Generalist or Specialist: Who will benefit most in industry 4.0?

 EN Specialist


An interesting question for HR decision-makers as well as for candidates is if the growing complexity in work environment will favor generalists or specialists? On the one side, the growing complexity is in the favor of the specialist. On the other side, knowledge has very fast decreasing value which can set the specialist in a situation in which he cannot acquire knowledge fast enough. 


Prime examples of generalist and specialist

Although there are no pure generalists or specialist, I want to give a short description of the two types and their characteristics. The generalist has a broad range of knowledge but does not possess deeper knowledge in a specific area. Looking at an organigram he/she can cover different areas on the horizontal dimension but cannot go too deep in the vertical dimension. In contrast, the specialist goes very deep in his/her specific area of expertise but cannot be transferred to other areas easily.


The generalist bias

Wang and Murnighan (2012) have investigated in which of the two types can be more attractive on the employment market of the future. In several studies they have found that generalists are mostly preferred over specialists. They also found that teams with a bigger amount of specialist are performing better than pure generalist teams. So why do decision-makers prefer generalists whilst that is the specialists who help to improve the performance?

It seems, the reason for this is coming from the human psychology. The generalist has a “complete looking” CV and good general knowledge. A lot of HR decision makers are not specialists in the area they are recruiting for. Because of this it is more difficult for the specialist to describe his/her knowledge to them.

One study of the paper provides a solution for this problem. If people are rated separately (for example they get points for their topic specific knowledge) and not by comparison with other people, then specialists reach higher points than generalists, when, at the same time, in direct comparison the generalist is mostly preferred.


The specialist of the future

As mentioned above, there are no pure types of generalists or specialists in real life. In a world with restricted resources of knowledge acquisition each person is facing a trade-off between specialized and general knowledge. So, each person is searching for the most efficient mix for him-/herself. Recently the T-Profile is being often discussed. The horizontal part stands for his/her tailored general knowledge which allows him/her to understand his/her and adjacent areas. In addition, he/she has at least one specialized area.



We saw that generalists are preferred in application processes although teams with high ratio of specialists perform better. The solution is to rate people separately and not by comparison. The key to success will be to have a good mix of both with a high proportion of T-Profiles.



Long Wang & J. Keith Murnighan, (2012). The generalist bias [Abstract]. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 120 (1), 47-61.
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