Expert vs Generalist

My recent blog on the importance of experts prompted one reader to comment that he preferred the term “specialist” (in a non-medical sense) to “expert”. This got me thinking about the notion of “experts” as distinct from “generalists”, and whether we need to re-evaluate our assessment of skill, competence and aptitude when assessing someone’s suitability for a task, project or role. (And these days, is “generalist” itself something of a pejorative term?)

A few days later, I was having coffee with a strategic consultant who is known as a future thinker. He describes himself as an “extreme generalist” (with no hint of irony), because he has wide-ranging and multiple interests, some of which, of course, he has deep domain knowledge and experience. But because his work and his curiosity take him into different realms, he maintains a broad perspective which also allows for the cross-pollination of ideas and concepts. (I think we all recognize the value of analogy when problem solving – taking the learning from one discipline and applying it to a new scenario.)

Separately, but in a similar vein, I was discussing career options with a senior banking executive, who did not want to be pigeon-holed as a banker, because her core skills and professional experience would lend themselves to many industries, not just financial services. So in her case, this expertise would best be applied in a particular type of role, not in a specific domain, or a specialist capability.

And during an earlier discussion on leadership with yet another futurist, I found myself debating the notion of situational styles, as opposed to structural models – both of which require skill and expertise for CEOs and managers to be successful. But broad experience will be just as important as formal methodologies, and general business knowledge just as valuable as technical specialisation. (On reflection, as with so many constructs, it’s not a case of either/or – more a question of adaptation and dynamics.)

As a result of this ongoing dialogue, I was challenged to develop what I might describe as a 3-D model, comprising the following axes:

“Generalist”/”Specialist”: In product management terms, for example, the generalist understands the full end-to-end customer life cycle and the production process. Whereas, a specialist might know their particular part of the process extremely well, but has little to no awareness or understanding of what might come before or after. (Think of those frustrating customer calls to utility, telco and insurance companies – in fact, any business with highly siloed operations – where you get passed from one “specialist” to another, often revealing contradictory information along the way.) At the extremes, this dimension might be described as the difference between knowing a subject “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and knowing it “a mile deep and an inch wide”.

“Novice”/”Veteran”: This is probably obvious, but I don’t necessarily mean seniority, age or tenure in a specific role. When it comes to new technology, for example, someone who is new to the role, but who has just been trained on the latest software and equipment, may have better technical ability than someone who has been doing the same role for several years (and thus, has more knowledge and experience), but has not refreshed their skills. Although I concede that in many situations the incumbent veteran may have better developed problem-solving, trouble-shooting and decision-making capabilities. This axis is also really important to consider when transitioning older employees to new roles within the same organisation or team – if they were younger, they would probably be given more time to adjust, adapt and grow into the role. Whereas, an older employee may simply be expected to “pick it up” much more quickly, with less leeway for learning on the job, because of assumed expertise.

“Broad”/Narrow”: Here I am thinking about aptitude, rather than the degree of specialisation. Drawing on the idea of using analogies, someone with wide experience and a broad perspective (sees the big picture, displays both critical and design thinking) will have quite different qualities to someone with a very narrow focus (especially within a very specific domain or area of practice). Based on the particular context, do you need an all-rounder, or a placekicker? This axis also relates to the age-old issue of organisations only wanting to hire square pegs for square holes – it might make sense in the short-term, but risks stagnation and lack of fresh thinking over the long-term.

Assessed along these three dimensions, we might see that an “expert” could be qualified according to how highly they rate based on their overall “depth”, measured by criteria such as experience, knowledge and reputation, as well as formal qualifications.

Next week: Making an Impact at Startup Victoria’s Pitch Night

 

Long live experts….

Along with “liberal, metropolitan elite”, the word “expert” appears to have become a pejorative term. Well, I say, “long live experts”. Without experts, we’d still believe that the world was flat, that the sun orbited around the Earth, and that the universe is only 6,000 years old…. Without experts we’d also have no knowledge of ancient civilisations, no comprehension of languages, no awareness of scientific phenomena, no understanding of how to prevent and cure disease, no patience to engage with the human condition, and no appreciation of nature, technology, art or culture.

