This is the first in a three part guest post series. In this post, we will take a closer look at the Human Resource theory behind the Specialist vs Generalist debate.
Human Resource (HR) theory has evolved significantly over the last three decades. Leading business researcher Josh Berson outlines the evolution of HR, going back 30+ years. Up through the 1980’s, the personnel department of an organization was responsible for hiring new employees and ensuring that compensation occurred. In the 1990’s, companies used HR departments to develop more competitive recruiting, workforce training, and workforce strategic development. Another transition occurred in the 2000’s, into what today is called Talent Management.
Talent Management is an “organization’s commitment to recruit, retain, and develop the most talented and superior employees available in the job market.” This is a divergence from traditional personnel department and HR strategies where significant focus was on the hiring of new employees, but development and management once they were in the organization was lacking. Leading experts on this subject point out that “industry’s greatest challenge by far is to rectify the under-development, under-utilization and ineffective management and use of its most valuable resources- its young managerial and professional talent.”
In the case of a Cryptologic Warfare Officer, part of this Talent Management challenge is defining and developing the skills required from the Officers themselves. Specifically, whether the Cryptologic Warfare Officer community wants their Officers to be specialists or generalists. Specialists are focused on a specific domain that is narrower in scope, and they have deep technical skills in a particular area. Generalists are focused across multiple domains, with a broader scope and working-level knowledge and competency in multiple areas.
Many organizations struggle to determine which type of employee (generalist or specialist) is best for optimizing an organization. Whereas traditionally it was encouraged to demonstrate specialty on a job application due to the cost involved in training specific specialties, many organizations now follow a cost-saving trend of hiring multi-tasking employees, which tends to more generalist tendencies. Some generalist vs specialist bias appears to buck conventional wisdom.
Google is a technologically advanced company. Their products involve significant coding and technical work, so one would naturally opine that they are a company of specialists. In fact the opposite is true. In a Harvard Business Review interview, Google’s CEO stated they are actually looking for “generalists as opposed to specialists.” His reasoning is that a dynamic industry, like Google, requires a more generalist mindset due to conditions always changing. He also notes that specialists bring more of a bias when solving problems and are more rigid in their thinking of solutions.
One survey suggests that specialists are becoming more generalist in nature, despite the fact that they were hired specifically for their specialty skills. This convergence of the generalist and specialist is creating a new, morphed type of employee, called the generalizing-specialist, the specializing-generalist, or the versatilist. As the names indicate, a generalizing-specialist is a specialist who develops generalist tendencies while maintaining their specialty, where a specializing-generalist is a generalist who develops a specialization. Versatilists are defined as applying their depth of skill to a widening scope of situations, constantly building new skills, competencies, relationships, and assuming new roles.
As seen below, a generalist can be represented by a horizontal line spread across a broad number of topics without depth, and a specialist is conversely represented by a vertical line showing depth in a single area, but lacking breadth of general knowledge. This new converged worker is then represented by a T shape in the image below.
Figure 1: The T-Shaped Employee
This idea of a T shaped employee is not new. David Guest is credited as first coining this idea back in 1991. He wrote that “this type of rounded personality is also sought in other branches of the same theory, which prizes individuals known as T-shaped People.” Others have expounded on this idea with variations such as “Hybrids” and “Versatilist.” These “Generalizing Specialists” or “Master Generalists” are able to maintain a depth of expertise in a specific field while developing breadth of general knowledge to collaborate across other disciplines, or as Wu, Zou, and Kong put it, “broadly learning and weaving across disciplines (top of the T) and going deeply into understanding engineering concepts (vertical branch of the T).”
Irving and Grasso emphasized the importance of these employees to the engineering disciplines, looking for “cathedral builders” vice mere “brick layers”, problem definers vice mere problem solvers, with a depth of their field as well as a basic understanding of adjacent and connecting fields, to address the novel and complex problems they will encounter. And according to Bill Buxton, when you have a team of these T-shaped individuals working together, their cross bars (horizontal) overlap due to their common language and breadth, while their combined pillars (vertical) span numerous areas of expertise, covering the domain of any problem you are addressing.
