The Generalist Advantage

In the Generalists vs Specialists debate, the Generalists often have the advantage.

June 22, 2016
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The Generalists vs Specialists Debate

In a recent HBR article, Generalists Get Better Job Offers Than Specialists, Jennifer Merluzzi explains her research with Damon Phillips that showed that specialists could earn less than $46,000 than generalists for the same job. In the age old Generalists vs Specialists debate, it highlights generalists as being more flexible and adaptable, particularly in cases where the future is uncertain. Furthermore, she highlights that “Leaders tend to be generalists. They can shift course and manage multiple areas. They’re more flexible.”

The study focused on graduates of selective MBA programs, and for the purpose of the study Merluzzi and Phillips, defined ‘specialists’ as individuals that had consistently focused on one area in work experiences before their MBA, during summer internships and in their coursework. Whereas generalists had a range of experiences, in different industries or functional roles.

Specialists develop a deep understanding of their field, including the shorthand jargon other specialists used to communicate. Often unknowingly, we develop ways of working, systems of communication and even ways of thinking based upon the circles in which we spend our time. Between specialists, there are increasingly larger areas of knowledge which do not need to be expressed because they are mutually understood and taken for granted.

Generalists as Network Brokers

Looking at this through a network lens, where generalists are like ‘brokers’ who sit between such fields of expertise, provides additional insight into the generalist advantage. And while most network research typically supposes that this is because of early access and control of information between otherwise isolated groups, research by University of Chicago Professor Ron Burt (Neighbor Networks: Competitive Advantage Local and Personal) has shown that instead it has to do with the ability brokers develop in being able to process and understand different types of information.

By analogy we can understand Generalists as being bilingual or polylingual, able to dive into different linguistic and cultural worlds and operate effectively and the benefits of being bilingual have long been established (see Why Bilinguals Are Smarter) One doesn’t have to leave the country or even stop speaking English to encounter radically different ways of speaking. In large companies, one often only has to go to different departments to hear different acronyms and terms that become incomprehensible to outsiders.

When the generalists in Merluzzi and Phillips’s research study were doing internships in other fields or taking classes outside their areas of focus, they were being confronted with different modes of working and different sets of assumptions. Being embedded in a different environment gave them interaction opportunities with specialists from this other field resulting in a cognitive workout that not only helped build their brain power but also helped them to see matters from another perspective such that in the future they would be better able to work across boundaries. In the Generalists vs Specialists debate, the Generalists often have the advantage.