Experts and generalists

Jonathan Miller died this week (27 November 2019).  One of his obituaries notes,  ‘One of the most intelligent people of his generation, he came to public attention first as a comedian, then as a television presenter and theatre and opera director, with work as a writer, broadcaster, lecturer and art historian on the side.’

Another says, ‘As a comedian, TV presenter, satirist, stage director, man of medicine and all-round intellectual … He had wise words on almost any subject under the sun. His big failing, somebody once said, was that he was interested only in everything; his curiosity, and his ability to formulate ideas in cascades of language around it, knew no bounds’.

He’s familiar to me as throughout my life his different work has threaded through, in TV, theatre, music.  I still remember going to his National Gallery exhibition, ‘Mirror Image: Jonathan Miller on Reflection’

His story is relevant because this week I’ve in several different forums I’ve noticed a common theme of experts versus generalists.

Baroness Wolf, talking about the UK’s Civil Service says, ‘If an incoming government was serious about central government reform, as a prerequisite for systemic change, what might that mean?’ She discusses 3 reforms

‘how the machinery approaches its role and responsibilities; how people are trained, appointed and promoted; and who is involved in policy formation and delivery. None involves razing the civil service to the ground, but all would make a difference.’

Talking about how people are trained and promoted Baroness Wolf says, ‘the civil service, in my experience, continues to value ‘general skills’ over specific expertise to an excessive degree.  … Whitehall simply does not value knowledge nearly enough. It expects everyone who succeeds to be good at management, able to swap areas and departments effortlessly, and to be simultaneously pleasant and incisive. These demands mean that those with ‘spiky’ profiles — and those who really know the areas — are often buried far deeper than they should be.’

The point about people who know being buried, is often the case.  But in my experience rather that the people being buried, it is their expert knowledge that is buried as, in many bureaucratic hierarchical organisations, career progression means moving from an expert role to a managerial role.   People who want to ‘get on’ may well sacrifice their expertise.

Does this matter?  Baroness Wolf suggests it does.  I think so too.  I think organisations would do well to value expertise and reward and career progress it accordingly.  (But that doesn’t mean that they should sacrifice all generalists).

One of the questions related to expert versus generalist that’s come up this week, relates to organisation design and development (see my blog on the relationship between the two).  I was invited to a discussion on  whether the communities of  the European Organisation Design Forum, the Organisation Design Forum, the Organisation Design Community,  socio-tech communities, requisite organisation practitioners, Organisation Development Network Europe, Organisation Development Network,  etc. should/could be better connected with each other.  The purpose of this is, I think, in order to deepen knowledge, and grow expertise.  (Though I will find out more on this in a conversation happening next week).

Deepening knowledge and growing expertise is essential in both organisation design and in organisation development.  It is easy to adopt a methodology or some models and think you have expertise.  Peter C. Brown et al, authors of Make it Stick: the Science of Successful Learning, note that, ‘The illusion of mastery is an example of poor metacognition: what we know about what we know.  Being accurate in your judgment of what you know and don’t know is critical for decision making’.   The issue with generalists is that they are often working with an illusion of mastery.

Jonathan Miller, in spite of his prodigious breadth of activity, and long list of achievements, wasn’t secure in his lack of deep expert knowledge, ‘Theatre people saw him as a dilettante. Music critics were quick to capitalise on his admission that he could not read a score. Miller himself, although he held many academic posts, felt a fraud when attending medical conferences, where his knowledge was outstripped by that of dedicated professionals’.

In Make it Stick (well worth reading) you can read example after example of methods of gaining deep knowledge and being able to apply it creatively, and innovatively from a sound base.  Going into organisations time after time we need deep knowledge in order to apply it wisely into the different situations we meet.  As Brown says, ‘Mastery in any field, from cooking to chess to brain surgery, is a gradual accretion of knowledge, conceptual understanding, judgment and skill.  These are the fruits of variety in the practice of new skills, and of striving, reflection and mental rehearsal.’

A second event that came up on the expert v generalist question was in a discussion with an expert organisation design colleague bewailing the fact that ‘anyone round here thinks they can design their bit of the organisation’.  And, indeed in many organisations I’ve worked in that has been the case.  I’ve noticed that lack of knowledge and expertise in organisation design leads to a lot of mistakes.

A few of the common ones are:  People change the org chart as a quick response to a perceived problem – when they haven’t investigated what the problem is, they don’t take a systems view so miss the linkages and interdependencies that are critical to design effectiveness, they design around named people and not sound design principles, they haven’t got an articulated purpose or strategy to translate effectively into design requirements.

The results of this generalist approach to design are expressed in a well-known quote  ‘we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.’

In general, I’m in favour of the idea of joining communities, I’m not in favour of losing the specialist skills of organisation design (or development), in a more generalist ODD approach.

So, there are a couple of questions I’m noodling now:

Will our continuous development of organisation design depth of knowledge and expertise be aided by greater connection with more practitioners in related fields or will that lead to a dilution of depth of knowledge and the illusion of mastery?

How do we encourage organisational leaders to take a critical look at their organisation’s career paths, whether they do value/reward either experts or generalists to the detriment of one or other group?

What’s your view on these questions?  Let me know.

Image: Jonathan Miller

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