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Always Choose a Specialist over a Generalist

specialistToday there are a countless number of business and service providers in the learning industry who claim that they can do it all – but is that really provide the customer with inherent value?

Be it instructional designers, LMS providers, consulting firms, or what have you – it is always best to do business with a specialist. The old adage, “you get what for you pay for” is never more true in these instances.

For example, if you are looking for training developed for a certain piece of software, the odds of you getting a better end-product from someone who is immersed in instructional design specifically for the product (or industry) are higher than getting the generalist designer to do the same. They know the questions to ask, the quirks of the product, and less time is wasted waiting for them to come up-to-speed with the program.

The same can be said when choosing a learning management system. Look at the other products being offered by the organization. Are they directly related to the filed, or is their product-line seem to be all over the place? Is their focus on elearning and the training industry, or is it about pumping out a diverse set of products in an effort to cast their net as wide as possible?

Take a good look at who is behind the product as well. Do the founders have credibility? When it comes to a learning management system for your organization, can your training afford a part-time effort?

Think of it this way: if you have a heart condition and need open-heart surgery, do you choose the heart surgeon or the general surgeon? I think the choice here is rather clear. You would want the specialist because they come with a rather specific skill-set, and background to your situation.

Generalists have their place – but if you ask me, I choose specialists 10 out of 10 times. A jack-of-all-trades is seldom an expert at one.

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About the Author:

Justin Ferriman is the Founder of LearnDash, a WordPress based LMS and Learning Strategy provider. He also works as a Learning & Collaboration Consultant where he implements large-scale training programs for Fortune 500 companies.

3 Comments
  1. I don’t agree. Certainly there are times where you need a specialist who can do one particular thing very well. But a “generalist” as you call it has a much better view of the big picture and is better able to anticipate and prevent bottlenecks throughout the process.

    In addition, there is the old Maslow quote that if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. A specialist tends to see the world only through the scope of how to apply their particular expertise; not in terms of actually solving the client’s problem. A generalist will have the ability to diagnose and correctly apply the appropriate solution and not just the one solution they know. Then, let the generalist oversee specialists once the correct solution is determined.

    If you have limited budget and can only afford one person, even more the reason to hire a generalist who can get it all done and not just one facet.

    Not being an absolutist, I would go for the generalist 9 out of 10 times.

    • Hi Paul-
      Thanks for the comment and your insights regarding generalists vs. specialists. Your comments in consideration, I still see the world moving towards the value of specialists. By way of illustration, consider the fact that the MBA was one of the most sought after degrees. The problem, however, is that it is more of a general approach to business, and as such demand is declining.

      In that same study (linked to above), recent years have shown increases in one-year Specialized Master of Science (MS) degrees in business, while traditional two-year MBA degrees have leveled off.

      The specialist is often (not always) more in demand – therefore we are seeing people move towards a specialization, rather than being a swiss-army knife of sorts.

      To your point though, generalists do provide value, I never would argue against that (particular in the case of a limited budget, as you pointed out). I would, however, say that a specialist provides greater value per dollar if you are looking for a specific task to be accomplished.

  2. Dan Epstein

    I have to agree with Paul. I think instructional design IS our specialty. I agree there are cases where prior experience in a particular field or with a particular product or item may speed things along a bit. But our expertise is taking knowledge and expertise and turning that into substantive, engaging and sound performance-based instruction. We know how to ask the right questions, understand a variety of business processes, see how things relate to one another. Some of us may be better at e-learning than others; some may be really good at game design. But without a wide range of experience, as Paul suggested, the ID will tend to approach things the same way all the time.

    I would argue that IDs who’ve worked in a number of industries are better able to approach nearly any project because they can see how knowledge and performance problems are not bound to single industries. And a good ID also knows how important it is to conduct their own research when they do start work in a new industry, not only for their own edification, but also to work with and gain respect from SMEs who are quite often unable or unwilling to see the specialty we bring to the table.

    I’m not sure our own industry is served by an atomization of expertise; aviation IDs, finance IDs, health IDs, widget-IDs. Neither are our careers served in this way, since it perpetuates an attitude on the part of employers and clients that only IDs with their ticket punched in just oh so special a way are right for their job.

    Like Paul, I’m not trying to be an absolutist. I just think considering only IDs who have Industry X experience for an Industry X project is narrow-minded at least, and it doesn’t guarantee the job will necessarily be done any better.

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