ave you always been drawn to a single passion in your career, or have you found yourself spoilt for choice for all the things you’d love to pursue?
Have you developed deep expertise in a single field, or have you spread your knowledge across many areas?
In other words, are you a specialist, or a generalist?
These terms have been around for a number of years to roughly describe two kinds of people. Both have their advantages and disadvantages for teams in organisations.
So, what are specialists and generalists? Is one better than the other? Or is there another pathway? We caught up with business mentor and expert in business culture and transformation, Lisa Carlin, to hear her wisdom.
What are specialists?
Specialists are those who easily gravitate to deep-diving into a single area of knowledge. Their passion for their topic leads them to develop a huge depth of expertise in that area.
This depth of knowledge is the advantage of specialists. They can spend years honing a single craft to incredible proficiency.
However, there are downsides to this expertise.
“Specialists can end up in silos,” Carlin shares. “Because they are so focused, they aren’t always able to talk the language of other team members and disciplines.”
Interdisciplinary communication is critical for teams and projects to run smoothly and effectively. Without it, breakdowns and misunderstandings can easily occur.
Furthermore, specialists may struggle to see the perspective of others, or struggle to appreciate the value of other approaches. This can lead to conflict and tension between specialists.
What are generalists?
Generalists are people who find it difficult to settle on just one area. Instead, they’re fascinated by many topics and ideas, often leading them to develop a huge breadth of knowledge across a field... or two, or three!
Because they enjoy exploring many different disciplines, generalists can be quick to understand and work around the needs and perspectives of others. As such, they can be highly effective in roles that involve managing an array of specialists.
They can also excel in small businesses and startups where they can perform a wide array of tasks quickly and easily.
However, a team full of generalists can struggle to take a business to the next level of performance, as they lack the depth of expertise needed.
Generalists also typically lose interest in any one topic if they spend too much time on it. As a result, they can easily become bored or frustrated if they are pushed into a specialised role or repetitive tasks.
What’s better: specialists or generalists?
Neither, of course! Both specialised and generalised knowledge are enormously valuable to businesses.
As awareness of the two types of people arose in the business community, many have advocated for a mix of generalists and specialists on teams to balance the advantages and disadvantages of each.
However, juggling the needs of both can feel like a monumental task for business leaders, and simply placing a mix of generalists and specialists on one team rarely results in perfect harmony.
Consequently, a new approach has risen up in the past few years - that of the “T-shaped” or as Lisa describes it, a “#fullstackprofessional”.
What is a T-shaped or #fullstackprofessional?
A T-shaped professional has both a wide breadth of knowledge in a field, and depth of knowledge in a single topic within that field.
Visualising this has led to the other name, the “T-shaped professional”. The horizontal stroke of the T represents breadth of knowledge, while the vertical stroke represents depth in one area within that breadth.
The phrasing “full stack professional” evokes a similar picture. In the world of tech development, a full stack developer has skills in both frontend and backend development, with a specialty in one or the other.
A full stack professional has a number of advantages over specialists or generalists.
“A full stack professional can jump into a number of different situations really easily,” Carlin explains. “By avoiding narrow job descriptions and hiring full stack professionals, you can pull together and redeploy project teams very quickly. This is essential, as businesses will need much more agility in the future way of work.”
They are also hugely beneficial for small businesses. “You can do so much more with fewer people,” says Carlin, “and you can reskill full stack employees much more quickly. So many of the skills that will be required in the future don’t exist today.”
How to create a team of T-shaped professionals
Filling a team or company with t-shaped professionals fortunately doesn’t require hiring brand new people.
The most important thing is to ensure you have a team with the right mindset. “Attitude is even more important than skillset,” Carlin says. “You need people who are open to learning, can work with others, can roll up their sleeves and get involved.”
The first step is to do a quick audit of your workers. Who are your generalists, and who are your specialists? Each requires a different approach.
For generalists, you will evidently want to work on building a depth of knowledge in a particular area.
This will need a one-on-one approach with your team members.
- Determine what capabilities are needed to implement your business strategy
- Develop a skills framework, focusing on the key capabilities and skills needed for success in your business.
- Schedule a discussion to discover what areas each person may be interested in learning more about that are in sync with your skills framework.
- Develop individualised learning plans with each team member to develop their expertise in their chosen area. This may include activities such as reading books, attending conferences or enrolling in a course, and may require a dedicated budget.
- Schedule regular check-ins to ensure that the learning plans are on-track.
However, chances are you have more specialists than generalists in your company.
“When people are hired, most people tend to talk about their specialist area, and they’re hired for that more than their generalist area,” Carlin admits. “So as they progress in their career, the more related skills they can grab, the better.”
Building generalised knowledge across your teams requires a different approach to building specialised knowledge.
If you have a range of specialists in your company, then you already have the knowledge you need to build breadth in your teams. The trick is sharing it!
How to share expertise between your employees
A typical way that some teams choose to share their knowledge between members is with lunch-and-learn sessions or presentations. However, these methods have struggled to gain popularity for several reasons:
- Presentations require a large amount of preparation that is often not rewarded.
- They are often delivered on employees time, (e.g. lunch) instead of company time.
- Anyone who misses the session has no way to make it up, unless it is repeated.
- They typically require employees to be on-site to attend.
As a result, forward-thinking businesses have begun shifting towards a digital learning approach. With digital learning software such as HowToo, specialists can quickly create high-quality mini-courses teaching others about their field using course templates.
This approach has a number of benefits including:
- Courses are quicker to develop than presentations
- Employees can easily be rewarded for developing courses.
- Employees can complete courses on-demand, anytime, anywhere.
- Courses are 3 times quicker to complete than attending a presentation.
- Courses don’t cause Zoom-fatigue or steal lunch breaks.
With the benefit of course templates, specialists can easily slot their knowledge into an outline designed by learning experts to create engaging and memorable learning experiences.
These courses can then be shared with other teams to get insights into other fields, departments and approaches. Employees can then easily build their breadth of knowledge by completing courses on any device, slotting learning times into spare moments during the day, while travelling or even out in the field as needed.
Because these courses are so easy to create, they are also easy to keep updated, creating an incredible valuable wealth of knowledge for your company that can live on well beyond the departure of any team members.
Building T-shaped professionals is incredibly beneficial for businesses
The ability to develop workers into T-shaped professionals will define the success of businesses in the future. With productivity continuing to slow down globally, companies cannot afford to rely on static teams with communication issues, misunderstandings and misaligned priorities. Instead, companies must focus on building agile teams with T-shaped skill sets.