Specialism, Generalism, and the Meta Option: Death to Silos

I was struck by this HBR post last week and reminded of it this evening by conversation on Twitter. Not everything I learn comes through that hose, but a good bit of it . . . .

Vikram Mansharamani tackles head-on the triumph of the expert – and the coming death of expertise as the core skill-set in C21 (I hope that is a fair summary; link below – and do read it; neat piece and not long). Generalism is set for a come-back.

It’s important to see it as a come-back, since while “expertise” has always been deep, it is rather recently that narrowly focused specialism was regarded as key – not simply to the detailed study of X (plainly, it is key) but to managing people who study X, and managing them, and discoursing on the wider significance of X, and on and on.

I endorse @Mansharamani’s analysis, but I’m not sure whether the term “generalism” quite gets us there. Partly of course because it has become a term of reproach, but partly because what I am after is something perhaps more dynamic and future-oriented than it implies.

I’m pasting below also a longer post I wrote two years ago, “Hanging Together Lest we Hang Separately.”  Feel free to browse. It’s about the other side of expertise, which is silos, and the problem of silo’d thinking (which as Mansharamani notes is not resolved just by getting people out of their silos and into work groups; not least because of the problem of salience and other well-known group dynamics issues).

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC, hosted a distinguished panel some months back to address the subset issue of “convergence” between disciplines in science and technology, and the need to find ways to address cross-cutting questions and questions that required scientists to cross their disciplinary borders. We began with a panel from MIT, and then leading policy people (including the FDA Commissioner) made their comments. The most memorable observation was that perhaps we now need a new discipline of inter-disciplinarity. I had to stifle a guffaw at this point,  as I could just see this fresh silo being built and yet another problem specialism being added to the pile.

But there was also something to be noted in that generally silly suggestion, in that while mere deep expertise is less and less relevant to fast-shifting, innovative, cross-cutting questions, shallow jack-of-all-tradesness is not quite the alternative. We need people who can hold their head up high in one silo, or two, or three. But also, whether scientists or technologists or marketers or lawyers or accountants (yes, even accountants), they need to have high-level second-language skills in a series of other silos and an ability to flip to Esperanto when needed to communicate, raise questions, and shape vision, across the whole. Let’s feel after a word. What about meta-expert?

There are many components in this discussion, some of which I take further in the commentary below, including the exponential growth of knowledge which is now exploding faster than we can create new sub-specialities. But the core questions now span our silos, and if they are going to be addressed so we can gain competitive advantage and propel our vision for the markets and culture of tomorrow, only those operating with meta-expertise will cut it.

Hiring, promotion, and education are just going to have to move along this way. But it won’t come easily. What does?

All Hail the Generalist – Vikram Mansharamani – Harvard Business Review.


Hanging together, lest we hang one by one:

The C-PET Mash-up and American Leadership in Century 21

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Washington, DC

At the heart of our C-PET view of things lie two convictions. First, that knowledge networking is the way to go; and every articulate view should be round the table, not because we naively believe win-win is always possible or indeed desirable, but because a positive sum outcome is always both. Second, that while silos may be necessary (we need strong expert communities) they need to be connected – in fact, connected more deeply than ever. As the sheer quantity of knowledge explodes in giddy exponential fashion (the Petaclasm was my word for it), the knowledge bearers in their tight-knit expert communities need to engage more across and outside them. Or to put it another way, with every new petabyte of data popping from the cauldron of knowledge, the meta-community becomes more important. Of course, this is the opposite of what you would expect. It’s the opposite of what most people expect. More data needs more experts; build bigger silos; bring in bigger forklifts. Fordism in the ever vaster databank.

Yet aside from the eternally valid and inexhaustibly funny Peter Principle (younger readers may need to Google that; studies keep suggesting that Lawrence Peter was absolutely if zanily on the button – and you should read the book; flip from Google to Amazon and grab it before you forget) – the vastness of data creation is what gives the lie to the warehousing siloism we have inherited. The fixation with data threatens to engulf us in a tsunami of facts that quenches not only wisdom (now there’s a word from the past), but the capacity for innovation; like those curious and generally elderly people whose houses are stuffed with every newspaper they ever purchased. What’s leadership tomorrow? Well, let’s start with a mash-up of these two. Wise innovation? Innovative wisdom? Either of those would do us nicely. Fordism in the petaclasm offers a decent, intelligent, worthy way to decline and a suffocating, bureaucratic, death. We need to devote our energies to finding, defining, working, another approach altogether. The new leadership is light-touch, scarily flexible, focused on influencing more than ordering, vision-setting every hour of every day, framing and reframing the lives of everyone on the team, and living at the hub of a metanetwork that hums and whines and fizzes with people who know more than the leader, but who see in the beat of the leaderly baton an order that both descends from and ascends towards tomorrow.

