Specialist or Generalist?

Working in a large organisation means the co-ordination of a wide range of ‘moving parts’. This requires a range of roles to enable that co-ordination process. Leadership roles to ensure there is a vision for the organisation and the activities of the organisation keep it moving in the direction of that vision to optimise the likelihood of desired outcomes being achieved; Management roles to ensure the necessary activities take place and there is ‘joined up thinking’ across the organisation. Administrative roles to make sure the cogs are in place and operating effectively, the ‘Is are dotted and the Ts are crossed’.

If an organisation is a ‘vertical hierarchy’ with many layers, or levels, often represented by a job grade, or pay grade, system, then an individual may be rewarded for effective performance by moving a step up in the grade system. The mechanisms by which this happens, and the conditions and probabilities associated with it, is beyond the scope of this post.

Management and Administration require a ‘generalist’ skill set, the capacity to deal with issues across a wide cross-section of the organisation. Every organisation needs people with such knowledge, skills and abilities.

If a large organisation rewards people with advancement/progress that is in synch with their skillset then there is a system which advances good generalists to employ their skills at a higher level, and specialists to do likewise. Central to this is the values to which the organisation operates. If values are different, and perhaps generalism is valued higher than specialism, then advancement may be increasingly linked to generalist roles. Where then the value of the specialist?

As can be gleaned from the above, my perspective on this is that the specialist role should not be undermined. From the Civil Service to Higher Education, and many other sectors, there is an evident belief that people can acquire the skills of the specialist to a sufficient extent to ‘get the job done’ and thus make the specialist role perfunctory. Then we hear of organisations failing in a wide variety of ways.

Perhaps the current climate of diversity, espoused by many organisations, might expand to include a greater openness to the subtleties of the specialist. Whilst diluted fruit juice may be ok, there is no substitute for the real thing.

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Martin Coffey

About Martin Coffey

Career Management Skills Developer, Researcher Development Team.

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