Why expertise is not enough: Generalists are cheaper for firms so make yourself adaptable

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

From marketing to medicine, there is a growing need for workers with general abilities.

While skills gaps are frequently cited as a problem by employers, the expectation that new hires will be versatile has perhaps never been higher.

A survey by PageGroup in 2013 found that 51 per cent of professionals thought that their specialist skills had become less important within two years of joining their firm, as they spent their time handling more general responsibilities.

This shift in emphasis – from depth of knowledge to breadth – and the requirement for employees at most levels to have a strategic understanding of the business, is arguably structural. But why is expertise in decline, and what exactly will take its place?

THE EXTINCTION OF EXPERTISE

The PageGroup survey revealed that 52 per cent of professionals thought that specialist knowledge was central to improving problem solving.

In many industries, this may still be true. But with businesses now required to deliver solutions to problems in real time, generalists will be able to find and allocate diverse resources from across the company more effectively.

A survey by psychologist Phillip Tetlock asked 284 professional forecasters to predict the likelihood of certain events, both within and outside their area of expertise. His analysis revealed that non-experts were more accurate in their calls than their specialist colleagues.

In his book Expert Political Judgment, Tetlock borrows Isaiah Berlin’s idea of the prototypical fox to explain why those with a broad knowledge, and the ability to deploy it in different business contexts, will thrive.

He claims that foxes – generalists who cunningly “draw from an eclectic array of traditions, accept ambiguity and contradictions as inevitable features of life” are useful.

Hedgehogs, on the other hand, rely on a single defence mechanism – curling up into a ball – which is very effective, but only in specific contexts.

BIG DATA

The internet has provided businesses with quick access to a glut of information. Some believe that specialist expertise will serve less of a purpose in an era driven by data.

The idea of procuring specialist information for a cost, as and when it is needed, is more cost effective for a number of businesses than retaining experts, who may command higher salaries, on a fulltime basis.

As the potential of big data is harnessed, it will become more efficient for companies to conduct research with data as a first point of call, rather than relying on human expertise in the first instance.

Ironically, however, as data provision and analysis become more sought after, demand for expertise in big data will increase.

According to a report by the Tech Partnership employers’ network and SAS, the UK will create 56,000 big data jobs a year on average until 2020.

CUTTING COSTS

Indeed, those with specialist backgrounds are unlikely to become obsolete. But given that a multitasking workforce requires less coordination from management, they will need to add strategy to their skill set in order to provide real value.

PageGroup found that 23 per cent of people believed the economic climate was responsible for their role becoming more generalised. Training a current employee is a costly investment which startups, or companies with slim margins, can seldom afford.

Discussing her decision to hire a specialist technology project manager, Elena Bajic, founder of startup Ivyexec.com, told Forbes just how important it was that he could apply his skills more broadly.

“This hire has done much more than bring order and methodology. He has helped define business requirements for high priority strategic initiatives.”

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