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Why You Should (Probably) Hire Specialists

Think you want a well-rounded résumé? New research suggests the more valuable hire might be someone who can do one thing--but do it really well.
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Specialists get a bum rap. From the business world to organized sports, conventional wisdom dictates that having a team member who can adapt and fill multiple roles is more desirable than an individual with specialized—read, limited—knowledge and skills.

However, a recent series of studies published by the science journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (via Science Direct), suggests that business owners may want to reconsider their bias against specialists.

The studies, conducted by Long Wang of the City University of Hong Kong and J. Keith Murnighan of Northwestern University, conclude that companies have a “generalist bias,” even though they might get more value out of specialized hires.

In fact, there are many arguments against hiring specialists. For one, they cost more. Consider Malcom Gladwell's argument in the book Outliers: It takes 10,000 hours of practice for one to become specialized in a discipline. That translates to several years of undergraduate and graduate study—and ultimately larger paychecks—for career specialists.

The other problem is one of perception. Business owners and HR representatives tend to assume that specialists may excel in one area but can't diversify their skills as well as generalists when a company needs change. And that belief may be hurting businesses, suggest Wang and Murnighan. 

In one of their studies, the research duo determined that basketball fans favored all-around players, even when talented three-point shooters would complement their team’s needs better. The “generalist bias” also extended to HR recruiters, who were more likely to offer interviews or hire generalists than specialists when the two were evaluated side by side.

When evaluated individually, however, recruiters often rated specialists as the candidates most likely to satisfy a company’s needs.

So before hiring another Jack-of-All-Trades, consider what you really need. George Brandt, managing director of onboarding firm PrimeGenesis, emphasizes that different stages of company development require different degrees of specialization. For example, early-stage start-ups are more likely to require team members who can fill more than one role, while mid-sized and mature companies have room to pursue depth as well as breadth.

"Teams beat individuals every time," Brandt writes in his Forbes column. And the best teams consist of generalists and specialists alike.

IMAGE: Helen Ashford/Getty
Last updated: Jan 25, 2013

FRANCESCA FENZI | Staff Writer

Francesca Fenzi reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle.




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