Educating Specialists, Generalists, and Versatilists

Iain Home

Iain Home

I suspect most people are familiar with the terms, ‘Specialist’ and ‘Generalist’. We each have our own understanding of what these terms mean, but the term ‘Versatilist’ is probably less well understood. I have only recently become aware of the term from its use in an article by Andreas Schleicher. Even in lieu of a written definition most people would probably arrive at their own, fairly accurate understanding of the term given the context in which it has been used, however, I have been guilty of using the terms incorrectly and I suspect I am not alone.

To explain, a ‘Specialist’ is described by Collins’ Online Dictionary as “a person who specializes in or devotes himself to a particular area of activity, field of research, etc.” whereas a ‘Generalist’ is described as “a person who is knowledgeable in many fields of study”. Similar definitions exist from a number of sources and all seem to suggest that a ‘Generalist’ never really achieves excellence in one area, but instead achieves a good level of knowledge in a number of areas and vice versa. It is easy to see people that fall perfectly into either camp, but there is at least one more group and it may be the ‘Versatilists’ and it is this group of people I have been guilty of mislabeling.

Gartner describe a ‘Versatilist’ as being “…able to apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, equally at ease with technical issues as with business strategy.”  This is a subtle but important difference to the ‘Generalist’ and probably not one that is fully understood. This is the person who has achieved professional qualifications and/or a good degree of success in a particular field but who is then able to apply that knowledge to a different discipline and still enjoy success. Some people are able to do this multiple times.

There may be a place for all three types of employee, but the ‘Versatilist’ seems to offer the most value, especially in an industry that changes quickly, mainly because of the flexibility they offer.

I have seen a project manager working successfully in a senior Marketing role. I have seen an accountant working successfully in a senior commercial role. I have seen a former head teacher in a senior strategy role. I could give more examples, but the one thing they all have in common is that these people achieved senior positions in their original discipline before moving into another field.  They had not failed in their chosen profession but something had led them into a least one additional field where they enjoy success.

If we recognise and understand the difference, then we are better able to advise those still in education and those already in the labour market. I am not advocating a change of career every five minutes; I am advocating the support of ‘Versatilists’ and a better articulation of what their future career may look like. Moving discipline is not a sign of failure but there is still a stigma associated with it. For us to think that someone still in education, or only recently in the labour market should have all the answers as to how they will spend their whole working life is, at best, naïve and this further supports my belief that industry has to be more involved in career advice, and keep closer ties with educational institutes, or we will fail these ‘Versatilists’ as well as the overall economy.

About the author: Iain Home is a UK father, student of education trends, and an international marketing strategist for Promethean. Iain is also a regular columnist at Connect Learning Today.

Iain Home

Iain Home is a UK father, student of education trends, and an international marketing strategist for Promethean. Iain is also a regular columnist at Connect Learning Today.
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