Specialist or Generalist ? (or Contextualist?)

When dumb old guys retire and we replace them with someone bright and dynamic something strange happens: things go wrong.
Specialist or Generalist

There is an on-going tension between the need for specialization versus the need for generalist knowledge.   Something as specific as the Family Medical and Leave Act is so complicated that you almost need to be an FMLA specialist to understand it.   Yet there is a lot to be said for understanding not just benefits but the whole total rewards equation and beyond that broad issues of how reward fits into organizational effectiveness.

At HR.com we believe HR people should have a good generalist understanding of business-that´s why we publish a Biz Savvy every week.   But reading John Seely Brown (last week´s interview) brings me to a new insight: contextualists.

Dumb Old Guys

You have probably met long-serving supervisors and managers who are nice enough but not particularly bright or dynamic.   They clearly don´t have deep specialist knowledge nor are they strong generalists.   Somehow they seem to get by and usually we´re generous enough not to fire them.

But if we do fire them, or they retire, and we replace them with someone bright and dynamic something strange happens: things go wrong.


John Seely Brown points out that "...we have a very hard time understanding how work actually gets done. We understand the flow of control but not how the work itself gets done."

The "dumb old guys" who have been on the job for years do know how the work actually gets done.   They know the quirks of the machines, the workarounds, the real way as opposed to the documented way -not to mention the personalities and peculiarities of the individuals involved.

These people are contextual experts.   In many case context specific knowledge is more important than specialist or generalist knowledge.

Implications for Organizations

Perhaps the most important knowledge that exists in organizations is not knowledge taught in a school or found in a textbook.   We need to design jobs such that decision makers are "close enough to the action" that they apply contextual knowledge rather than specialist/generalist knowledge to the issue.

We need to design the work environment such that people can learn contextual knowledge.   This means not moving people around too much.   It means giving them a chance to be close to peers ("the long phone cord" in John Seely Brown´s terminology) so that they can learn the specifics of what works in a specific context.

It also means valuing this knowledge and recognizing that the "dumb old guy" may be of more value than the "bright young MBA".

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