Specialist Versus Generalist In Today’s Businesses: An Evaluation

Close up of human hand drawing business plan with chalkSpecialist Vs Generalist:
Evaluating The Value Each Can Bring To Your Team

Recruiting the right employees is critical to your company’s success. Not only do you want to hire employees who are capable of performing the tasks required of them, but who can also overcome challenges and find creative solutions to various problems they may face. However, when recruiting for a position, you’ll quickly find that there are two types of job candidates: specialists and generalists. There are both advantages and disadvantages to hiring either one. Knowing which will suit your company best will depend on what your needs are and on your understanding of what each type of candidate brings to the table.

Definition Of A Generalist

A generalist is someone who is a jack-of-all-trades. Their skillset tends to be relatively broad. Take, for example, a software engineer. You may be looking to add a software engineer to a team that is currently working on an app that they are building in a specific language, such as Java. A generalist may be able to code in a variety of different programming languages, including not just Java but also JavaScript, C++, and Python.

Strengths

Hiring a generalist can be very beneficial, depending on the needs of the position you’re trying to fill. If the job doesn’t require in-depth expertise of a particular skill, then a generalist can provide you with much more flexibility, which can be a massive advantage to your company. Some specific strengths that a generalist can bring to the table are below:

Ability To Multitask

Because generalists have a more extensive range of competencies, you can put them to work doing a variety of different tasks. Generalists are used to applying a wide range of skills and knowledge to perform various jobs and are adept at multitasking. With this mix of skills, you can provide a generalist with more than one type of work assignment.

Ability To Offer Multiple Services

Generalists are more flexible so it’s easier to find tasks for them to work on. For example, you might hire a generalist to help your team finish a specific project. Once a generalist has completed a project, you may be able to move them to a new team in a different department to help complete another project due to their varied skillset -- even if you will task them with entirely different responsibilities. 

Ability To Adapt In Any Environment

When an employee has extensive experience using a wide range of skills, they’ll have a much easier time hitting the ground running when you hire them. Their knowledge and experience should allow them to adapt to almost any type of work environment, so it won’t be challenging for them to move from one project to another (or from one team to another).

Ability To Find Solutions For A Broad Range Of Issues

Because generalists not only have a wide range of skills but have applied those skills throughout different projects (and in some cases, throughout various industries), they tend to have more experience solving different types of challenges. A generalist is often well equipped to find creative solutions to a broad range of issues.

Ability To Quickly Navigate Uncertainties

Due to a generalist’s experience applying their skills to so many different types of projects throughout multiple industries, they can generally remain calm and collected when faced with uncertainty. Such a presence can help keep a team calm under pressure, which is essential for keeping employees motivated and productive.

Possesses Transferable Set Of Skills

Generalists learn skills that transfer across various types of work, including different trades. Such broad experience means that they know how to apply their abilities to whatever project they’re assigned to -- even if they must use their skills in dramatically different ways for each project. Because of this know-how, generalists tend to be very well suited for leadership roles. 

Weaknesses

The main benefit of hiring a generalist is the experience and flexibility that they bring to your company. While this can lead to many advantages, there are a few potential drawbacks that you might need to address should you hire them:

Inability To Recognize Skill Potential

Generalists may be a jack of all trades, but you could also argue that they are a master of none. This lack of expertise makes it difficult to identify where their potential lies if you hire a generalist. If you’re a company that likes to promote from within, trying to do so with a generalist can be tricky when you’re not sure what exactly they’re good at. 

Requires More Time For Training

Even though generalists can adapt to different work environments pretty quickly, they may need more expertise if the responsibilities of the job require them to do more in-depth tasks. While they may have a ton of experience and a wide variety of skills, they likely won’t have in-depth expertise for any of those skills. A lack of skill expertise may mean that you will need to spend more time training them to perform the more detailed tasks required of their job.

