Friday, February 04, 2005

Is a Generalist better than a Specialist?

Viewpoint of an Entrepreneur: A Business Intelligence Software Blog: Is a Generalist better than a Specialist?

Read what Nari Kannan has to say about this topic. He has his fair share of arguments. But here's my take...

A coincidence - The other day, one of my friends and I were discussing if being a generalist is better than being a specialist but we reached no conclusion as such. I love being a generalist, I love knowing everything there is to know, I love understanding all perspectives. That is not only very enjoyable but also professionally satisfying to me as an individual.

But here's the catch. You can’t build great houses in the morning and write software in the evening with equal panache. Or for that matter, debatably, you can’t be a great HR manager one day and a fantastic Business Manager on another. At least, most of us can’t and maybe shouldn’t. You can't be a master of all trades. You can only superfluously know what there is to know. All said and done, you have to specialize in something or the other. You need a professional identity. Don't you? You need a core competency. You need to be excellent in something. Yes, in the process, you might make yourself indispensable to the organization, but then, is there a way out for the organization?

Here is where I come to job rotation. I think job rotation is a double-edged sword. You need to move into different roles so you take your ideas with you and add to the creativity in your new environment. But the fact that you take your ideas with you when you leave, means there is a void in the place you've just left. And I see this very callous attitude in people because they know they can leave in a few years and move to another role! They are not serious about their jobs because they know they have an escape route. They leave things unfinished, don't do a proper knowledge transfer and couldn't care less about their old role/department. At the end of it, the organization bears the brunt. It has people moving all over the place who after having just introduced an idea or two think they are done and are free to scoot. They stay in a role for about 2 years, out of which 6 months is anyways spent on two things - settling down and moving out. People who enter a new role end up reinventing the wheel more often than not. And what's more, they even undo what their predecessors did (the politicians!)! That's a major drawback for the organization! I wonder if the top management knows this and accepts it as a necessary evil. Methinks, if innovation is the only reason why people are asked to move around, we should get that done through enthusiastic and no nonsense cross-functional groups!
I do agree that a person cannot be allowed to stagnate and rot forever in the same role/department as that is not good for the individual too. But the fact that there is a core competency/passion/spark associated with each employee needs to be considered and addressed. It needs to be dealt with on a case by case basis - based on the individual's character, aspirations, competencies etc. The HR needs to champion this cause. Is there something to do with this in PCMM? I do know that there is a KPA on Competency Management. I do believe that this KPA is about specialization rather than generalization! What?

So, what do I want anyways? - I love to see the big picture, I love to know everything there is to know about an organization, but I do want to continue to stay in KM and be a KM ‘master’, because KM is my passion! Though, I have learned something from Nari's post. It wouldn't harm me to take up something closely linked to KM (HR?, Training ?, Process Improvements,?) for a while. That will be an enriching experience, teach me more, help me contribute my bit as an ‘outsider’ with unbiased views, and improve my confidence. And honestly, I've been thinking about this for a while - it might also help me let go of my passion for a while – help me prevent converting my passion into an obsession ;)

PS: Lot of 'I's in this post. Eh? These thoughts just flowed; I might have wanted to make it more generic and not talk just about my own career, but it's okay. I am not going to review this for now. :) Let it be as raw as it is for now. If you can relate to it, you can map it to your own career and situation.


Nari said...

Hello Nirmala,

Just happened to come across your posting. Good counter arguments!

I was not advocating people not having a core competency but just spending enough time in other areas so that you have enough empathy and pragmatism when it comes to your own contributions!

I was a Management Trainee at DCM in 1980 in Delhi. They sent me to four of their units in and around Delhi to spend a week in each department understanding in some level what each department did and how they fit in with the big picture. In all the world, that is still the best knowledge I have gained, no comparison! I could see what the Costing Department did in a spinning mill and how that fit in with the overall business. You get a good view of what the business is all about.

MCI in the early eighties used to have a mandatory training class for a week for EVERY employee. They taught you what a telephone switch is and how long distance communication worked. Every employee in this company came out with a strong understanding of what their business is, no matter where they were, Accounting or Sales or Facilities Management!

Job rotation within functions is just as valuable! All within reason, of course! It helps especially those that have a burning passion for TWO areas instead of one. You could be a technical person but if you were always interested in Marketing and Advertising, who's to say that you could not try it!

Good Postings!


Nimmy said...

Thank you so much for your comments, Nari! I love reading your Blog and I think the topics you choose as well the ideas you have are cool! I esp. love the way you end all your posts with a quote! I hope to learn continuously from your Blog! Keep it on!