Should you hire generalists or specialists?

Tara Klein
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The debate about Generalists vs Specialists in the workforce has been ongoing and continues to cause a split between hiring managers and organizational leaders. It seems the conclusion has tended to fall in the gray area: it depends. In essence, companies need both for different things. But is this the answer of the future? As we look ahead, there may be a definitive answer to this ongoing discussion.

Specialists have a lot of advantages that make them very appealing. They are considered experts in their field and usually have a strong and well-established education or training to support that. Their knowledge and skills are invaluable in many roles like technical and scientific fields, software coding, medical professions, and digital marketing to name a few.

On the other hand, their narrow field and skill set may lead to less flexibility when it comes to changing roles and therefore, their career trajectory may be limited outside their expertise. They can be very focused on their area and unable to see the outside of that scope.

Generalists, have a strong foundation of knowledge and a better understanding of the bigger picture. They have more transferable skills and are more willing to learn and adapt. In a world where everything is always changing, that ability to be flexible is becoming more and more valuable. Generalists are also highly successful in management roles that require cross function interaction and supervising various people and projects.

But, since generalists tend to just scratch the surface on the many topics, they don't have the skill set to do technical problem solving and will have to rely on experts. From a career stand point, they are also more replaceable since they don't have the depth of knowledge in anything specific.

Both bring a lot of value to the table, so what if you could have both? This is what most research suggests is the best choice for the future. It is referred to as the T- Shaped employee where the T represents the skill set of the employee. The top is the broad set of transferable skills that we see in Generalists, and the vertical line down in the T is the deeper expertise that comes from a Specialist. Some would call this a Specializing Generalist or a Generalizing Specialist.

These employees are excellent collaborators as they have broad knowledge and more varied interested. They can communicate well cross functionally and that makes working with others easy for them. They still have the flexibility of the generalists to wear multiple hats and contribute in various aspects of a company, but they still hold that depth of knowledge in one (or a few) areas.

As companies continue to grow and accessible information becomes more abundant, the way we work will continue to change, and the most important skill any employee can have is the ability to learn. Companies will need employees to have a strong foundation and flexible skill set, but also have the capability to learn a lot about certain topics to succeed.


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