Better to be a Generalist or Expert?

It seems like I’ve had this discussion recently with quite a few people…not sure if its because I like the topic or if lots of other people like it to.

Basically, the conversation comes down to this short question:

Is it better to be an expert (aka specialist) or generalist?

Personally, I think it’s better to be a generalist with deep knowledge in a few areas and a much broader knowledge base in multiple industries and functional areas. My areas of interest are so broad that I’ll never be an expert in anything…but I do have a deep understanding of a few functional areas (Technology, Project Management, Business Management) and a broader knowledge base in others (Marketing, Training, IT Operations, etc).

That said, there is a need for experts in all areas. For example, I’m not sure you’d want a ‘generalist’ as your technical architect, database administrator or brain surgeon. These are areas where you would want to be an expert…but these are also areas that attract people who want to be experts. You wouldn’t want me designing the technical architecture of a new enterprise level system…you’d want someone involved that truly understood all facets of the system to be designed and the environment it will operate in.

A few interesting articles/blog posts on this topic can be found below.

After the many discussions, I’ve come to the conclusion that neither is better than the other. There’s room for experts/specialists and generalists in all fields. What’s your thoughts on the subject?

[tags] Expert, Generalist, Specialist [/tags]

12 responses to “Better to be a Generalist or Expert?”

  1. Jim Stroup Avatar

    Hello Eric,

    This is a fascinating topic, and can be very frustrating to come to grips with in a career.

    As you point out, there is obviously an advantage for professionals to specialize – in their profession.

    In management, though, many young managers are caught in a bit of a quandary, made all the worse since they rarely are aware of it. The dilemma is that junior positions often require the development of expertise in the technical sub-process where the new manager is assigned, but that focus makes it difficult for him or her to develop the generalist perspective that is required in greater degrees as one nears the top.

    This is what lies behind many management assignment rotation programs. That’s a help, but it sometimes results in either making the manager a jack of all trades and neither a master of any nor a generalist, or it does make him or her a master of one, but still not a generalist.

    This requires backing the discussion far enough out from just a treatment of technical fields so that we can include matters such as people management, company organization and processes, and industry/economy issues.

    Thanks for presenting this topic, and for the links to the additional resources about it!

  2. Eric Brown Avatar

    Good points as always Jim.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.. I think this is a real dilemma for most young professionals starting out.

    I’ve run across this in my own career and witnessed it in other people’s careers is how deep do you dive into a subject to really understand that subject and when do you step back before becoming ‘specialized’ in that field, and perhaps trapped in that field.

    I fell into the specialization trap before I realized what was happening. While working on my MS in Electrical Engineering I begun to specialize in Wireless Telecommunications, specifically Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). When I finished my Master’s, I seemed to be stuck in the world of CDMA Wireless Telecom and was happy…until I realized that I had interests in other fields. Getting myself out of this trap was difficult but I think I’ve managed to do so.

    What I call a ‘trap’ may be exactly what other people are looking for…and I say “have at it”. The world needs experts and generalists…but I’m too interested in too many thinks to be an expert I think.

    The real dilemma now is that I can’t allow my knowledge to be “a mile wide and an inch deep”….it needs to be a bit deeper than that in some fields.

    Lastly – glad you brought up the organizational topics…I’ve found myself really migrating toward the resource based view of the firm and human capital practices….I’m no longer interested in just learning about technology. I now want to understand how to make that technology work better for an organization by utilizing the human capital of the organization.

  3. Michael Alston Jr. Avatar
    Michael Alston Jr.

    I have had this conversation with numerous people also and even submitted it as a question on linkedin.

    As a young guy that is just starting out in his career, what comes to mind instantly is will being a generalist give you enough foundation is a topic or industry that you will become an asset to your organization. Can one become a generalist to early in their career?

    From what I see on college campuses the majority are majoring in general business which will result in an overload of generalist in corporate America. Will this present problems for the economy going forward if we don’t have the specialist to design the products that we have come accustomed to (i.e. not enough engineers and to many MBAs)?

    Also, When looking at this topic from an organizational perspective is an operations manager or engineering manager a generalist or specialist?

