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Specialization vs Generalization ?
  • I have encountered several different people that seem to believe that specialization of skills is typically bad, I do not understand this, so I thought I would create a post to ask, "Why?"  

    In my opinion most people that are specialists are far more capable that people that consider themselves generalists.  A specialist has put the time and energy necessary into studying a topic to come close to mastering it, this process develops other useful skills.  A generalist pursues whatever whims occur, they may branch out further than a specialist, but in an environment with several specialists of different areas, it would seem hard to find a role for the generalist.  In an "all-by-myself" situation it might be more useful to be above-average at everything; in a community setting, it seems more sensible to be average in most areas and far-above-average in others.
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  • I think the framing of this discussion is fundamentally flawed. Pitting specialist versus generalist is a terrible mistake. Some personalities are more prone to specializing in one particular area while others have much broader interests. However, there is also a whole scale of where individuals fit in between, and they all can bring value to a project / team. I believe a good project needs a mix of specialized / skilled team members along with members that are better at taking a step back and seeing the big picture. So, I very much disagree with anyone who would say that specializing is a bad thing. In the same way, anyone claiming that we should all specialize is also mistaken.

    Would Yo-Yo-Ma have had a chance to be as skilled as he is without spending countless hours practicing with his cello? Practice at a craft or area of life is necessary for attaining mastery. The thing is, some people are happy with one area of mastery while others choose to have multiple areas. Leonardo da Vinci was able to attain mastery in science, anatomy and engineering along with his drawing and painting. I think he'd probably consider himself a generalist. Would you say that artists who specialize in just painting are far more capable than he was? Okay, so this is a specific example and you said most, but what does capable even mean to you? I know very intelligent scientists who stink at the basics of life. I'm glad they are around, but would not build a whole community out of just that personality type. Your description of a generalist is very warped. Following whims? As if a generalist is incapable of focus and attaining mastery as well. Can't we agree that there are both flaky specialists and generalists? 

    What your line of thinking seems to tend towards is the following arguments in a team, "Well, I am far-above-average and you are just average, so I'm clearly right and you are wrong. We are doing it my way." The history of science is ripe with examples of people from one specialist area coming in and presenting a radical idea that revolutionizes the way everyone thinks in another. People who are just learning are also often able to make contributions with their fresh perspectives. They have not attained the mastery of a 20-year specialist, but they are also not biased into thinking the way things have always worked.

    That's why this who is better or worse contemplation is useless. If I need my car's engine fixed, I go to a mechanic who specializes in my engine. We need specialists for sure. If I want a large robotics project to be successful, I don't go and get the best mechanical engineer I can to oversee the programmers, electrical folks, etc. I get someone with a good general knowledge of all areas needed. They usually will have a specialty, but their personality led them to contemplate the other fields and attain some level of mastery and experience in each. 
  • Its because the most annoying specialist are not average in most areas at all - they specialize to the exclusion of being average in much of anything.

    I think its important to bring everybody in the community up to 'basic par' on all the technologies being used in the community.  This gives them the foundation to specialize should they have an interest, and exposure to many different things.  You don't need to be a master of motor rebuilding, but you should understand how to use the tools for measuring and a basic idea of how the engine goes together.  You don't need to be a master of computer programming, but you should know how to type, understand the basic process of engineering and be able to puzzle through some code to understand what it is doing.  You don't need to be an expert farmer, but you do need to understand the basics of agricultural operations.  You don't need to be an awesome homebuilder, but you do need to understand how to put together a basic shelter to live in.  You don't need to be a mechanic to change a belt or tighten your alternator, but you should at least be able to do the average-simple level of interaction with the technologies that support your life.

    The knee-jerk against specialization is the resentment people feel when a specialist avoids knowledge of the average in favor of his specialization.  I expect my mechanic to know how to load a web browser, and I expect my web programmer to know how to change the oil in his car.  But the mechanic shouldn't do the web programming and the programmer shouldn't be rebuilding engines.   (probably. ) 

    So I DO vote for specialization - but not at the expense of basic understanding of all the other issues and technologies of the community.  Specialize all you like, but you STILL have to take out the trash, understand?

  • @laconic_world, I fear you invested meaning into my post that I did not intend, I will take partial blame for this since, reading over it again, several areas were poorly phrased.  Nevertheless, there are areas of your characterization of my post that I take exception to.  We agree that there are distinct areas where any given individual could make a significant contribution, and other areas where any given individual would be worthless- regardless of specialization or generalization.

