Talent Archetypes: Specialist, Generalist, and Versatilist

December 16, 202012:10 pm14018 views
Talent Archetypes: Specialist, Generalist, and Versatilist
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In an earlier article, we raised the issue of talent and discussed how it was perceived across cultures, as well as the framework for the four types of talent which Dr Senthu Jeyaraj, a Singapore-based organisational psychologist, had formulated: the generalist, the specialist, the generalising specialist and the specialising generalist. But what is a versatilist?

Generally, a talent framework uses a triad of archetypes: the specialist, generalist and versatilist. This framework originates from Gartner, an American IT research and advisory firm. Highlighted by Gartner analyst Diane Morello, the framework discussed the evolving needs of the IT industry and how IT professionals required expertise in multiple domains by 2010, with technical aptitude no longer sufficient for industry needs.

Specifically, Morello’s framework highlighted the need for greater versatility in the skills portfolios of IT professionals. Amongst the Knowledge, Skills & Abilities (KSAs) required by IT professionals, technical competencies and knowledge competencies in computer-related domains were no longer sufficient to serve industry needs nor maintain the competitive advantage of IT firms.

While oriented towards the Information Technology (IT) and Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) sectors, Morello’s survey applies to other fields as well. This is by virtue of technology being a force multiplier for modern businesses in their operations and human capital, and a crucial part of the different platforms that serve and enable contemporary business needs.

See also: 10 Rational Reasons Why Top Talents Leave Their Job 

Specialist, Generalist, and Versatilist

Morello divided talent into a triad of archetypes categorised as Specialist, Versatilist and Generalist. Each archetype had the following attributes:

  • Specialist: focused on specific domains of work, with deep technical skills in a particular field or activity and operating within a narrow scope. Their expertise is recognised by peers and partners but seldom valued outside their immediate domain.
  • Generalist: generally have a broad scope and shallow to intermediate skills, enabling them to respond with agility and reasonable speed to different scenarios. They do not achieve excellence in a single discipline but possess a good level of knowledge and basic competency across a range of disciplines, but not necessarily gaining or demonstrating the confidence and competence of more specialised peers.
  • Versatilist: applying depth of skill(s) to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies and building relationships in the process as well as assuming new roles.
Focusing on Versatilists

Versatilists are able to anticipate change and adapt to them by learning specific, relevant information and competencies rapidly, with a broad range of experience. By comparison, specialists build on intense learning/training to excel in their chosen concentration within their domain, while Generalists use extensive learning/experience to stimulate limited exposure to various aspects or concentrations within their domain.

The particular advantages that versatilists possess are their adaptability, ability to assimilate crucial and relevant information and the development of new competencies. Versatilists can play different roles in multiple projects, providing greater insight than specialists due to their experiences, in the form of cross-organisational insight.

By having versatilists as staff, organisations (i.e. businesses & service providers) can enhance the value of their operations and competencies to a greater degree than with specialists. Professionals who fall into the versatilist category come with broad insight, possess deep process and industry-oriented competencies and can help companies in incorporating innovation and multiple perspectives into strategies, structures, processes, products, services and technologies.

At an organisational level, versatilists enhance human capital through their skills. At an individual level, the depth and breadth of their skills increases the options and opportunities available to them. This also prevents their obsolescence, in light of labour disruptions arising from technological advances (e.g. automation).

Andreas Schleicher, a senior OECD official commenting on the nature of education and learning, opined that:

Value is less and less created vertically through command and control – as in the classic “teacher instructs student” relationship – but horizontally, by whom you connect and work with, whether online or in person. In other words, we are seeing a shift from a world of stocks, where knowledge is stored up but not exploited, and so depreciates rapidly, to a world of flows, where knowledge is energised and enriched by the power of communication and constant collaboration.”

Organisational structures and the use of talent matters more than ever. To derive the maximum value from their talent, HR professionals and managers need to learn how to develop and deploy their skills. While specialists and generalists have their roles to play, it is in the adaptability and prowess of the versatilist which will drive an organisation’s success.

Resources & Further Reading

Home, I. (2014). Educating Specialists, Generalists and Versatilists. Connect Learning Today.

Latumahina, D. (2007). Be a Winner by Being a Versatilist: What, Why and How. Life Optimizer.

Mhatre, S. (2005). Specialists, Generalists & now Versatilists! Could We Be Looking At it All Wrong Blog.

Morello, D. (2005). The IT Professional Outlook: Where Will We Go From Here? .Gartner Research Paper.

Schleicher, A. (2007). The Case for 21st-century Learning. OECD.

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