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Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Generalist are Special and Specialized Generals

Azeem digs up an essay by Paul Saffo on information overload and new organisationional structures, written 14 years ago, to make a case for generalists.

We are in a pickle today because we are trying to manage 21st century information overload with 19th century intellectual skills. For example, we still prize the ability to recall specific information over the skill of making connections among seemingly unrelated information. We have become a society of specialists, each knowing more and more about less and less.  

One of the important antecedents was the introduction of the printing press. Prior to the Gutenberg, memory--the ability to recall tomes--was the over-riding metric for scholarship. When printed books meant recall was less valuable, literacy being a more potent skill.

Saffo postulates a similar shift with the now familiar consequences in organisational structures, work behaviour and machine-to-machine conversations.

Azeem goes on to postulate that organizations do not value generalists for three reasons: specialization of processes, an educational system that creates them and the threat they pose to specialist managers.

Overcoming the organizational inertia that reinforces specialization may well be the largest barrier to advancing our capacity to process information.  Institutions are powerful things.  But so is the flow of information. 

Take education for example, which is on a path of convergence of diversity.  Convergence of disciplines is where real innovation and discovery occurs.  Never before has the barrier to sharing and accessing information across disciplines been so low, and as a consequence, fields like social network analysis have become reinvigorated.  The falling cost of information processing has also increased the amount of quantified analysis in every field.  Most social sciences are rapidly converging with economics and even hard sciences.  Educational programs stem from research and the definition of fields of study, offering more inter-disciplinary educational paths.

Innovation springs from intermingling diversity.  Commercial organizations will continue to value specialists to assure competence and deep discovery in given lines of research.  But like the trend in education -- stove pipes and protectionism will fall.  The costs are minimal and the risk of exchanging information is minimal compared to the rewards. 

The design challenge is systems that support both generalists and specialists without creating information overload to empower their collaborative discovery and gradually dissolve their distinctions.

8:56:10 AM    comment []

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