Are specialists endangered?

In some of our past coverage, we’ve touched upon the changing nature of professional experience needed to form effective creative and marketing teams, how those teams should be structured and how agencies are reinventing themselves as the market has shifted away from the traditional agency of record model.

Add to that the notion of pi-shaped talent which, like T-shaped talent, describes a person with broad knowledge in all areas but adds capability for both left-brained and right-brained skills, and you have a dramatic shift in workforce expertise.

This shift toward a workforce that possesses a multifaceted skill set begs the question: are specialists endangered? I think not. Take Star Trek for example. As we see on the various incarnations of the starship Enterprise (and on Deep Space Nine), there are still personnel who specialize in particular areas. But, over centuries, everyone has become well versed in any number of specialist areas that they now consider common knowledge. Which, of course, makes it possible for Captain Picard to understand what, to him, is common knowledge but to those of us 200 years behind him is pure science fiction.

Point being, over time, those in marketing gain multifaceted knowledge previously only known to specialists. For example, the concept of launching a website was once foreign to most; today, it’s well understood and there are any number of tools to launch a site in minutes.

But even as more and more marketers become T- or pi-shaped, thereby amassing more versatile knowledge, the fast pace of the space, in my opinion, will always require specialists. Those specialists may only be specialists for a short period of time before the masses catch up but there will always be the next new big thing that only a few people will be able to comprehend before it becomes common knowledge.

The key, of course, is for those specialists to be able to work side by side on a team with generalists, educating the rest of the team so that the collective whole benefits in the long run.

Sharing and proper collaboration become integral to this team-based success. Team-based success will differentiate one company from those that aren’t properly structured to amass, preserve and share information gleaned through specialists over time (which can then be accessed and used by generalists).

So, no, specialists are not endangered, nor will they ever be. There will always be something new to be learned and practiced before it becomes common knowledge to generalists. But if systems are not in place for specialists to record and transfer what they have learned to others, the exercise of specialization becomes pointless and the entire team’s knowledge and expertise fails or falls very far behind the competition.

Steve Hall
Post by Steve Hall

Steve Hall is a marketing professional, publisher, writer, community manager, photographer and all-around lover of advertising. Steve has held management positions in media and account service at Leo Burnett, Starcom/Mediavest and others, working on such accounts as Reebok, Marriott, Monster.com and Marshmallow Fluff.

2 Responses to Are specialists endangered?

  1. I agree, and like this post. In fact I would propose that the observations made apply not just to marketing/PR firms, but most firms, including my own. In fact by design we “encourage” individuals who have a specialty to develop them, but to do so while expanding out to other approaches and area. A better understanding of “the big picture” makes us all – specialists and generalists alike better collaborators as we have greater insight and sensitivity into each other – how we complement each other, and when to “look for help.” A tool like CD is NOT JUST FOR Mktg professionals despite its current focus on this vertical.

  2. Totally agree that collaboration enables teams and companies to leverage and discover a variety of talent “types.” In collaboration, all boats rise with the rising tide of the specialists and generalists.

    And, to Carl’s point, these principles apply to any team that is successfully collaborating. With over 2,200 paying companies that use our platform on a daily basis (over 500,000 users!) the use cases are broad and many (not just Marketing).

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