In a complex world, it’s all about process… or is it?

The phenomenon of crowd-sourcing has made it practically useless to learn a lot about any given field. The fame and importance of the specialist, the expert, has somewhat waned in favour of the ‘wisdom of the crowds’. This is connected to the shifting dominant perspective of the world.

The Newtonian model of physics which has ruled for long puts strong emphasis on unpacking and dismantling the world around us into particles of observable and explainable phenomenons. It is being increasingly criticised. Complexity theories are increasingly making a dent into this paradigm and adjusting the focus from the nodes (these observable micro-phenomenons) to the interrelations between the nodes and the bigger picture that these inter-connected nodes make up.

Specialised generalists, the necessary new breed? (credits: Anitakhart / FlickR)
Specialised generalists, the necessary new breed? (credits: Anitakhart / FlickR)

In this shifting world, knowing one thing is subsequently less important and less pertinent than knowing how to connect different things together, connecting knowledges, connecting know-hows, connecting people that have knowledge and know-how.

This means that wide-spectrum generalists who do tend to have a better capacity at connecting fields together, are perhaps valued more than ever before. Connectors, mavens etc. are the new heroes. They are at the bleeding edge of change and innovation. And their source of power, process is perhaps becoming the main object of science, as we are trying to understand how change is really happening in a process-focused, interconnected manner.

Is it really so? Is this definitely and ultimately the age of generalists? Is connecting fields of knowledge the final truth of this era? Or is this not yet another baby-out-with-the-bathwater-syndrome?

I am a generalist and have suffered for a long time of not finding my place, space and faith (in the virtues of the process) in a world that venerated specialists. Yet, or perhaps because I wouldn’t want the opposite to happen, I do not feel totally comfortable with the process backlash that is happening now.

At a workshop icebreaker in October last year, I asked participants to put themselves on a continuum from specialists to generalists and one thoughtful person mention that one needed both: the capacity to connect fields but also some more in-depth understanding of a given field.

Why do we need to be specialists (or have some at hand at least)?

  • Because process can also be superficial if not applied to a specific context or purpose (as much as, in communication, content and process are two wings of a bird). In contrast, specialisation means one can distinguish deeper patterns and layers of complexity much more precisely than a generalist would;
  • Because even process expertise can become a field of specialisation (as demonstrated by the flurry of change management and innovation process consultants);
  • Because knowing a field more in-depth gives mastery and mastery is apparently one of the three decisively motivating elements in generating self-accomplishment and deep happiness – as shown on the RSAnimate video below;
  • Because knowing a field in detail also helps connect with a specific specialist crowd which becomes a support network with the deep connections that come from going through intense experiences together;
  • Because knowing people that know a field in detail adds depth to the colourful but watered down picture of life that a generalist might have, it makes certain elements spicier by zooming in on details (the spicy devil is in the details);
  • Because in a complex world, micro-phenomenons can explain macro-events and zooming in detail on these phenomenons holds keys to the process too…

So, while I appreciate this due focus on process, as much as I hated being stigmatised as ‘someone that doesn’t know what he’s doing’ in a world of specialists, I wouldn’t want generalists to chase away the importance of mastery and specialisation as part of their new exclusive dogma.

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Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hello Russell,

    Thanks for the comments and engagement! Back at ya:
    1) Perhaps not, but as you pointed out in relation with 2) in my experience yes. In addition, with social media there is a backlash against experts which is dangerous in my eyes.
    2) See above.
    3) Yes on embracing diversity. In the 17th century and before it was praised to be versed in various fields e.g. mathematics, literature, history, physics, geography, biology etc. Ford and Taylor have nibbled that legacy off with ultra-specialisation. Luckily the current recognition of complexity implies that a) people that can connect fields are welcome but also b) people that are real specialists are valued in a wider and more diverse group. And yes on opportunities with social media
    4) I wonder. Interesting point in case and would be fascinating to have life stories about that… Interesting body of work on bricolage. I think we are all bricoleurs to some extent and certainly working in complex environments requires that we just give things a try and work with what’s there.
    Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. Hi Ewen,
    Some observations:
    1. Generalists versus specialists is that really an issue?
    2. In the personal lines of your blog you describe your own learning process and the apparent struggle and lack of appreciation for your generalist position.
    3. Recently I have been doing some work with an energy specialist, background in theoretical physics, in physics diversity has been warmly embraced for decades! the possibilities of becoming crowd wise using social media are an eye-opener and , in combination we learn more.
    4. Could it be that specialists simply follow a different learning route to those of us who embrace process from the beginning?

    A reflection on the age of generalists: Levi- Strauss introduced the concept of ‘bricolage /bricoleur’ as a person who works with what is it hand and succeeds in making new connections and combinations, succesful bricolage is based on exhaustive observation and systematic cataloging of relations and connections, this suggests the competency of ongoing reframing. Weick in Making sense of the organisation later explored the bricoleur as a thinker who make creative use of whatever builds up during the process of work. It strikes me that this concept of bricolage might be more fitting for your process focus. As bricolage is only one approach to design and learning, there are others …

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