Which is better: Exceptional specialist or effective generalist?

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By Goke Ilesanmi

Some days ago, I thought extensively about the current nosedive of our macro-economic fortunes occasioned by the crash in the prices of oil at the international market. When I remembered that our over-reliance on one source of revenue (that is, oil) like a specialist accounts for the current economic turbulence, the thought of whether or not it is better to be a career or business specialist flashed through my mind. Let me ask you this question, is it better to be an exceptional specialist or an effective generalist?

It is a truism that competence is very critical in whatever we do to be able to establish the necessary credibility and become a brand. In short, it is the general belief that competence can easily come from “Specialism” (the right British English word called “Specialization” in American English). It is therefore not surprising that we are always quick to justify this belief by using the popular noun phrase “Jack-of-all-trades” to condemn anybody that refuses to subscribe to the concept of specialism. It is indeed good to be a specialist. Specialism in this context refers to the practice of limiting your interests or activities to particular subjects. That is, to specialise is to limit your study, business, etc., to a particular subject or activity. It is noteworthy that most economic experts have argued that the industrial revolution period was the time when the world made the largest productivity gains. The major reason for increase in productivity, they claim, was the increase in specialism during the production process.

Medical specialism
Though there are different types of specialism, I would like us to examine medical specialism a little here for analytical clarity. FA Frizelle, SW Beasley, JA Roake and PH Sykes in their joint research say medical specialism, for instance, has evolved with the sole aim of providing better health care. They add that medical specialism underscores recognition of the depth of knowledge, experience and skills required to treat patients with complex or rare diseases. They educate that other factors that encourage medical specialism are increase in inter-hospital referrals of complex cases and changes in the way general surgeons are to be trained. They say specialism in surgery has however been criticised by some experts on the grounds that it is merely a marketing gimmick for commercial surgeons. They add that criticism against specialism in surgery therefore needs to be balanced against the evidence that it (specialism) leads to better patient care.

The need to have multiple streams of income is often emphasised as one of the ways to achieve financial sufficiency and improve our living standards. This necessity readily challenges us to be a generalist capable of generating money through different sources or skills. A generalist refers to someone who knows about many different things and can do them well. Even though it is good to be a specialist, it is better to be a competent generalist because of many advantages derivable. However, the strong belief in the concept of specialism makes some people to even have all their academic qualifications in the same field. This idea is not strategic enough in this 21st century of globalisation and competition. After all, there is the maxim that it is bad to put all our eggs in one basket.
Therefore, some intellectual diversification is better in the form of having your first degree in Accounting, for instance, second degree in Business Administration and third one in Banking to boost your intellectual versatility and/or elasticity of job opportunities. In 2004, I was shocked to step into one of the branches of the defunct Gateway Bank only to find a friend who has his first degree in Electrical Engineering as the branch manager. Upon interaction, I discovered that he also had (and has) a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree which he used to make a career change to Banking when he was tired of Engineering. It is interesting that the man that services my generator is an exceptional generalist who also services my computers, television sets and other electronic gadgets. In short, all his clients will tell you that he is more competent than even specialists in all his areas of operations.

Language and specialism mentality
Also, the strong desire of most Nigerian parents for specialism has even made them to restrict the language acquisition of their children to English alone, all in the name of compelling them (the children) to attain proficiency in it. Such linguistic restriction is due to ignorance because, God has blessed children with Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that makes them naturally ACQUIRE languages upon exposure to those languages. But adults LEARN second languages (that are not their mother tongue).
So if we speak twenty languages to a child at the same time, he or she will speak all of them fluently. Note that the LAD is active in a child till the age of eight or nine. If your child cannot speak the mother tongue, it will be difficult for him or her to attain maturity in English because he or she will not be able to think first in the mother language before transferring knowledge to English for a complementary process.

Personal transformation
In a related development, when I came back to journalism from where I was lecturing at the polytechnic in those days, I was so addicted to specialism that I was writing just one column (on Language use). Later, my managing editor told me to add a book review column to it and review business books. But I was reluctant initially because I did not want to “dilute” or “pollute” my specialism. Eventually, I started combining the two columns and soon, more commendations started rolling in torrents for me from readers.
As a result of reviewing books in different areas of business and personal development, companies and individuals started consulting me in different areas of knowledge as an expert. In fact, before long, the Economics Department of the University of Lagos invited me as the Keynote Speaker for Economics Week. Eight days later, the Accounting Department also invited me as Keynote Speaker for the Accounting Week.
It is noteworthy that stories abound, for instance, about mechanics that had been specialists of just a particular brand of vehicles and suddenly found themselves jobless when such a brand got out of circulation. Just imagine the threat to the jobs of those who are post-office specialists now with the advent of the International Network (Internet)!

Entrepreneurship and distinction
Entrepreneurs have also been classified as generalists and specialists. Generalist entrepreneurs are strategic thinkers. They are big-picture-oriented, prefer environments where they can use their results-driven nature, enjoy autonomy and independence, and are stronger risk-takers. This is the source of their need to win and their belief that they are always right. They are therefore self-confident.
However, specialist entrepreneurs are tactically oriented, prefer operating within their areas of expertise, are more detail-oriented, and prefer environments that provide both security and stability. Specialists are typically more risk-averse, unless they are working within their areas of expertise. Therefore, doing things by the book by following rules, policies and procedures is more important to them.

Final note
Even though it is good to be a specialist, it is risky to limit yourself to one thing. So it is better to exploit all your potential and diversify your undertakings for more opportunities.
PS: For those making inquiries about our Public Speaking, Business Presentation and Professional Writing Skills programme, please visit the website indicated here for details.
GOKE ILESANMI, Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is an International Platinum Columnist, Professional Public Speaker/MC, Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker and Career Management Coach. He is also a Book Reviewer, Biographer and Editorial Consultant.
Tel: 08055068773; 08187499425
Email: gokeiles2010@gmail.com
Website: www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng

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