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Expert vs. Generalist & The Third Way


A colleague in my linkedin connections  pointed me to an interesting HBR article on the growing importance of the ‘generalist’ vs. the ‘expert’ to business and other organizations. I have experienced first hand the ongoing debate between specialization and generalization since my early introduction to systems thinking. During my graduate studies I was introduced to ‘systemics’ and the challenges of designing social systems. The academic side of the challenge was to avoid the stigma of becoming labeled a dilettante while becoming an‘expert’ in how things were related and connected.

I was warned from the beginning of my studies that there would be no ‘old boy’ network in place for me to fit into because of my systemic or non-specialized background. Even with all the talk about the importance of ‘T’ people in organizations, when it comes time to hire consultants or employees the choices favor domain or content experts. This ingrained distrust of anyone who is a generalist—i.e. not specialized in a field, technology or method works against organizations gaining the necessary competence to deal with a complex, interconnected and unpredictable world.

While working as a professor of architecture I was embroiled at one point in a debate on whether to teach students ‘building types’ or to teach students how to ‘design buildings’. It was a debate between training experts or educating generalists. The debate went on despite the fact that no one could clearly state what they meant by expertise vs. a generalist approach. In other professions the same dual options are opened to those who want to become a narrowly focused expert or a general practitioner. This either-or debate obscures a third option or ‘way’—a tertium quid. An option that is full of potential. This third option can be used to replace all the either-or choices between the expert and the generalist. So what is this third way? Let’s start with the idea of ‘expertise’.

The challenge of dealing with the failing nuclear power plants in Japan after the earthquake-created tsunami, is a prime example of different kinds of expertise in action or that ought to have been brought into action. The predominant kind of experts involved in the situation leading up to the disaster were ‘routine’ experts—professionals whose knowledge is based on the assumption that there are no changes in any context or environment that would render their predetermined solutions ineffective. Routine experts put the conditions in place for a technologic disaster to occur in the first place. However they could not give guidance for how to respond to the disaster once it happened. A common refrain was: “We have never faced this sort of situation before.”

What was needed of course were ‘adaptive’ experts who would be able to make sense of dramatic, even catastrophic, changes by prescribing appropriate, mitigating action—i.e. those who could recognize newly formed relationships and make essential connections in unique situations in the way that generalists typically work—by ‘sweeping in’ relevant disparate domains of knowledge and practice into an inquiry process.

In order to mitigate against future unknown disasters, ‘design’ experts would be needed. Design experts are expert in the third option—the third way. Most importantly for business and governmental organizations, it is essential to not only be successful in reacting to change but to be competent in creating change—desired change—the domain of the design expert. The design expert is not a generalist or a specialist. Therefore the argument about the value or primacy of the expert over the generalist or vice versa is irrelevant. The design expert’s competence is in defining essential relationships and making essential connections in situations (see figure below). The design expert may draw on knowledge from specialists and generalists certainly, but the fruits of this form of expertise are manifested through the compositions and emergent qualities that are created by making necessary or desired interrelationships and interconnections among things in the world.


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