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Specialist Vs Generalist

November 21, 2012

Hi everyone this is an old post from an internal networking site, it got a good response so I am keen to put it out to the wider world and get some thoughts.

I was having a look through the news on LinkedIn today and a fascinating article came to light. The discussion of Specialist VS Generalist is one the rages on through all industries but none more than Consulting. On the one side deep knowledge allows us (consultants) to add great value to clients, after all how we can we expect them to pay us if we know less about their industry than we do, are we not meant to be the experts?? Conversely being so eager to understand the minutia often results missing that ever present “bigger picture”.

A really interesting point raised in the article for me is that generalists are considered to be better at navigating uncertainty, in my view that’s absolutely key to providing guidance to client, in my view the very essence of being a consultant, in fact my company seems to agree in terms of my core competencies one of which is of dealing with ambiguity.

Either way it would be great to some views on this, where do you stand Generalist or SME? It’s a tough call……

Here is the long hand for those who missed it,   click here


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  1. Thomas Thorp permalink

    I think i would class myself as a specialist/SME rather than as the age old saying goes Jack of all trades master of none. Which is why i think teams should be built with a range of people. The sme like to get really deep and into what they are working with but need the Generalists to keep them in line make sure they don’t get tied down in a small tiny bit of the work.

  2. Ant permalink

    Broadly speaking, I think the need to specialise is growing for young consultants. I come from a resourcing background and I am seeing longer and longer lead time for projects to initiate in our larger clients, consequently firms in the bidding process are able to line up subject matter experts with relevant experience long in advance of the project kick-off. The generalist/sector agnostic CVs that we used to put in front of clients do not carry the same weight any more. For standard positions like business analysts, consultants and project managers, client/sector experience is key to a successful bid.

    The fact that the mega-deals of days gone by are being split into small, discrete pieces of specialist work (an SAP implementation here, an organisational redesign there) mean that we are under more pressure – from clients and competing firms – to consistently deliver quality and relevance in terms of both sector and discipline. So a piece of Programme Management consultancy in the public sector will want Programme Managers, Project Managers, Analysts and PMOs with public sector experience.

    Despite this, it isn’t all doom and gloom for a ‘Generalist’, we are seeing more and more opportunities arise in small and medium sized clients. This poses a counter-argument to specialising as it is often more a case of looking for breadth of business experience in terms of how to best add-value to a client. If you can add, say, the discipline and rigour instilled in a consultant used to the culture of banking to, say, a small insurance broker, you’re likely to hit more of a note with the client.

    So my advice to young consultants would be to learn your trade and specialise in a sector – you might get brought in to an engagement in a smaller client that is completely away from your market expertise, but having that foundational experience will prove invaluable in helping people like me staff up a project!

  3. Phil permalink

    Surely the best consultant is one that can be both a generalist and a specialist depending on his audience….

  4. Young consultants permalink

    An interesting thought is do you need to be generalist to lead a team of disparate specialists as Thomas touches on? I don’t think its a requirement but it helps, even in the most technical fields leaders tender to be less specialist simply as a result of having exposure to wider variety of tasks and challenges. So whilst opening doors and being useful when younger ,as ANT points out, Does staying as a specialist put a ceiling on your careerer? I wonder if Bill Gates was still putting out code for new projects until he stepped down?

    Personally I would say I am generalist with a degree of focus. So basically not answering the question although I think we can all agree that its having an effective mixture of both that is the key.

  5. Anon permalink

    Great, related, and relevant to the question of career implications, article on LinkedIn suggests that whilst acquiring a broad, general, set of skills and experiences is important, so is the ability to paint yourself in a certain niche – focusing on your highest point of contribution; making clear what you want to be famous for.

    I’m inclined to agree.

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