Case Study 4: Generalization or Specialization?
————————————————————————- I remember the days when if I fell ill, my mother would take me to a general physician. The doctor would prescribe some medicines as per his initial diagnosis of the illness and past experience. In case of a failure in effectiveness of the medicine, other options were sought to address the illness. Zooming ahead to 2012, today we look at specialization in all fields. Today if the child’s ear is blocked the mother will take him to an ENT specialist. Laws of economics support the practice, whereby, specialization and division of labor is expected to provide highest levels of productivity. This idea was, first, put forth by Mr. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, in his book ‘Wealth of the Nations’. Under this regime each worker becomes an expert in one isolated area of production, thus increasing his efficiency. The fact that laborers do not have to switch tasks during the day further saves time and money. Specialization has also been the basis of trade between nations.
The countries specialized in commodities that their resources could produce efficiently and then proceeded to trade. It was observed that the world productivity levels improved massively. The world today is shifting from demanding a “jack of all trades” to demanding the “master”. The abundance of information in today’s world leads to any person adept at internet search skills is able to provide a general perspective about any topic under the sun. The need is to be able to provide an in-depth idea about the topic. Also, the level of competition in today’s world leaves no scope for error and thereby, comes the demand for specialization. With a team of such specialists, the performance delivered tends to have been scrutinized from the different perspectives, leaving lesser scope for flaws. The shift to specialization has influenced the growth of new industries and markets. It has also influenced our lifestyle, career choices and decisions. The need of the hour today is to hone the skill that exists nowhere but in yourself and thereby making oneself indispensable. The Debate As tends to happen, this article was born of a debate on the topic.
The fellow I was debating with is a very successful CEO who has made his mark with a variety of companies. The businesses have varied slightly in nature, but the general industry and his involvement in each business has remained the same. His argument is that to specialize in your chosen career — and to stick with and further develop it — is the best route. You become very (very) good at what you do, and are seen as an expert in the field. He believes that specializing is the way to establish a solid career path, make good money, and derive a sense of career (and personal) satisfaction. I don’t necessarily disagree. But for the sake of argument, my points of debate centered around the possibility that specializing leads to career boredom, limits job options, and can ultimately do yourself out of a job if your area of specialty becomes obsolete. Let’s look at some contributing factors. Specialization Pros You get higher wages for having specific knowledge. You are a desirable employee in your area of expertise. If you specialize enough, you can become a leading expert in demand for satisfying ground-breaking projects or additional work on the side that complements your job. Cons You have less job security if your area of specialty becomes obsolete. Many areas of specialty require a university degree or educational certification of sorts (which is not a problem per se, but might financially — or otherwise — be a stretch to achieve). If you are too specialized, the company can’t use you for other tasks or jobs, thus decreasing your overall flexibility as an employee. Too much time working at your specific area of specialty can lead to career boredom.
Generalization Pros The more possibilities you have for making income, the less you will feel hard economic times. Then again, if your area of generalization is too vague, you may become too expendable and be the first in line for company layoffs. To be a generalist often means you keep learning new complementary skills. This continues to build a good base of employability, in addition to conquering the long-term boredom factor. Your increased range of employability also means you have greater chances of being employed closer to home than a specialist might. You will save money on transportation and other expenses that a specialist might bear (even with a higher income that might not cover these adjustments). Cons Employers might not know how best to place you in their organization if your skills are too spread out. They may not view you as reliable or tenacious enough with any one job or skill set to be worth hiring. Without a solid idea of what you do, you may find yourself searching, both for personal identity as well as groping in the dark for what to do next, and for what type of employer you’ll work for next. Less focused job searches are more difficult to endure.
Personal Experience I come from both the specialist and generalist categories, but find my overall career path solidly identifies me as a generalist. Here is a random list of careers I have had: Television Producer and Host Actor, Singer, Dancer Administrative Assistant Property Manager Certified Financial Planner (CFP) Outdoor Education Field Guide Writer — Travel and Personal Finance Delve deep enough into any one of these careers, and I can match it with a certain degree of education that I attained for it (usually in conjunction with working in the field), and a degree of specialty within each career (i.e. the types of properties I managed, tv shows I worked on, the type of writing I do, etc). But the skills I learned and employed in each career were not autonomous, and instead complemented the requirements of the next career