Monday, January 25, 2010

A Case for Generalists in a Society that Only Values Specialists

In the current age there has been an emphasis on people being highly skilled in one area. While this is important for technological developments in specific areas, there is also a great need for generalists- people with a diverse skill set and education in order to help seamlessly blend together the different elements of study. Take for an example a

creation of a simple piece of furniture- a chair. An engineer may design it to be able to hold the weight of a person, but it may not be beautiful or comfortable. An artist could create something pleasing to the eye, but the chair may crumble once sat upon, and may uncomfortable for the user. An ergonomic specialist may know how a user’s body should be supported, but would have no idea how to create a functional or beautiful chair. A generalist may not make the most perfect chair right off the bat, but could be able to create a stable, beautiful, comfortable chair. And then once they have the base line, can give it to the specialists to refine and perfect the drawing.

In product development there needs to be a synergy of the specialties needed to make an object. It’s a blend of cost, beauty, and functionality. If no one exists with general knowledge of areas there is no one to bridge the gap between the people and their views. The budgeters will want the chair to be as inexpensive as possible without care to anything else. The artist would have no problem using the most expensive of material as long as they consider it beautiful. In a kind of scenario where everyone is specialists there is an analogy of the concept that keeps getting ‘thrown over the wall’. Each person will work on it so it fits their specialty’s specific needs without consideration for anything else. By the end a cohesive product does not exist. The engineer might start with a tabletop with for legs. The artist doesn’t like the bulkiness of the legs to they remove material from the legs, and even decide that 3 legs would look better than four. The cost saver then switches the material from hardwood to a flimsy plastic. In the end the marketing guy has one heck of a job because he has a product to sell that the user doesn’t want because it’s structurally unsound, cheap and ugly.

A generalist acts as a liaison. He or she is the voice of reason, always considering the larger picture. When working on a project it is always important to take a couple of steps back for a view of what is really going on. A great analogy is a group of blind men, each touching a part of the elephant to figure out what it is, but no one has a clue because they haven’t seen the bigger picture, or felt the entire elephant. A generalist might not be able to tell you the detail of how long the elephant’s toe nails are, but at least he’ll be able to tell you that it’s an elephant.

Another strength of generalists is their ability to establish patterns and cross-pollinate ideas from one subject to another. A man was walking in a field, and when he returned home he noticed burrs had attached themselves to his clothing. He was amazed how easily they grasped on, could be pulled off, but then could grasp on again. He analyzed them under a microscope and noticed that the burrs had tiny hooks, and his clothing had loops. The hooks of the burrs were attaching themselves to the loops of his clothing. Had he just specifically been a biologist he may have documented a picture of the burr and be content. But the man took this concept to create a new fastener that did not exist at the time. And because of him we now have Velcro. By cross pollination of ideas instead of having to individually invent something completely new for each area of study, a concept that exists somewhere else can be taken and reapplied to a new subject matter. It’s all about understanding the interconnectedness of the world, and in order for that to happen it’s important that we understand the importance than generalists can provide.