Developing Generalists

December 31, 2013 by Wally Bock

The Industrial Age belonged to the specialists. As SAP’s Reuven Gorsht points out in “New Problems, New Approaches: The Rise of the Generalist,” division of labor and specialization were the way to improved performance. That was then.

In the Knowledge Age, things are different. Organizations are flatter. Organizational silos are dysfunctional. And the increasing speed of change demands greater agility and on-the-fly problem solving. It should be the age of the generalist but they’re hard to find. Up till now we haven’t valued generalists very highly. Here’s Gorsht:

“We’ve been trained to perceive Generalists as ‘jacks of all trades – masters of none,’ in other words, driving little to no value in the business. The new breed of ‘Generalist’ that our organizations desperately need defies and deeply challenges these perceptions.”

Yes, but where do you get that “new breed?” The talent development challenge is to identify the people in your organization who can be effective generalists and then help them develop their “dot connecting” skills.

This will be easier if people in your organization can contact people who work anywhere in the organization without permission. Then simple analysis tools can help you identify the people others go to for help, even though they may not have any “official” status.

This will be easier if your organization uses lots of cross-functional teams. Generalists are the people who make those teams more effective. Your people know who they are.

Developing generalists means thinking of developmental assignments as the ones that introduce the generalists to new people and areas of expertise. It also means using development planning time to look for ways for the generalist to widen their perspective even more and develop communications and other skills that will make them more effective.

If the Knowledge Age is also the Age of the Generalist, your talent development challenge is identifying more generalists and making them more effective.

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

Posted in Leadership Development

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