Generalists vs Specialists

Koala are a specialist species, only feeding on the leaves of the eucalyptus tree.

This issue gets discussed more often these days because people get afraid that robots may take over human jobs in the near future. In Japan, the business world has been dominated by generalists for a long time, but the odds may become against them. The future of even specialists is not completely secured, though. Some business books say we need two specialized skills in order to compete robots in business, which sounds desperate especially to generalists like me. You’ve heard about the principle of 10000 hours, right? Malcolm Gladwell has written we must spend at least 10000 hours to become a true master of any skill. It seems almost impossible for a generalist to aim for a specialist from today. Can we (generalists) escape this certain death?

While struggling in despair, I found a book with an encouraging title – Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. To summarize the author’s point of view, a complex world needs generalists who can zoom out and look at larger outcomes we should really care about. The more complex the world gets, the more generalists we need. It’s encouraging, isn’t it? Generalists seem to be able to coexist with robots somehow.

Furniture production consists of some processes: milling, curving, assembling, polishing, painting, upholstering, etc. In the past, for the development of specialists of each process, staff reshuffling was rare, but now we often make it. The original purpose was to make the production team resilient, but it seems we have had much more to gain. For example, I was impressed when hearing some craftsman said “After being assigned in the new division, I found the process I had believed best was not good enough.” I know our craftspeople are still specialists in a narrow sense, but we can see the value of generalists in here anyhow. In the end, let me share the words that encourage all the generalists in the world: A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.

Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.

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