Just a couple of “experts”: Marie Curie and Albert Einstein

I read recently that, “Marie Curie and Albert Einstein went hiking together in the Alps”. At first, I thought this was some fantastic fiction, because I wasn’t aware they knew each other, let alone went walking. But the line didn’t come from a David Mitchell novel – I came across it in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang‘s recent book, “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less”. It reveals something of the way knowledge seeks out knowledge – how great minds (experts) often get together to collaborate, or just hang out and shoot the breeze. The expert mind is also an inquiring and creative mind, open to new ideas and influences, unlike the hermetically sealed personalities of many of our current leaders.

(According to Pang, regular physical activity, creative pursuits, technical mastery and planned rest are among the key traits for many experts – so much for the 35-hour working week, 9-5 routines, and a couple of weeks’ annual vacation….)

Maybe one reason for this increased disregard for experts is the fact that many experts tend to make us feel uncomfortable (about our own ignorance?), they challenge our assumptions (and highlight our personal prejudices?), and they tell us things we’d rather not think about (even if it’s probably for our own good?).

And while I accept some experts can be patronising, aloof and even smug, there is a breed of experts, like Demis Hassabis, who are brilliant communicators. They can explain complex ideas in straightforward terms, and through their enthusiasm and natural curiosity, they show how they continue to wonder about what they don’t yet know. They also manage to bring us on their journey into difficult topics and uncharted areas, such as artificial intelligence.

Finally, and in the interest of balance, the only thing worse than a recognised expert is a self-appointed one…. (a theme Laurie Anderson explored in her satirical work, “Only an Expert”.)

Next week: SportsTech and Wearables Pitch Night at Startup Victoria

My Extended Gap Year

I was recently interviewed for a story about the Future of Work. One of the questions asked how I had arrived at my current portfolio career. As I reflected on the past few years of my working life, I realised that my ongoing journey resembled something of an extended gap year, because of the wide range of interests I have been exploring and the variety of projects I have been working on.

gap-year

Image sourced from Ivy League Admissions Club

During my “original” gap year between school and university, I was a postman, I volunteered at a community law centre, I worked in a bread factory, on a building site and at a law firm, and travelled abroad. My primary goals then were to get some “real” life and work experiences and think about what I might like to do as a career once I graduated. If nothing else, it showed me how to work with other people, develop some resilience and resourcefulness, and discover what I might be passionate about. And while my career went in quite a different direction to the one I had imagined, the gap year experience was an invaluable part of the learning process.

Since my last corporate gig, I have embarked on what feels to be a continuous personal development programme. Aside from undertaking some professional development, participating in hackathons, serving on advisory boards, guest blogging, co-presenting numerous radio shows, developing a prototype HR app, joining various Meetup Groups, and working with a number of startups and entrepreneurs, most recently I have been working in the digital asset space (Bitcoin, Blockchain etc.) and in innovation using design thinking and collaboration models.

As part of my extra-curricular activities, I have continued to explore various digital tools and platforms for composing, recording and distributing my music – I even wrote a piece for Melbourne’s Federation Bells which is on semi-regular rotation – and I have learned some practical skills in picture framing and constructing display boxes out of Perspex.

What this all adds up to is a continuous desire to keep learning, to keep exploring interesting stuff, maintaining a sense of curiosity and not standing still – stagnation is the death of creativity! And while I may not have imagined embarking on such a career path after working in senior corporate roles for many years, the current journey is varied, seldom boring, and frequently rewarding.

For anyone who may feel they are stuck in their current work, or cannot see where there career is going, I would encourage you to think about taking a “gap year” – to explore, experience and experiment with your career options, to challenge your current perceptions, to take yourself out of your comfort zone, and above all to embrace the potential for change. Even if this does not feel like re-inventing yourself, it should be an invigorating and rewarding experience – and I’m more than happy to share some of my own insights if you want to contact me via this blog.