    Obviously I would not assert that the average painter was far more capable than Leonardo.  What was the calculated intent of that rhetorical question?

    The capability of an individual is linked to the desired outcome of their actions.

    I will concede that my description of a generalist as an individual that follows whims was neither comprehensive nor completely fair, but it was certainly not "very warped".  I will assert that a specialist typically follows the course necessary to achieve mastery in a single field, therefore their path is determined by the field itself.  The generalist, however, follows the course necessary to satisfy their desires, be they whimsical or conventional.  Both are capable of varying levels of skill in any area, the caliber of a person, rather than the categorization of their interest determines this.

    I appreciate the qualification in your statement, "What your line of thinking seems to tend towards is the following arguments in a team, 'Well, I am far-above-average and you are just average, so I'm clearly right and you are wrong. We are doing it my way.'"  But I'm not sure how my statements were adequate for you the judge me in this way.  I think it is rational to say that in a group of gifted homesteaders and a couple physicists, if they were designing a reactor, certain opinions would be more valuable out the door.  Likewise, in that same group a different project might put different values on what people have to say.  However, at no point do I think it is fair to accuse me of encouraging bigotry.

    If you will note, the primary goal of my post was not to determine who is better or worse, but to understand a perceived prejudice against specialists.
  • @DavidIAm, I understand your position as you express it here and I agree that most people should have a basic set of capacities.  I do believe it it the minority, not majority of specialists that lack basic skills.  

    As an amusing anecdote, several years ago a friend of the family was attempting to do something (exactly what is lost to my memory).  After several minutes of his trying, my mom became frustrated.  She walked over and completed the task saying, "Come on, it doesn't take a rocket scientist."  To which he responded, "Actually, I am a rocket scientist."
  • Apologies if I read too much into what you were saying. I tried to qualify statements as much as I could since I don't really know where you are coming from. I have worked with people with personalities like those I was objecting to where the specialist has an arrogance that goes beyond their level of skill or knowledge. I've also worked with generalists who lack a great deal of experience and yet still have arrogance. You put it nicely with the following. 

    Both are capable of varying levels of skill in any area, the caliber of a person, rather than the categorization of their interest determines this.

    Take care
  • I visualize a process for open sharing and collaboration:

    1. A basic skill set required for maintenance of the community 

    How to do everything you basically need to do to maintain the lifestyle and technology within the community.  Everybody should know how to do this - not because they ARE doing all pieces of it themselves - but because this level of knowledge is essential.  I visualize a structure where your rite of passage to adulthood is proving that you DO know all these basic skills.  You know them, you are a full status member of the community.  Some people may never attain this level.  That is okay.  But it should be striven for.

    2. Personal specialization 

    The individuals should pursue specializations in their interest field outside their contributions in basically maintaining the community.  Research and development, experimentation, whatever it is that is their thing.  This should be encouraged and supported.  They can collaborate across the data network of the world, and even with people in nearby communities physically.  The technology they create doing this is going to be valueless, essentially unsustainable - transitory blips of some interest and much documentation until...

    3. Community teaching

    The technology - if it is found to be useful by a community - is abstracted to its basics, taught to all full members, refined, added to the community curriculum, integrated into the community's living knowledge base.  The technology created is now maintainable by the community, therefore can be deployed widely within the community.  (doesn't have to be the specialist's personal community specifically)

    4. Specialization Proseletyzing

    This abstract of technology and knowledge that was created is disseminated across the world through the data networks as 'available'.  Anybody full member from the original source of this technology should be able to help teach at least the basics - if another community sees this technology as valuable, they can access all the information *and* request/fund the temporary (or even permanent) relocation of a full community member (or the specialist) to them to teach them how to maintain this technology.  Rinse and repeat around the world.

    Its an idea for a pattern that can disseminate technology, providing not just the product (a capitalist entity wants to corner the market on a product and sell it to the other communities - this is so NOT that)  but providing the designs and knowledge to create the product wherever it is needed.

    I imagine this pattern would result in particular communities having a community-specialization - a particularly large local knowledge base on, say, medical technology and procedure, or metals processing, or high density farming methods, or architectural innovation.  But its never an individual specialist or even specific community that corners the knowledge of how to maintain and create a technology.  Individuals become non-functional, even communities are wiped out by disasters or internal fragmentation.  The technology that is shared in its fullness will sustain - will stick around.  It depends on people knowing it, the structure needs to guide and push people towards knowing it.  I hope this provides a piece of the pattern needed to show the way to open-source collaborate and disseminate valuable technologies across the world in a distributed manner.  


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