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June 12, 2012

HBR: In Praise of The Generalist. Just in time, too. "Domain expertise" was getting on everyone's nerves.

This appeared on June 4 in the Harvard Business Review and what we've been trying to tell you lately in any event: All Hail the Generalist, by Vikram Mansharamani. It begins:

We have become a society of specialists. Business thinkers point to "domain expertise" as an enduring source of advantage in today's competitive environment. The logic is straightforward: learn more about your function, acquire "expert" status, and you'll go further in your career.

But what if this approach is no longer valid? Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark. There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.

Approximately 2,700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote that "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Isaiah Berlin's 1953 essay "The Fox and the Hedgehog" contrasts hedgehogs that "relate everything to a single, central vision" with foxes who "pursue many ends connected...if at all, only in some de facto way." It's really a story of specialists vs. generalists.

Mansharamani, at Blair Academy, Blairstown, NJ, in 2011.

Posted by JD Hull at June 12, 2012 08:35 PM


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