Next week: Spaghetti in the Cloud

 

Bridging the Digital Divide

Is there still a digital divide in Australia? If so, how do we bridge that gap? If not, how do we address the apparent chasm that is leaving some “digital have-nots” behind? Is it as simple as rolling out the National Broadband Network and equipping every school child with their own tablet device? Or is it also about creating a digital mindset to ensure everyone can take advantage of the educational, social and economic opportunities that the range of digital technologies has to offer?

Mobile phone internet usage is projected to keep growing. Source: Statista

Mobile phone internet usage is projected to keep growing. Source: Statista

Based on consumer research, we would appear to be a well-connected country, with a high concentration of PC, smart phone and tablet devices, if data from Roy Morgan is any indicator. However, some recent research by Scott Ewing of Swinburne University based on ABS data has suggested that despite the narrowing of the divide, there is a deeper disconnect among those who do not have internet access.

There are multiple factors contributing to this disconnect: socio-economic, age, location and education. I would expect that within 5-10 years, age will be a far less relevant factor in who does or doesn’t have access to the internet. You could also argue that with more people accessing the internet via mobile devices, and with the increasing number of free WiFi zones across our cities (cafes, shopping centres, office buildings), public institutions (libraries, museums and galleries) and transport infrastructure (plus the reducing price of data and storage), cost may not be as much of an issue either. And once the NBN is complete, the percentage of the population without physical access to the internet should likewise be much smaller.

So that leaves education – according to the ABS-derived data, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to access the internet. Should this infer that we aren’t doing enough to teach digital skills in the classroom? Or are we teaching the wrong set of skills? Or is it a bit like learning English grammar or applied mathematics – unless you use them in your everyday life, you soon forget them, and never remember why it was important to learn them in first place?

Computer science, programming and coding courses are increasingly being taught in schools, either as part of the core syllabus or as extra-curricular activities. Many pupils have to use tablets as an integral part of their school lessons. And some schools are also running hackathons and entrepreneurial projects to help students navigate the new world of work shaped by innovation, digital disruption and the “gig” economy.

The changing nature of work is challenging schools and parents to think about how we should be preparing pupils for the future. It’s not just learning about the technology (important as it is to study data analytics, automation, robotics, AI etc.), it’s also about understanding the context and the potential for what it can do. It’s also increasingly apparent that more and more of today’s students want to do work that is meaningful, rewarding, challenging and which helps connect them to their values and “purpose”.

I like to think that as part of a well-rounded liberal education, today’s pupils will receive:

  • a solid grounding in digital literacy (as important and as vital as the 3 R’s)
  • an awareness of how “digital displacement” (through automation etc.) may impact their chosen career path (even in ways which we cannot yet predict – we must assume it will happen, as no profession, trade or vocation will be totally immune)
  • an appetite for lifelong learning (as one of the ways to cope with the inevitable changes they will face)
  • a set of life skills that instill self-awareness, curiosity, resilience, empathy, flexibility and adaptability.

Finally, if we are to truly grasp why this ability to adapt and change is important, we only need look beyond the digital debate and ask why the National Innovation and Science Agenda is failing to cut through. In large part, the NISA message failed to connect with the general electorate because many people could not identify with it, and therefore it did not resonate with them. Just as “necessity is the parent of invention”, so adversity often needs to be the catalyst for embracing change.

Notwithstanding the economic, environmental and societal challenges we face, there is considerable complacency and acceptance that “she’ll be right” – especially within the political, institutional and corporate elites that claim to lead us. As long as so few of the main actors among these bastions of power and influence decline to change their own culture, behaviours and ways of doing business, then it’s not surprising that the public feels unwilling or unable to change.

So our only real hope is to empower the next generations to shape their own future, not to be constrained by our traditional notions of “job” (in my view, an increasingly outmoded economic unit of value….) and think for themselves as to what change they want to create with all the technology, resources and opportunities at their disposal.

Next week: My Extended Gap Year