Which types of employees are most valuable to an organization? Is it the generalists with multiple skills and broad knowledge in a range of disciplines? Or is it the specialists, who invest all of their time and effort in becoming the go-to expert in a particular niche? In recent years, this question has spurred many lively discussions among organizational theorists. Although strong cases have been made for both sides, the age-old specialist vs. generalist debate has no clear consensus. The most common answers start with “it depends”. When it comes to innovation, however, we take a clear stance: you need both. Here’s why.

The challenges of open innovation

Before we get into the merits of either specialists or generalists, we need to address a rather heated term in the land of R&D: open innovation. Although many – and sometimes conflicting – definitions circulate, the main idea is this: in order to innovate successfully, companies need to look outside their own organizations and industry domains.

Why? Because there’s a pretty good chance that someone has already found the solution you’re looking for – or at least one very similar to it. By finding external skills, market knowledge or technologies, companies can avoid reinventing the wheel over and over again. However, this open innovation approach creates two new challenges: finding the right solutions and adapting them to your own particular problem.

Challenge #1: Finding relevant solutions in the age of abundance

Searching information about new and disruptive technologies has never been easier. The rise and continued growth of the internet have created a cornucopia of data. Gathering this intelligence through online communities, deep web searches or crowdsourcing initiatives is not the hard part.

The real challenge today is cutting through the clutter: which innovations are truly interesting and which are just background noise? Filtering, prioritizing and planning have become key skills in innovation management.

The question is: who is more cut out for this task? The curious and creative jack-of-all-trades with broad interests and knowledge of diverse industries? Or the slightly geeky specialist who knows everything there is to know about one very specific and restricted topic?

We’ll probably agree that generalists – the ones who are able to connect the dots during ideation – are more likely to do a good job facing this challenge.

Challenge #2: adapting solutions in times of technological change

Once relevant knowledge or technology has been identified and acquired, this new intelligence needs to be integrated into the company’s existing R&D activities. And there’s no time to waste: in times of vast technological change, new products and services need to hit the market fast. ‘Speed to market’ – the amount of time it takes to transform a new idea to a product that is available for sale – often dictates success or failure.

This ability to ‘stay ahead of the curve’ demands a different set of skills. Brilliant minds in IT, chemistry, physics, or any other highly-advanced field of knowledge will always prove their worth during this implementation phase. When innovation projects speed up, you’ll need someone who doesn’t overlook the technological details.

After all, understanding the full potential of a scientific paper, for instance, or knowing how to combine brand-new technology with existing infrastructure, requires the eye of a specialist.

Specialists are vital to get to the bottom of a new technology and check how it can be matched with existing infrastructure.

A case for stronger ‘shared mental models’

In short: during a complete innovation trajectory, you need both generalists and specialists. This claim is further supported by the research we’ve conducted in collaboration with professor Frederik Anseel (at the time working at Ghent University). By defining three innovation profiles, we’ve shown that versatile innovation teams are likely to perform better.

While further research is needed, it is probable that diverse teams build stronger ‘shared mental models’. Studies have indicated that team performance improves if members have a shared understanding of the task that is to be performed – innovation, in this case. By combining diverse profiles (such as ideators, champions, implementers) or various types of skill sets (such as generalists and specialists) the team is likely to be much better equipped to face the complexity of open innovation.

Innovation skills can be measured

INNDUCE.me is a simulation test that helps in assembling versatile innovation teams. It measures a person’s competency in the three main innovation skills – ideation, championing and implementing. Users are presented with real innovation challenges based on existing problems that have been faced by innovation experts, including hugely experienced R&D managers and innovation managers of multinational corporations. The given answers are compared to the judgement of a diverse group of these innovation experts, whom we asked to rate the effectivity of each response.

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Assessing the innovation performance of employees and the company as a whole can support you in building efficient innovation dream teams by re-orientating employees or organizing specific coaching initiatives. Eager to find out how INNDUCE.me can take your innovation efforts to the next level? Try our demo!

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