de facto way.”
And so we have become a society of specialists with much heralded “learn more about your function, acquire ‘expert’ status, and you’ll go further in your career” considered the corporate Holy Grail. But is it?
The modern corporation has grown out of the Industrial Revolution (IR). The IR started in 1712 when an Englishman named Thomas Newcomen invented a steam-driven pump, to pump water out of a mine, so the English miners could get more coal to mine, rather than hauling buckets of water out of the mine. That was the dawn of the IR. It was all about productivity, more coal per man-hour; and then it became more steel per man-hour, more textiles per man-hour, etc.
The largest impact of the IR was the “socialization” of labor. Prior to the IR, people were largely self-sufficient, but the IR brought increased division of labor, and this division of labor brought specialisation, which brought increased productivity. This specialisation, though, decreased self-sufficiency and people became increasingly inter-dependent on one another, thus socialised more. Also, with the division of labor the individual needed only to know how to do a specific task and nothing more. Specialization also caused compartmentalization of responsibility and awareness. On a national level, it has allowed nations to become increasingly successful while the citizens become increasingly ignorant. Think an average American. You can be totally wrong about almost everything in life, but as long as you know how to do one thing good you can be a success, and in fact in a society such as this increased specialization becomes advantageous due to the extreme competition of our society. Environments with more competition breed more specialists.
But is the formula that ushered humanity in 20th century of rapid technological industrialisation and economic development still valid or as impactful in 21st century as it was for last 300 years? In our modern VUCA world, who (specialist OR generalists) have a better chance of not only surviving but thriving?
According to a number of independent research papers, employees most likely to come out on top of companies and becoming successful in long term are generalists—but not just because of their innate ability to adapt to new workplaces, job descriptions or cultural shifts. For example, according Carter Phipps (author of Evolutionaries) generalists (will) thrive in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know “a little bit about a lot.” More than half of employees with specialist skills now consider their job to be mostly generalist despite the fact that they were employed for their niche skills, according to another survey. Among the survey respondents, 60% thought their boss was a good generalist, and transferable skills – such as people skills and leadership – are often associated with more senior roles.
We’ve become a society that’s data (from all various specialisation, industries and technologies) rich and meaning poor. A rise in specialists in all areas — science, math, history, psychology — has left us with huge amount of data/info/knowledge but how valuable is it without context? Context in a data-rich world can only be provided by generalists whose breadth of knowledge can serve as the link between various disciplines/contexts/frameworks.
A good generalist, David Christian gave his 2011 TED talk called “Big History” of the entire universe from the big bang to present in 18 mins, using principals of physics, chemistry, biology, information architecture and human psychology.
To conclude, it seems that specialisation is becoming less and less relevant due to 1) increasing, interconnected and overlapping data and information that permeates all aspects of our lives, 2) increasing VUCA-ness of social, political and economic situations of individuals and nations, 3) need to envision and derive from a bigger context or connect few contexts/disciplines/frameworks. All points seem to be better addressed by generalists.