The silos are not, of course, just those created by academic disciplines, though as we know that is bad enough; really bad. Many of our smartest minds end up in the academy, on the receiving end of the substantial federal largesse that the NIH and NSF and other agencies pour into the careers of researchers in the world of STEM. Vannevar Bush, that other Bush (no relation, apparently) whose influence looms large in the America of today – larger, surely than he or his wartime patron FDR could ever have imagined in that far-off world of the 1940s – set up the model in response to his president’s request that the wartime experience of science and government snuggling together be replicated in time of peace. So a measure of government’s commitment to S and T has become its funding of the NIH/NSF apparatus. I’m not offering a view on this conventional-wisdom measure of commitment to innovation, the future, the common good, rationality, and more. (I note my esteemed friend Dan Sarewitz’ recent questioning of this idea, in the hallowed journal Nature of all places; his bearded head, thus extended above the parapet, I am expecting soon to see displayed on a stake over the doors of the National Academies.) But it is undeniable that the billions we are pumping into STEM (well, mainly STE) are shoring up the silos (not sure if that extension of the metaphor works) and underwriting the structure of an S and T establishment in which inter-disciplinary collaboration is as rhetorically appealing as it is destructive of silo-dependent career paths. And while I’m not deliberately setting out to lose my remaining friends in the academy, I do think that academic tenure and the path thereto (there is of course no path therefrom) represent one of the nuttier ideas to have hit the west (aka, for this purpose, America). Sure, put huge pressures on young researchers to achieve A, B, C. Then give them a sabbatical and a pile of moolah. But then start over. The alternative of ensuring that inter-disciplinary efforts are lauded in the tenure process is as plausible as expecting those whom we now charmingly refer to as non-state bad actors to be good sports and kiss the opportunities of asymmetry goodbye. People tend, almost, almost always, to act in their interests.

Yet my point is broader. Little by little academics are collaborating across traditional boundaries; hurrah! It will undoubtedly happen more, partly since academics themselves are developing new mangled disciplines like bioinformatics and of course nanoscale science and engineering, in which the trad distinctions just don’t work.

But the silos in Washington are on another scale, reflecting of course fundamental assumptions within the culture at large but, as tends to happen in the world of policy, drawing them out into an exaggerated and deeply contrasted form. Business. S and T. Policy-in-general. Values. Innovation. Of course, there are relationships. But this fragmented vision is deeply, deeply flawed; and it’s at the heart of our malaise as we seek to face the future – a future exponentially rushing from the past like an express train. We in C-PET are out to put the pieces together. It is together that they will define America’s success in the years ahead. It is together that, at a more profound level, they will define the human future. It is together that they possess the potential to reshape our politics. It is together that they offer leaders, from putative presidents all the way down, an opportunity to shine even as they take up the task of refurbishing an aging policy culture.

Which is my point about hanging together. If we can’t correlate these questions and their respective knowledge communities, they will all fail. In their networked connectedness lies the last best hope of success, the kind of transcendent success that would give to America the commanding heights in century 21 that it attained in 20. Because it is precisely in the correlation of these things that leadership lies. I’ve made the point elsewhere that America must set itself to be both global competitor and global citizen – the true friend as well as the rival of the emerging economic powers. There are many reasons, though network logic is plainly one; without friendship and the affect that it brings, stability in the economic if not the political order will always be in jeopardy, and stakes of all kinds are being raised all the time. We need, if you will, a social Marshall Plan to engulf the rising nations of Asia and Latin America, so that our children truly see our peoples as sharers of one exceedingly small planet and a common human lot. Only that will free us for the kind of economic competition on which the future also depends, but without the xenophobic sense that it is a zero sum game. Remember: tech is deeply changing things. In X years, X being a finite number, we shall have realtime translation devices that enable Facebook friends (or more likely friends on the various interoperable networks that will succeed MZ’s genius creation; by then he will be playing Bill Gates and giving it all away) to span all, all, language groups, in a magnificent reversal of the curse of Babel.

