Thursday, September 6, 2007

Specialization or Generalization? The Classic Dilemma

In the middle of every professional's career comes this dilemma of genralization versus specialization. Should I specialise in a particular field, technology, domain, function or sub-function, line of activity or should I get into a general function, most offen a subset of general management.

This in fact came up in my discussion with a friend of mine who is working in one of the top five Indian IT companies. He is a HR professional. He was facing exactly the same dilemma. Last two years he spent in a particular sub function within HR rather than do a generalist HR role. He was wondering whether he should move into another sub function of HR, get a few years experience specializing in that sub function and eventually move into a generalist role. Or should he move to generalist HR role rightaway.

In my own assessment of business history world over, career profiles of achievers, countries which developed or did not develop, I feel that there are no two ways about this dilemma. One needs to specialise. Period.

Now, one clarification is warranted here. Even generalization needs specialization. For one to shine in a generalist (management) function, one needs to specialize in that space. We will discus this further later.

If we look at achievers the world over and over time, we see that each of the achievers specialized in some field or the other. Muscians, painters, writers, scientists, biologists, technlogists, teachers, gurus, business leaders chose some area and went deep into it to gain mastery over it. We do not have musicians who will dabble with different instruments. Scientists do not move from one field of research to another and then yet another. Companies to have specialised in some area/product/service to grow and become soemthing there.

This is a natural process. How can anyone gain mastery over something if we do not go deeper and deeper into it. Mastery requires continuous learning, experimentation, innovation, research, application of knowledge, sharpening of skills. All these will come only with focused effort over long time. Dilution of the focus will only lead to diffusion of energy and thus blurring of the image of the output.

Maybe we can question whether this applicable to a field like management where the main theme is engagement of resources in an effective manner, to achieve a desired output. Here again unless we specialize in this field of effective engagement of resources, by applying knowledge, skills in different contexts of time and space, learning from them to refine the ability to deploy the resources, one cannot gain mastery over the field.

To me USA is a great nation which could be an example of this. It is a nation which has encouraged and continues to ecourage specalists in every field; from science to humanities. No wonder maximum number of nobel laureates are from the USA. So also technology, engineering and scientific innovations. They have also specilized in business. Many of the world class businesses are managed, funded, invested in by the financial aggregrators who have specialised in spotting, and nurturing, taking risks, making financial judgements, financial solutions. One is to do with the depth and the other is to do width. Either way only if one expands these with clear focus will one be able to gain mastery over the field.

So what should one choose - specialization or generalization? On what basis should the choice be made? It should be made on an inner calling. Only an inner calling willl give the necessary passion to focus the energies and gain mastery. The reason cannot be external. The external focus will lead to mediocrity by way of being hung between the specialization and generlaisation. Listen to the inner voice which tells one what he or she is good at doing or would like to do. Once we listen to it we need to pursue the same.

Maybe for econmonic, social or historic reasons we did not have the luxury of following the inner calling. But at least those who are above the two levels of Maslow's heirarchy need to look inward and start pursing the specialization. That is what human freedom is all about. Pursuing one's freedom.