  4. Eric Brown Avatar

    Hi Mike,

    I think taking the generalist route too early in a career will doom one to the ‘mile wide and inch deep’ knowledge trap. That being said, I think it is worth thinking about early on in your career.

    Let’s use an Electrical Engineering example:

    Do you want to design circuits (or microprocessors, etc) your entire career or do you want to have a more rounded and diverse career?

    The answer to the above question will lead you down the road you want to go…specialist or generalist.

    Now…being a generalist isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be. My definition of a generalist is someone that can be put into any situation in business and be successful. This is because they have a broad knowledge base and broad experiences to draw from.

    The same isn’t necessarily true for a specialist. Given enough time, a specialist could learn another specialty, but you wouldn’t expect them to be able to ‘hit the ground running’ when put into a new/unfamiliar situation.

    Good question about the operations/engineering manager….and I think the answer is ‘it depends’. 🙂 I’ll consider the engineering manager since that’s what I’m more familiar with.

    Engineering Managers could be an either/or….this person could have moved into management after 20 years of design work. This person could also have been an engineer who moved into the management track after only a few years in design.

  5. greatmanagement Avatar

    For me I think it depends how we all define ‘better’.

    What’s better about being a generalist?

    More diversity in your career?
    Using many different skills?
    Jump from department to another easily?
    Quicker up the career / promotion ladder?

    What’s better about being a specialist?

    Paid more?
    More marketable / in demand?
    More interesting?
    Easier to go freelance?

    I agree there is a need for both and in my experience you quickly fall into one camp or the other.


  6. Eric Brown Avatar

    Andrew – excellent points.

    When i used the word ‘better’, I should have explained that I meant it in the sense of a person’s view for their career. Neither option is ‘better’ than the other in the eyes of another…only in your own eyes and what you want to do with your career.

  7. JP Avatar

    A co-worker of mine made a comment about this topic the other day. Apparently, at IBM where he worked they wanted to see people who had a recognizable career path and didn’t want to hire anyone who seemed to come from multiple IT disciplines. I guess at the time and for him, “A jack of trades, and master of none” was not acceptable. It seemed that IBM thought you had not found what you were looking for and one only stay around for a few years.

    I actually disagreed with his and IBM’s view. I think having varying perspectives is very valuable. If you have a career path working in different areas of IT, I think it adds to the overall value. The lines between systems, network, security, and other areas continue to blur. A good understanding of them all makes someone well rounded in their craft verses someone who only sees a issue from one angle.

  8. Eric Brown Avatar

    Thanks JP. I completely agree…in the world of IT these days it is very good to know the various areas of the space to better understand the ‘big picture’.

  9. Pawel Brodzinski Avatar

    I generally agree with your point. There’s place for both. None of them is better overall although there are places where you’re sure you want to see one type.

    Having said that I don’t think it’s a real problem which way to go – either way you’ll find your place. I think the more important thing is how fast you gain experience. If you constantly work on getting more experience (doesn’t matter if that means digging deeper in one place or going further to dig another hole) you will be considered as a good professional.

    When you just wait for better days to come doing nothing to move from the place you stuck you don’t give yourself a chance to move your career step ahead. No matter if you preferred to be a generalist or a specialist.

  10. […] one of biggest issues higher management has to face when they get their promotions – they become generalists, they want it or not. However it really doesn’t matter if you’re an expert in one area or jest […]

  11. Jim Smith Avatar
    Jim Smith

    Doesn’t anyone find it odd that there are no specialists chiming in here?

    Perhaps the generalists are the only ones who see any value in their work.

    FWIW, here is the actual, unabridged definition of each (plus one other):

    Generalist – someone who isn’t particularly good at anything and therefore greatly underestimates the requirements, ultimately leaving the job unfinished.

    Specialist – someone who only wants to work on the “fun stuff” and whose devotion to fulfilling this end is paramount, ultimately leaving the job unfinished.

    Trenchworker – someone who hammers out a meager living by cleaning up the mess that constantly rains down the cracks. See ‘generalist’ and ‘specialist’ for details.

  12. […] one of biggest issues higher management has to face when they get their promotions – they become generalists, they want it or not. However it really doesn’t matter if you’re an expert in one area or jest […]