As we have already seen, the Cryptologic Community Foundational Principles call for Cryptologic Warfare Officers to develop “deep, specialized expertise across our core skills” and VADM Tighe has emphasized her stance that these core competencies remain resident in one community. But what is the true level of expertise desired? The statement itself, “expertise across our core skills” is challenging, simultaneously indicating a depth and breadth of expertise. Without further amplification and explanation of expectations, these principles actually lead to confusion among Cryptologic Warfare Officers.
In the next post, we will explore this further, looking specifically at some quantitative results provided by the Cryptologic Warfare Community.
LCDR Brian Schulz is a Cryptologic Warfare Officer, currently serving as the Navy’s Federal Executive Fellow at Duke University. He will be taking over as the Cryptologic Warfare Junior Officer Detailer in July.
1 Bersin, Josh. “Talent Management Changes HR.” June 1, 2007. http://joshbersin.com/2007/06/talent-management-changes- hr/ (accessed March 29. 2016).
2 Heathfield, Susan. “What is Talent Management- Really?” December 16, 2014.
http://humanresources.about.com/od/successionplanning/g/talent-management.htm (accessed March 29, 2016).
3 Michaels, Ed, and Handfield-Jones, Helen, and Axelrod, Beth. “The War for Talent.” Harvard Business Press. 2001. Pg 95.
4 HR in Asia Team. “Talent Archetypes: Specialists, Generalists and Versatilists.” HR in Asia. April 24, 2014. http://www.hrinasia.com/recruitment/talent-archetypes- specialists-generalists- and-versatilists/ (accessed March29, 2016).
5 Crane, Helen. “Specialists or generalists: what do employers really want?” The Guardian. November 5, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/specialist- generalist-what- do-employers- want (accessed March 29, 2016).
6 Schmidt, Eric. “How Google Manages Talent.” Harvard Business Review Podcast. September 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/09/how-google- manages-talent/ (accessed March 29, 2016).
8 Editor HR Review. “UK workers specialist skills are under threat.” HR Review. October 28, 2013. http://www.hrreview.co.uk/hr-news/strategy- news/uk-workers- specialist-skills- are-under- threat/49215 (accessed March 29, 2016).
9 HR in Asia Team. “Talent Archetypes: Specialists, Generalists and Versatilists.” HR in Asia. April 24, 2014. http://www.hrinasia.com/recruitment/talent-archetypes- specialists-generalists- and-versatilists/ (accessed March 29, 2016).
10 Apprentice Academy. “T-Shaped: How To Be An Adaptable, Collaborative & Valuable Employee.” January 20, 2014. http://theapprenticeacademy.co.uk/blog/t-shaped- how-to- be-an- adaptable-collaborative- valuable-employee/ (March 29, 2016).
11 Guest, David. “The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing.” The Independent. London. September 1991.
12 Palmer, Colin. “Hybrids— a critical force in the application of information technology in the nineties.” Journal of Information Technology, 1990. Pg 232-235.
13 Morello, Dianne. “Versatilitst: Gartner says Technical Aptitude No Longer Enough To Secure Future for IT Professionals.” 2005. http://www.gartner.com/press_releases/asset_139314_11.html. (accessed March 29, 2016).
14 Mann, Andi. “Specialists vs. Generalists.” August 25, 2014. http://devops.com/2014/08/25/specialists-vs-generalists-enterprise- devops/#!prettyPhoto (accessed March 29, 2016).
15 Wu,Jingshan, and Zou, Xiaodong, and Kong, Hanbing. “Cultivating T Shaped Engineers for the 21st Century.” American Society for Engineering Education. 2012.
16 Irving, Carl. “Well-educated Bricklayers? Two new colleges hope to produce broadly trained engineers.” National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education- Cross Talk. 1998.
17 Grasso, Domenico, and Burkins Melody. “Holistic engineering education: Beyond technology.” New York. Springer. 2010.
18 Wu,Jingshan, and Zou, Xiaodong, and Kong, Hanbing. “Cultivating T Shaped Engineers for the 21st Century.” American Society for Engineering Education. 2012.
19 Buxton, Bill. “Innovation Calls For I-Shaped People.” Business Week- Bloomberg Business. July 13, 2009.
20 Rogers, Michael and other Navy Information Warfare Officer Community Leaders. “Cryptologic Community Foundational Principles.” 2011. Pg 3.
21 Ibid. Pg 3.