Thursday, August 2, 2018

Who Makes the Fastest Progress—the Specialist or the Generalist?

The title looks like a simple question and one that would be important to know the right answer to. People choose whether to be a specialist in one subject, a generalist who can master multiple subjects, or something in between (like the specialist who knows a few things about related subjects). Firms choose whether to hire specialists and generalists and how to organize their work. The idea in each case is that there is some benefit to the choice. The specialist has deep knowledge and developed skills; the generalist has a broad overview and flexibility. But they can’t both be best – or can they?

We know surprisingly little about the answer to this question, but now there is progress thanks to new research published in Administrative Science Quarterly by Florenta Teodoridis, Michaël Bikard, and Keyvan Vakili. Because specialists and generalists can have different value in different contexts, they chose one that is particularly important for firms: the generation of knowledge through research. After all, research and development is a budget item and a function in most firms of some size, and it is how firms invest in their future.

To make the research conclusions especially clear, they didn’t look at firms but at university researchers in mathematics. Unlike firm R&D employees, mathematicians typically work alone, or when they work in teams every team member is named in the publication. Their productivity is very easy to measure because every important step of progress results in a publication, and the more important publications receive more citations. And in mathematics, something special happened: In the Soviet Union, a lot of research on mathematics was advanced but kept secret from the West, and it was revealed to the world when the Soviet Union collapsed. That gave mathematicians in the rest of the world insight into theoretical mathematics that was very advanced (areas in which Soviets were ahead) or areas that were nothing special (in which they were even). So it was possible to measure the progress of specialists and generalists both in fields with rapid progress and fields that had slow progress.

The comparison was important, it turned out. Because specialists have deep knowledge, they make the fastest progress when faced with fast-paced research fields. They have the foundation to leap forward when presented with significantly different knowledge than what they hold currently. For generalists, fast-paced fields are confusing because there is too much new knowledge to incorporate, and they have too little in-depth knowledge to make sense of it.

But generalists can also make fast progress: they just require slow-paced research fields. In such fields, they can use their generalist knowledge to incorporate and integrate knowledge from outside the specialized field, and by doing so they renew the field.  That’s much harder to do for specialists, who know little outside their field.

So now we know who is best: either specialists or generalists, depending on the pace of the field of knowledge they enter. That makes the choice easy for firms that know the pace of the field in which they want to do research. It makes the choice hard for individuals, who typically choose specialization early in life and then keep it for a long time. Personally I would still choose specialization, because it is more fun to be ahead when things change fast. It is also less safe, of course. Choices are never easy, but it is good to have research that shows us the consequences.

Free article downloads are available for a limited time only:

Teodoridis, F., Bikard, M., & Vakili, K. 2018. Creativity at the Knowledge Frontier: The Impact of Specialization in Fast- and Slow-paced Domains. Administrative Science Quarterly, Forthcoming.