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Specialists and Generalists: Equilibrium Skill Acquisition Decisions in Problem-solving Populations

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journal contribution
posted on 01.12.2015 by Katharine Anderson

Many organizations rely on the skills of innovative individuals to create value, including academic and government institutions, think tanks, and knowledge-based firms. Roughly speaking, workers in these fields can be divided into two categories: specialists, who have a deep knowledge of a single area, and generalists, who have knowledge in a wide variety of areas. In this paper, I examine an individual’s choice to be a specialist or generalist. My model addresses two questions: first, under what conditions does it make sense for an individual to acquire skills in multiple areas, and second, are the decisions made by individuals optimal from an organizational perspective? I find that when problems are single-dimensional, and disciplinary boundaries are open, all workers will specialize. However, when there are barriers to working on problems in other fields, then there is a tradeoff between the depth of the specialist and the wider scope of problems the generalist has available. When problems are simple, having a wide variety of problems makes it is rational to be a generalist. As these problems become more difficult, though, depth wins out over scope, and workers again tend to specialize. However, that decision is not necessarily socially optimal–on a societal level, we would prefer that some workers remain generalists.