Who are more effective – Specialists or Generalists?

July 9, 2009
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In the book The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, the author Joshua Cooper Ramo makes us think if specialists or generalists are more effective at understanding the future.

A study described in the book evaluated short-term predictions five years after they were made from hundreds of experts in economics and foreign policy. It compared the accuracy of their predictions with the actual results to generalists who typically think and analyze more broadly. You can probably guess the outcome. The generalists tended to be far more accurate.

The book takes a position that today’s complex, interconnected and globalized world requires analysts who challenge traditional thinking and assumptions. Pragmatists are more likely to look at a bigger picture combined with their intuition to consider and suggest solutions to problems. Changes do not always occur in incremental sequences because disruptive forces and events, some unanticipated, imply non-traditional reactions.

Effective enterprise performance management requires analysts and leaders who possess creative thinking and curiosity – similar to the generalists.


In the book The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, the author Joshua Cooper Ramo makes us think if specialists or generalists are more effective at understanding the future.

A study described in the book evaluated short-term predictions five years after they were made from hundreds of experts in economics and foreign policy. It compared the accuracy of their predictions with the actual results to generalists who typically think and analyze more broadly. You can probably guess the outcome. The generalists tended to be far more accurate.

The book takes a position that today’s complex, interconnected and globalized world requires analysts who challenge traditional thinking and assumptions. Pragmatists are more likely to look at a bigger picture combined with their intuition to consider and suggest solutions to problems. Changes do not always occur in incremental sequences because disruptive forces and events, some unanticipated, imply non-traditional reactions.

Effective enterprise performance management requires analysts and leaders who possess creative thinking and curiosity – similar to the generalists. Business analytics software, such as offered by my employer SAS, can provide the stimulation that aids in thinking of problems differently. The correct decisions involving risk and profit become increasingly difficult to make because they are linked in complex ways that are not obvious to see. It will not get simpler. Uncertainty is a given, and with increasing competency with applying analytics by skilled individuals within an organization, then better decisions and actions can be the result.