Possesses Short-term Skill Set

Without a specialized skill set, generalists may not prove to be useful over the long term. Someone who specializes in a particular skill must stay up-to-date with new practices and techniques to ensure that they remain knowledgeable and relevant. With a generalist, their abilities often become outdated much faster due to their lack of specialization.

Definition Of A Specialist

A specialist is a person who has a particular skill and is incredibly good at it. For example, if you’re looking for a software engineer that can work in Python, then a specialist is someone intimately familiar with the Python language and has extensive experience and success coding in that in that language. If you’re looking to fill a position that requires a specific skill, then a specialist is a person that has mastered that skill.

Strengths

Almost every project that your company has in the pipeline requires a specialist of some sort. While generalists have their advantages, you’ll quickly find that a team full of generalists may not work. Situations will arise where a specialist is needed. Here are some of the advantages of hiring a specialist to keep in mind:

Ability To Provide Expertise In Their Field

A specialist focuses on one particular skill. They may not have a wide variety of skills or knowledge, but the expertise that they will bring to your company will be significant. For example, a generalist software engineer may know the basics of five different programming languages. Although a specialist may only know one, they’ll understand that language inside and out. They will be much better equipped to perform challenging tasks using their specific skill set.

Ability To Resolve High-level Issues

Although generalists are good at finding basic solutions, they typically can’t solve high-level issues. A specialist will be able to solve specific issues due to their level of expertise. Their ability to resolve-high level issues is why every team should have at least one specialist onboard.

Ability To Streamline Their Work Processes

A specialist not only has an incredible level of expertise, but they will also have vast experience using their one core competency. Such knowledge and experience will lead to more efficient work since they will make fewer errors and have fewer difficulties overcoming obstacles when it comes to their job.

Weaknesses

If you lack an employee that can perform a specific, high-level task, then begin looking for a specialist. However, before you decide that a specialist is what you need, here are a few of the drawbacks of hiring a specialist:

Increases Risks Of A Workforce Outsider

A specialist is hired to focus on a specific task. Although specialists might be able to help coworkers if they are working on the same job or if their task is similar, they can’t be consulted for anything else. The inability of a specialist to provide general assistance or advice unless they are directly related to their specialty can frustrate coworkers, especially if those coworkers are working on the same project as the specialist. Coworkers may view a specialist as someone who is very limited and unable to bring much more to the team, turning the specialist into a workforce pariah. As you might imagine, this is not ideal for morale.

Possesses Limited Abilities

A specialist is hyper-focused on their specific area of expertise. If you’ve hired them specifically to help on a project, then finding more work for them to do once the project is finished can be very challenging -- especially if you don’t have any other projects that require their particular skill.

Inability To Multitask

A specialist will likely only do what you hired them to do. If another team needs help on a project, you can’t just move a specialist to that team and expect them to contribute. Even if the task is somewhat simple, if it doesn’t fall under the specialist’s area of expertise, you can’t expect them to perform the job.

Difficulty To Conform To Change

The inability to use a specialist for any other tasks other than those related to their specific area of expertise makes it difficult for them to conform to change. Companies who hire a lot of specialists often end up having to reduce their hours or to let them go if cutbacks are required or if their skills are no longer needed. Generalists can be transferred to another department or team since they have other skills that may be valuable to your company.

Promote Innovation

Specialists and generalists both have their share of benefits and drawbacks. If you’re looking to hire new employees, first decide which type of employee will best suit the position you’re trying to fill. Choosing between the two is heavily dependent on the requirements of the job. However, keep in mind that it's essential to have a mix of specialists and generalists. Having the right balance of specialists and generalists helps ensure that you can take advantage of the benefits of both while limiting the particular drawbacks of either. 

There are candidates out there who have the qualities of both a specialist and a generalist. Such a candidate may have a wide range of basic abilities along with more in-depth expertise for one or two skills. Identifying such a candidate is preferable since they will offer the flexibility of a generalist along with the expertise of a specialist.

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