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Training Employees that are Generalists: What are their Skills?

By Sep Barkhodaee
Published on December 6, 2013

While an online training software like SkyPrep is used to train all types of employees, let’s quickly take a look at those that are generalists and – juxtapose that against specialists. The period following the Second World War was the era of the specialist. During that time business, government and other organizations looked high and low for specialized expertise. As a result of these efforts, cadres of engineers, economists, statisticians and others took the initiative in helping chart the course of their respective organizations. Specialists are certainly with us to stay.


The expansion of the knowledge economy in Silicon Valley and elsewhere led to an influx of specialists of all shapes and sizes. The persistent demand for specialists though has masked the rising presence of another kind of employee in workplaces. The generalist is also an increasingly important part of any organization. Generalists are jacks-of-all-trades-masters-of-none. Like a chameleon, they take on many different roles, depending on the context but often find their strides as natural leaders. Specialists solve problems, generalists try to avoid them by rethinking the way procedures and parts fit together. Rather than serving a particular purpose like the specialist, generalists can thrive in a number of environments. As it becomes increasingly important to have a wide variety of knowledge from which to draw, generalists are going to become more important in the maturing knowledge economy.


Generalists though are hard to spot and hard to value. Managers know, at least in theory, what a specialist does. A generalist might do a number of things. They might come running up with new ideas all the time. It might create the impression that they aren’t focused. Chances are, they actually just see the world differently: as a series of interconnected problems that can be brought into dialogue with one another. The words “it’s not in my job description” don’t really fit for the generalist and this can chafe against more heavily bureaucratic organizational cultures.


Generalists make great senior managers and entrepreneurs, in part, because they aren’t afraid to experiment or dive into a new challenge, or step back and look at an existing issue in a new light. They aren’t the employees who follow procedure, but who try to determine if the current procedure actually makes the most sense. They can juggle may variables all at once.


Generalists aren’t better than specialists. A strong organization needs some of both groups scattered throughout the various levels of the organization. Specialists and generalists compliment one another, even if they sometimes struggle to see it in their day-to-day interactions. If it’s useful, think of your organization as a house. Specialists will string the wiring, paint the walls, install the cabinets, and make sure you have working plumbing, but its the generalists who will keep the foundation solid and make sure the roof doesn’t have any leaks.

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