Utility players v generalists

I've read a couple of articles this week on a no-growth economy. One, for example, Stunted growth: the mystery of the UK's productivity crisis comments that 'global demographics are changing, with the supply of new workers set to slow and the older share of the population rising. The future is of course inherently unknowable, but the reasons for longer-term pessimism on economic growth are starting to stack up'.

Another, Exit from the Megamachine (thanks to Hannah B for this link) tells us 'In the twenty-first century, however, the five-hundred year-long expansion of the mega machine is reaching insurmountable limits'.

At the same time we read in the popular (UK) press this week that 'Retirement really COULD kill you: Researchers find those who work past 65 live longer'. (As an aside, I couldn't quite grasp the next statement that said: 'Working a year past 65 if healthy led to an 11% lower risk of death', I thought that everyone, regardless of health, is at risk of death).

However, all this about low growth and the aging workforce coincided with a discussion on work skills: specifically what do we need now and in the coming years: generalists or experts? If both what is the right balance of each? And can generalists become experts and do experts make good generalists? The argument is neatly summed up by Sandeep Gautam his blog. He concludes saying 'it is my contention that we have need for both specialists and generalists but the balance tilts in one direction or the other depending on the environment'.

I agree we need a mix of deep and broad expertise but I wouldn't call broad expertise 'generalist'. To me 'generalist' means one can successfully turn one's hand to anything. Talking about this distinction someone mentioned her rugby playing partner who is a 'utility back'. I'd never heard the term before but I looked it up. 'In sport, a utility player is one who can play several positions competently . ..in rugby and rugby league, it is commonly used by commentators to recognize a player's versatility. … [A utility back] is mostly a back who can cover at least two positions.

This utility player concept could be useful for both organisations – as a workforce planning approach – and for individuals looking to stay in work, find work or develop their careers. It suggests that you can be an expert and also play that expertise into a number of different roles. You can be a deep expert or a broad expert or both. To me it suggests that extending expertise through utility playing is a better bet than being a generalist. (Next week I will look at 'expertise' and how to extend it).

As I think about it I am a utility player. My roles, extended from my expertise, include blogger, author, organisation design consultant, teacher at a university, speaker at conferences, deliverer of training programmes, coach and mentor. Some I earn income from and others I just do but they could become alternative sources of income.

I think society will increasingly need utility players rather than generalists. Lower economic growth, potentially fewer or different jobs and more older workers make it very unlikely that people will be able to keep on doing exactly what they've always done, but they could extend what they know and are good at.

Having confidence in extending their expertise will enhance their ability to work well in a changing context. In baseball for example, 'the biggest reason [managers want a good utility guy] is because it gives them more versatility, more manoeuvrability and ability to sustain injuries.' So in organisations – even down to the 'injuries' caused by slashing budgets, competitive forces and market downturns.

What are your views on utility players v generalists? Let me know.