As I See It: Paper Or Plastic
July 8, 2019 Victor Rozek
Technology managers often grapple with a thorny employment dilemma: Do they hire for specialization or suppleness; specific or general knowledge; narrow but deep, or broad but shallow. It’s the quandary of expert versus generalist, and it’s like deciding whether you want to buy a hot car with no utility, or a utility vehicle with no hot.
Some of the ambivalence arises from the fact that both are contextually useful and necessary. A handyman by definition must be a generalist; but you probably don’t want a handyman performing your bypass surgery.
Yet according to Jerry Useem, things are shifting noticeably in favor of the generalist. The high price of expertise, coupled with the rapidly changing face of technology, has companies scurrying to grow a flexible, hybrid workforce capable of multitasking and on-the-fly adaptation.
Writing in The Atlantic, Useem cites the U.S. Navy as a prime example. The squids are bucking 240 years of tradition in their recruiting and staffing practices by favoring smaller crews of sailors who show a propensity for problem solving and rapid acquisition of skills, rather than relying on single task specialists, redundancy, or sheer numbers.
As in IT, the need for people with the ability to quickly assimilate a variety of competencies is driven by the pace and diversity of emerging technologies. The Navy now has hybrid ships whose “insides can be swapped out in port, allowing it to set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.” It’s not practical to have a different crew for each contingency. Forty sailors, each performing multiple tasks, are asked to do what 200 sailors once did.
Granted, experts are wedded to their expertise and are not easily or eagerly retrained. As Shunryu Suzuki famously said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Substitute “generalist” for “beginner” and the same logic applies. But if the mind of a generalist is not burdened by the limitations of expertise, the mind of the expert is not hampered by incomplete understanding.
In his must-read book, The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis describes an interaction between what were undoubtedly experts in the Department of Energy, and contractors charged with storing barrels of nuclear waste inside caverns in New Mexico’s salt beds. The expert told the contractor that the waste was so highly volatile it had to be “seasoned” with, of all things, kitty litter. But it was vital that the generalist pack the barrels with “inorganic kitty litter.” What the contractor heard, because he had insufficient expertise to understand the difference, was that he should use “an organic kitty litter.” The results were monumental. The barrel burst contaminating the cavern with nuclear waste. The site had to be closed for three years, writes Lewis, and cost $500 million to clean up.
Therein lies the problem with generalists, as the Navy is discovering. Sailing a ship is different from saving a ship. Fluid learners are fine as long as things run relatively smoothly and tasks are within a reasonable scope of complexity. But when large, complex pieces of equipment or systems fail, they are almost impossible to fix without some degree of expertise. The Navy’s reliance on generalists has resulted in repair errors costing tens of millions of dollars. And if repairs are problematic, so is survivability should an undermanned vessel be attacked. Abandoning multi-billion dollar ships is not an optimal solution.
Still, Useem’s research suggests that Silicon Valley is sailing full speed ahead toward the generalist horizon. It’s the “do more with less” syndrome. Everyone wants employees who can do the jobs of two of more people. They have even come up with a desirable-sounding name for squeezing employees: Superjobs!
Useem interviewed a sample of consultants, recruiters, and company officials and here’s their take on where the industry is headed: “Ten years from now, 70 percent to 90 percent of workers will be in so-called hybrid jobs.” And this: Companies are looking for “mental agility . . . someone who can be all, do all, and pivot on a dime to solve any problem.” And this: “The half-life of skills is getting shorter.” And, when Useem asked a prominent Silicon Valley talent adviser, why should anyone take the time to master anything at all? “You shouldn’t!” was the answer.
“It would be supremely ironic,” writes Useem, “if the advance of the knowledge economy had the effect of devaluing knowledge.” Yet, at least in IT, that appears to be where we’re headed, in part because the emergence of AI will, by definition, flood the knowledge pool. Grit, conscientiousness, and persistence are losing their value in the marketplace because they hamper flexibility and slow reaction time. Single focus discipline will be less useful than the ability to learn and retain new information quickly. Mental agility (a feature of youth) will be valued more than experience (typically acquired with age). Imagination, in the service of problem solving, will provide the surest means to job security.
People who learn by repetition, people who are more exhausted than enthused by a never-ending array of fresh problems to solve, people unwilling to be relegated to the status of eternal apprentice will have to find professions where the rules are fixed or slow to change; predictable environments where the mastery of a single skill is still rewarded.
But “generalist” is too kind a term for what the Navy and Silicon Valley are wanting. Ideally, their notion of a “hybrid” workforce more closely resembles an assembly of generalist-geniuses, capable of solving never-before-encountered problems in real time. Perhaps such a workforce will evolve, but we already have self-driving cars and pilotless drones, so why not sailorless ships; why not automated IT installations? Maybe we can even have help desks staffed by computers that actually speak English.
If you have ever watched a flying trapeze act, you know there are two critical components: the flyer, and the catcher. The flyer lofts into the air, spins, twists, elicits oohs and aahs from the audience, and falls into the perfectly timed hands of the catcher. Think of the flyer as the genius-generalist; and the catcher as the expert. The catcher just does one thing: he swings back and forth. The flyer does assorted tricks, and gets all the attention and all of the accolades. But he’s just another guy susceptible to gravity were it not for the catcher.
Given today’s widespread contempt for science and knowledge, it is easy to imagine a world of high-functioning generalists, but the bottomline has not changed since the dawn of the specialization: Someone still has to catch the high flyers when they fall.