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Specialists and generalists

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2004 at 5:41 pm

I think it’s pretty easy to convince ourselves that in many contexts, especially work, we are becoming more specialized, moving away from being generalists. As an evolutionary process, it allows us to better fill more niches. However, with this specialization, the complexity of communicating across contexts is increased. With a decrease in communication, the opportunities for leverage are similarly decreased.

For as long as I remember, I’ve been convinced that the only way to solve the “really big problems” is with multi-disciplinary teams. Like most things, my conception and understanding of the “really big problems” has evolved as I’ve changed. Over time, they’ve included the academic (how to access enough knowledge to be a true generalist, not a specialist), the serious (how to resolve conflict between radically different cultures) to the silly (how can I fly away from home with my own personal space plane).

No doubt influenced by some optimistic science fiction, the way I saw it as a child is, at it’s essence, the way I see it today: that a group of people from different, diverse backgrounds and interests will solve problems no one else can and will do things others say can¿t be done. Sometimes intentionally (and sometimes not) I continue to return time and again to act on that conviction.

As part of that conviction it seemed obvious to me that there must be a discipline which represents the common foundation underlying the many other domains, i.e. a “common language.” However, I¿ve never found a discipline which quite seemed right, i.e. no university program which teaches quite what I’m thinking of. While some disciplines had a piece which I was interested in, certainly some aspects of the humanities & liberal arts speak to this, other pieces were missing and I could never imagine specializing in that discipline – the results seemed too narrow.

Independent of situation, the interest and conviction has remained. Today it manifests in my education and profession, I have ample experience in the specifics, yet a passion for the general that spans the boundaries of many disciplines.

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  1. Interesting proposition… I’ve grown closer to the idea of a generalist myself; however, you have taken the concept way WAY further than me 😛

    For a while now I’ve “known” (if one can really do such thing) that the future in Technology lies not in being the all knowing all seeing God of X (where X is pick one…), but in being able to do well in A-Z.

    This was reinforced to me when I heard of an MD major that actually studies “everything” and graduates generalists as opposed to neurologists, podiatrists, etc. So I thought, why not a generalist for CS (but not someone with an undergraduate skill set but in fact someone with a graduate degree in the common technology language out there). If you think about it, CS has many parallelisms with MD, so if they can do it, why can’t we?

    But going from a generalist in one discipline (which itself is complex enough) to a multidisciplinary generalist is a bold (emphasize understatement here) step.

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