The Corporate Cycle – from Specialists to Generalists, and back again

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This is a guest post by Mansoor Adenwala. Mansoor is a blogger, corporate trainer, process advisor, and generally a solution-finder in the world of ICT. He currently works for Business Beam Pvt. Ltd in the capacity of Managing Advisor and is based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The corporate world is a funny place. Everyone is in a constant battle to make more money, get more clients and more prestige. Each thinks up of new and innovative ideas to spur growth, ‘out of the box thinking’ they call it, all to get that one big client or that one big dividend, yet each one of them ends up following the same basic strategies just packaged up in new words and phrases. One of these basic strategies which I will discuss here, relates to both human resources and organizational change. I call it the ‘specialists vs generalists cycle’. Lets dissect these two strategies and learn what we can about them. (Feel free to disagree with my point of view, afterall that is the true power of discussion)

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume you are a CEO of an organization which is involved in many different verticals. Areas of business which just kept crept into your day to day workings because you needed the jobs done and done well. You’ve got people who are doing everything under the sun, whether it be marketing or quality assurance, because there was a need to do it in the first place. A problem emerges! These people, while performing adequately and getting the job done, are still performing adequately! They’re not proficient in any one area and therefore they’re cutting into each other’s productivity by re-doing work. A marketing person, spending time doing QA will not be able to give a 100% to marketing, and vice versa. (Also, let’s assume that outsourcing is not an option for now).

Read on for more…

Now that you have a large business, how do you ensure each department or division does what it is supposed to do? How do you know that your profit figures are actually profits from all streams and not just because one vertical is covering the inefficiency of others? You hire specialists! People who know one thing, and they know it well. They will have certifications and degrees or even whole career paths dedicated to that one area, whether it be marketing or accounts or technical support or development. It is common business knowledge (which is not too common mind you) that having the best people around you means soaring profits. And so you make it happen, a grand restructuring!

Fast forward a couple of years later, things are going well, departments are performing and the money in the bank keeps increasing. The specialists keep doing what they do best while you have people covering other activities. However, you notice that your costs of doing business are soaring as well. Profits could be higher if you could ‘tear away the fact’ so to speak. So why is this happening? Well, in simple monetary terms, it’s because specialists cost money! Way more money than their counterparts ‘the generalist’. Why pay hundreds of thousands for a group of people who only perform one task when you could pay hundreds of… well… hundreds… to people who could ‘share’ the responsibility, arrange themselves into ‘cross functional teams’ and create ‘synergy’ between departments! It’s a brilliant idea! One that could save the company millions and still deliver quality services/products. Another restructuring takes place, this time people with multiple skills are brought in, silo’s are broken down and cross functional is proclaimed the way to go.

Until, a couple of years later, communication overheads, rework, missed opportunities because people were busy doing things other than their ‘core competencies’ and not having enough ‘qualified’ people to do the work lead you to believe, people are performing just adequately. They could be better… if only they had clear outlines on what they had to do, clear job descriptions and an area of specialization…

And the cycle repeats itself. Corporate memory is sadly, very short.

Being an advisor for the last three years, I’ve actually seen this cycle happen more often than not. Each new client is at one stage of development and wants to proceed to the other. Some want to break down the silo’s while others want to build up specialized teams. So what’s the answer you ask? What is that one magic restructuring that will take away all your problems?

It’s simple, there isn’t any. Both approaches are right in their own way and in their own time. The point here to remember is, the only thing constant in the world, is change! Whether it be from centralized to decentralized, specialist silos to generalist, these changes are what enable organizations to grow and become effective, efficient and profitable industries. Don’t believe me? Think of the relics of our own local industry which almost died down because they would not change (SSGC, KESC, PTCL and Habib Bank), and the fascinating growth and corporate identity they spurred once they were brought out of it by new management.

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  • Excellent post.

  • hmm..interesinting.
    but i get the feel of a generalist in a bit -ve as in layman like way…

    id assume ur trying to say specialists need crossfunctional team skills too.

    without specialists, u cant work in a knowledge based business…and without crossfunctional teams, u cannot harmonize the enterprise and flatten the heirarchy.

  • cassim: thanks!

    atif: not really, neither of them are negative in any sense. each is needed as times demand in order to ensure organizations keep changing for the better and keep up with the times.

    you said without specialists you cannot work in a knowledge based business, however, i ask you this.. once a specialist gets too many specialized skills, dont they again become just generalists? albeit better ones. (this is one model we follow in our organization)

  • @mansoor
    hmm..interesting point.
    conceptually it seems so, and i think u have empirical evidence to suggest that too since u have employed it at your org.

    where i work, we have teams of 5-6 and each person is a specialist who usually doesnot have to add more specialties but increase the depth of the one he/she already has, so there arent many chances of becoming generalist again.
    but then again, i guess what works for one setup doesnot for the other.

  • AA

    I think its really in the interest of a business concern to have more generalists than specialists especially if the generalists are as smart and capable as the specialists to make sure that the job gets done however complex and challenging it is.

    Clever management avoid hiring more specialists because when a specialist walks away from the company, he/she could bring business in the technical/vertical domain down.

    My focus, however, is on the generalist/specialist because I am always on he side of the underdog in a situation.

    My organization works in several verticals and I train the fresh people who join. My advice to them always is the be a generalist in the first few years of their careers to acquire a lot of skills and then later to become specialists. This is because if they want to go for their own start-up, or move to another company or another geographical location, or be of strategic importance to the same company or just be a globally competitive professional, they have to acquire specialized skills. Eventually ethical specialists can be a win-win situation for any firm they are associated with.

    I am totally new to this world of blogging. Good to be here.

  • You should look into Alternative Management Theories preached and practiced by Ricardo Semler of Semco.

    He has suggested that instead of a traditional hierarchical structure, concentric circles be used to define levels in the hierarchy. The specialists fill the area around the circles and generalists (managers) who have a coordination job float between the circles. This way being a manager is not the only way to the top or should I say the core.

    Semler has also proposed that each business unit size not exceed 150 ppl “cause thats the level of conducive interaction humanly possible”

  • atif: thanks for your input. its always good to hear about other viewpoints and how different organizations take the same problems.

    meher: welcome to the world of blogging and especially to Green and White. thankyou for your input.

    zenubia: a similar system is also advocated by the Microsoft Solutions Framework, and does have the potential to work wonders if properly implemented. I like the cap on the size of the business unit, since im also of the opinion that too many people only serve to ‘spoil the broth’ so to speak. thank you for visiting GnW.

  • nice post :)!

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