Monday, September 09, 2013

Valuing Generalists over Specialists

City University of Hong Kong Professor Long Wang and Kellogg Professor Keith Murnighan and have conducted a series of studies to examine whether we value generalists over specialists in various types of hiring and compensation decisions.   They found that we do seem to undervalue specialists.  First, they took a look at 3-point shooting specialists in the National Basketball Association.  In this article on Kellogg Insight explains the conclusion:

"In one study, Wang and Murnighan used salary and performance data for over 300 NBA players to find that, on average, the three-point specialists’ salaries are tied not to their three-point shooting, but to their two-point shooting—even though their three-point shooting has the bigger impact on their team’s performance. In other words, these specialists, unlike their generalist teammates, are not compensated based on the actual role they play in their teams’ success."

The two scholars also examined how workplace managers make hiring decisions.  They found a tendency for managers to favor the generalist even if the specialist had skills better suited to the specific role being filled.   The researchers also examined job ads on sites such as  They found that, "Even positions flagged for specialists asked applicants to have skillsets in two distinct domains about 36% of the time. Moreover, larger organizations—those organizations best poised to take advantage of specialists’ unique skillsets—were more likely to demand multiple skillsets from their specialists than smaller organizations." 

Why the bias toward generalists?  The authors argue that risk aversion plays a role.  It's safer to pick someone who has a broader set of skills, in case the job changes or the person turns out not to be a perfect fit for that role, but may still have a place in the firm.   Moreover, our tendency to hire people like ourselves may play a factor.  Managers at higher levels tend to be more generalist than specialist, and thus, they may look for people who are similar to them.  

I think the studies are fascinating, but I do wonder whether this "bias" is truly a bad thing or not.  Perhaps, in a fast-changing world, we need more generalists.  Perhaps strategy, organization, and markets are changing too quickly to bank on specialists.   In a highly ambiguous situation, it may be quite the rational thing to do to select people with a wider range of skills.  It's a tough balancing act for any manager.  Perhaps the research is most useful at least in making us aware that we may be a bit too inclined to dismiss the specialist candidates.  

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