My suspicion is that the technologies will then also, finally, favor the little guy. The bad news? They will instantiate asymmetry, which could lead to continuous strife as a background radiation. The good? They will make things harder not easier for both commercial and governmental control. Such developments will give globalization a whole new bite, and popular movements wholly fresh impact on the global scale. Let’s say Twitter’s successor has two billion members in eight years from now, and something starts to trend and keeps on trending – public opinion as a global force will have arrived. The current (problematic) situation, in which the United Nations treats NGOs (which are often highly partisan) as the representatives of the global public, will be over. I’m not sure the UN will then be the point (I think the UN as in Security Council and GA will be oldline; UNESCO and other elements in the UN system could become a bigger deal, but on the political/economic front groups like G-20 will have all initiative); but whatever intergovernmental organizations there are, we shall see the emergence of global publics.

The point of this seeming digression is to illustrate the kind of world into which America’s projection of leadership will increasingly take place; a world in which silos are breaking down, in which people power will make life a lot more challenging for national governments, a world in which old-style structures like the core of the UN system, with their constitutions and procedures and Robert’s Rules on steroids – in which they remain in place as they fade in significance and are supplanted by the ad-hocery of the G approach. G-whatever is just a bunch of governmental guys who get invited round for a beer. It’s a high-end tweet-up. Now: combine the tweet-up “UN” which the G system is bringing in and global people power through translation software and son-of-Facebook apps, and you can begin to understand the context within which America will be acting, and needing to look good, in just a little while.

So back to integration. By pumping the innovation agenda, and bringing smart and strategic business perspectives to bear on the policy community, we are working to get the long term at the core of Washington’s politics. Embracing the future in a way that is imaginative but non-naïve, we begin to address the impacts of such diverse and extraordinary developments as virtual reality, the brain-machine interface, synthetic biology, humanoid robotics. Once their potential impacts begin to be examined, we are into risk assessment; and in tandem where those impacts stand in relation to our existing notions of the good life, and the varied political traditions that seek to sustain them. In other words, consideration of risk and values issues arise directly from a future-embracing vision. Marty Apple, President of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents and a member of C-PET’s Board of Directors, has raised the question of our handling of risk on a succession of occasions at our monthly roundtables. He urges a principle of caution, which assesses risk side by side with tech developments. He distinguishes this from the “precautionary principle” commonly spoken of in Europe, which seeks to resolve risk issues before developments take place. And Marty’s risk approach could be readily paralleled by a critique on the ground of human values (aka ethics). If you look ahead, you can be circumspect, and work on risk and values side by side with technology. Parallel processing is the key. This kind of embrace of innovation and future-mindedness represents the summum bonum for the tech community. By the same token, they know well that societal values just like environmental and other risk aspects are crucial to commercial success. Which is not to suggest “win-win.” I dislike the concept, not least as it demeans genuine disagreement and devalues the deep value of unresolved, conflicting vision. These are vital elements in progress as well as in the critique that ensures that “progress” really takes us forward, and does in a manner that is (in all its many senses) sustainable. Not win-win. But yes, positive sum outcome. Clarifying key issues; teasing out where agreement and disagreement lie, as all voices are invited to define the issues as well as speak to them; building consensus where possible and establishing both the nature and the weighting to respective parties of issues that remain outside the consensus circle. This process, which bridges silos and builds the knowledge network across disciplines as the context for decision-making, is future-oriented and inherently embraces innovation. But it is not naïve as to risk, it candidly acknowledges that all human conduct is driven by human values, and it recognizes that unease and disagreement in the values arena are huge questions for investors, business leaders, and policymakers alike. That is, the silos interconnect – and do so the more where future and potentially disruptive developments are concerned.

Point being: unless we hang together, we investors and values advocates and innovators and policy mavens and risk gurus, we shall surely hang separately. Build an open-textured knowledge network, draw in all articulate voices, frame and ask tomorrow’s questions. That’s how we man up for today’s decisions. And that’s the C-PET mash-up.

2 thoughts on “Specialism, Generalism, and the Meta Option: Death to Silos

  1. Pingback: preventing reverse psychology in the future « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  2. Pingback: Decision-Making In Gordon Moore’s Land | FutureofBiz.org

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