Who is talented? What is talent? With global competition for human capital, this is a crucial question for HR and psychology professionals to consider. As the economic weight and financial poles of the world shift towards Asia, human capital plays an increasingly important role in sustaining the competitive advantage of organisations. And a key part of human capital is the talent of workers.
Dr Senthu Jeyaraj has profound insights into the nature of talent, a consequence of her research into the nature and functioning of organisations. A Consulting Psychologist and the Founder of OrgCognisance, she has served in academic, research, consulting and advisory roles. She is also an accomplished speaker, having spoken at multiple high-level events in 2013, among them TEDx JCUS and the Asia Pacific Monitors in Singapore, organised by Mercer, on talent and talent development.
Different Talent Types
The Specialist is a talent seeking to develop depth in their chosen discipline. They seek to develop their technical and knowledge competencies in their area of expertise by accumulating experience in specific and relevant skills. An example of Specialists are aircraft pilots, who invest heavily in developing their technical expertise.
The Generalist has a portfolio of skills across multiple disciplines but does not have the same depth as Specialists. This broad range of skills results from exploring and developing skill in different disciplines. An example of generalists are military personnel, especially Special Forces operators, who often have been trained as an infantry rifleman at a basic stage alongside their core vocation(s).
Generalising Specialists are specialists who have developed great depth and expertise in one discipline but seek to diversify the scope of their skills and gain broader exposure beyond their field. An example of this can be a lawyer specialising in mergers & acquisitions seeking to move into the broader area of commercial and civil law.
Specialising Generalists have a broad range of skills but seek to deepen their expertise in specific areas. An example is a medical specialist such as a radiologist shifting specialities to become a general practitioner.
Generalists, Specialists & Talent
Cultural beliefs and schema affects how talent is perceived. An implicit process called implicit social cognition – a mental process affecting social judgement without conscious awareness – causes this bias. It impacts both employment strategy and decisions among recruiters and employers. An example of this in action is how “jack of all trades” is interpreted across cultures, a point covered in Senthu Jeyaraj’s talk on talent.
But learning new skills and gaining mastery in current skills comes with an opportunity cost, so taking a multi-disciplinary approach may be more beneficial from a cost-benefit perspective. Gaining mastery can be a process with diminishing returns. Carve a door better than you did before, or learn how to build the rest of the house in that time?
Generalists with their broad knowledge base are capable of generating profound insights and advances in their disciplines. Examples of such generalist expertise are Picasso for the arts and Kepler for the sciences. They drew upon their insights and perspectives from other disciplines, applying it to another.
According to Tim Ferriss, a venture capitalist, entrepreneur and author, being a generalist also has other benefits. Generalists take their discipline up to but not beyond the point of rapidly diminishing returns. As an example, he claims there exists a 5% comprehension difference between the focused generalist who studies Japanese systematically for 2 years compared to the specialist who has studied Japanese for 10 years.
With technology becoming commodified as information is democratised, generalists with broad perspectives have a greater chance to predict, innovate and adapt. Narrow specialisation and effort is essential to attaining mastery, and technical specialists are essential as consultants, subject matter experts and master problem solvers in their chosen field. But they often lack the diversity of skills, adaptability, perspectives, insight and broad experience that enable generalists to perceive a broader vision.
The future to successful hiring and retention lies in companies understanding the nature of talent. Talent is a critical tool in developing a company’s human capital. But a tool used incorrectly and without understanding does more harm than good. The role of different types of talent in a company’s human capital, in their use and deployment, determine whether a company progresses to market leadership or succumbs to mediocrity.