Are our ideas about who is the best employee changing?

The old wisdom that specialization is the key to unlocking productivity is just that: old wisdom.

Our modern age of digital technology and constant change present new challenges as well as new opportunities for leaders and workers alike. Rising to these challenges and staying nimble in the face of profound transformation is possible but takes a perhaps counter-intuitive approach.

Namely, the rise of the generalist in place of the specialist.

A workforce of individuals, each really good at one particular thing, is losing ground to networks of multi-talented groups, communicating and collaborating to leverage their combined talent and knowledge to achieve greater productivity, as well as enhancing their ability to adapt. Recruitment, retention, and workforce development must all embrace and enhance this model to make your organization robust going forward.

The General Rule of Thumb

The idea that our humanity will save us from irrelevance and displacement is being disproven daily.

That goes for managers as well as labourers: being “aces in our places” primes us, rather than protects us, from automation. Automation is occurring on the foundation of skilled work being broken down into discrete tasks, which can, in turn, be outsourced, distributed, or offloaded to some machine for completion. It is cost-saving, quality-preserving, and scalable. Getting better at one thing, one special task doesn’t slow the process down.

The key to not just surviving, but thriving in the face of automation and industry-wide disruption is becoming easier to train–or reprogram–than a computer. We can’t always out-compete technology at discrete tasks, whether it be playing chess or taking dictation. But we can still keep ahead on a learning curve that enables us to tackle a greater diversity of tasks and projects, especially when they involve communication and coordination with other individuals, teams, departments, and organizations.

Staying nimble, and keeping your teams nimble, therefore means not just embracing change, but prioritizing learning, training, and development. The next-generation generalist is highly trained but broadly capable.

Everyone is Everything

Taking the now-ubiquitous example of cybersecurity, what once was the exclusive realm of computer nerds and basement-dwelling IT staff is now the very real and pressing concern of everyone. Hyper-talented cybersecurity staff are necessary, but they cannot be isolated, nor the only ones focused on the perils of digital gatekeeping.

Managing corporate security, privacy, and data integrity take a combination of tools and behavioural solutions, but even the most robust set of technology solutions will not make up for careless individuals–or worse yet, individuals who aren’t even conscious of the impact of their behaviour.

The efficiency gains of moving to cloud-based computing and data storage can be quickly and dramatically erased by a single user failing to follow basic protocols for access control and online behaviour. Everyone needs to be aware, engaged, and at least minimally competent on matters of security, lest they become the weakest link in the chain that compromises everything.

As with cybersecurity, so it goes with a growing list of other skills, from basic communication to higher-level organizational and operational functions.

The New Game is Collaboration

What this all means for both workers and leaders is that viability depends on heavily upon greater collaboration, networking skill sets, and integrating teams more closely than ever to create efficiency and quality gains.

Paradoxically, generalists are capable of both greater independence, and greater collaboration.

For example, to stop the brain-drain of rural social workers in Nevada, educators made a concerted effort to train more general practitioners. This amounted to investing a higher level of training for these workers, but a yielded workers with a broader scope of practice, and a greater capacity to both provide services and continue professional development autonomously.

The example of social work–or even the medical field more broadly–is particularly relevant because generalists are carrying an increasing burden of responsibility to serve more patients. Doing so effectively means working in constant triage mode, and collaborating with other specialists as needed to refer patients out.

Non-healthcare professionals need a similar capacity for individual problem-solving combined with a diverse network to support ad hoc collaboration. Recruiters, job-seekers, and career counsellors are all likely familiar with the adage, “It isn’t what you know, it is who you know that matters.” The same is true not just for getting a job, but for getting a job done. Talent networks enable generalists to understand who is best suited to help tackle a project, as well as to collaborate on–and learn from–the solution.

Prescribing Supplements

At the very least, “specialization needs a soft skills wrapper,” as writer and diginomica co-founder Jon Reed explains.

What he means is that when we talk about skills gaps, it isn’t just hard skills like programming or financial knowledge that businesses are looking for, but soft skills that generally amount to social abilities, especially communication and self-motivation. This opinion is widely shared, according to Pew Research data on whether technical or soft skills matter more.

Increasingly it is apparent that hyper-specialization comes at the expense of practical collaboration. People whose skills and competence is limited to their department or even a specific, if high-level, task will tend to reinforce sales within the greater organization. Schools that win acclaim for their focus on next-generation skills development churn out graduates that often lack the basic ability to integrate with existing teams, work with other departments, creatively problem-solve in a mixed team environment or anticipate the needs of others outside of his or her own area of focus.

While such demand (for skills and knowledge) and reward (salaries and wages) is tempered partly by industry and education, the fundamental need for collaboration in virtually every industry, as well as the increasing automation and globalization of all sectors of the economy, seem to support the notion that being adaptive and personable will stay in style longer than any single bit of even the highest tech knowledge. New hires and old hands alike–and even managers and leaders–need training, learning opportunities, and a buy-in from employers and managers in their continuous development. It is the ultimate win-win.

Even when specialization is warranted, it is not enough–not anymore. Irrationally specific, optimistic “Help Wanted” advertisements end up helping neither your organization nor potentially qualified applicants. Distinguishing what you think you need–which is very often biased toward the short-term–from what will deliver the most overall value–inclusive of long-term retention, retraining, and peer-to-peer development–can help you understand where you mistake your needs for wants. Making the most out of every recruit means supplementing their skill sets, turning their speciality into one strength among a larger, generalist toolkit.
It seems as though employers value specialization, yet economies value flexibility and a broader capacity to retrain. For your organization, that might mean improving retention and recruitment starts with putting more emphasis on trainability. Hiring candidates that can demonstrate a greater curiosity, ability to learn (and help others learn), and a skill set that makes them less on the nose.

Where existing staff are concerned, that means pushing more up training opportunities, learning-based engagement strategies, and advancing a culture of curiosity, change-tolerance, and constant development. In either case, the goal is to build teams of collaborative, communicative, generalists.

Image Source Pixabay.  I the author have the right to use this image.

Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant.