When are Generalists Are Better Than Specialists?

When are Generalists Are Better Than Specialists?

We theorized that the benefits of being a generalist are strongest in fields with a slower pace of change. In these fields (think oil and gas, mining), it might be harder for specialists to come up with new ideas and identify new opportunities, while generalists may be able to find inspiration from other areas. We also theorized that the situation flips for fields with a faster pace of change. In this case (think of quickly evolving fields such as quantum computers and gene editing), generalists may struggle to stay up to date, while specialists can more easily make sense of new technical developments and opportunities as they arise.

To test this, we needed to study an area where some fields experienced a sudden shift of pace while other fields remained stable. This is exactly what happened in theoretical mathematics after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s Soviet mathematicians were largely ahead of their Western colleagues in some fields of theoretical mathematics (integral equations, for example) but not in others (commutative rings and algebras). As the Soviet Union collapsed, a large store of scientific advances suddenly became available to Western mathematicians. This increased the pace of change in fields where the Soviet Union was ahead of the West.

Theoretical mathematics is also a field that allowed us to distinguish between specialists and generalists. For example, the Italian Fields Medal winner Enrico Bombieri is known for bringing together insights from widely differing areas of mathematics. In contrast, French Fields Medal winner Laurent Schwartz spent most of his career working on distributions.

Source: When Generalists Are Better Than Specialists, and Vice Versa

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