In a world where transformative change is the norm, Bill Gates made a bold proclamation in December 2020: generalists are the key to success in the business world. This call to action goes against the conventional wisdom that has long touted specialisation as the path to greatness. Yet history shows us that specialisation is not the only way forward. In fact, it was the division of labor that allowed humans to conquer and manage nature.
Today, as we face unprecedented challenges and opportunities, it’s time to embrace the power of generalists who can see the big picture and connect the dots across disciplines, industries, and cultures.
The changing face of specialisation
From the earliest days of human history, specialisation was a key factor in our survival and progress. Men were hunters and gatherers, while women tended to domestic duties and childcare. This division of labor was not only practical, but also allowed for the development of diverse skill sets and expertise. As civilisation advanced, specialisation became even more important, with modern economics validating its effectiveness through various theories and models (e.g. The Law of Comparative Advantage, or the Theory of the Firm). Workers were trained from a young age to hone specific skills and apply them throughout their careers, often supplemented by on-the-job training. This has been the case, until now.
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The Law of Comparative Advantage states that countries should specialise in producing goods and services that they can produce more efficiently than other countries and trade with other countries for goods and services that they cannot produce as efficiently.
The Theory of the Firm suggests that firms should specialise in producing goods and services that they are most efficient at producing, and then trade with other firms to obtain the goods and services they need.
The rise of technology and globalisation has upended this traditional model of specialisation. Today, businesses and industries require a broader range of skills and competencies, and workers must be adaptable, flexible, and able to collaborate across diverse fields and cultures. The trend towards interdisciplinary approaches and the blurring of traditional disciplinary boundaries highlights the growing importance of being a generalist rather than a specialist.
Historically, schools were designed to train children to fit into a particular role with a specific skill set. The aim of schooling was to equip students with a specialisation that matched their aptitude and interests. In Malaysia, this approach is still evident today as students are often streamed into pure science or arts tracks when they move to upper secondary. Despite the introduction of the KSSM, which is supposed to give students more freedom to choose their subjects, the reality in schools is that subjects are still packaged together, indirectly pushing students into specialisation.
This trend continues into university where students must narrow their focus even further by choosing a specific field of study. However, with the changing nature of work and the economy, there is a growing recognition of the importance of developing a broader range of skills and knowledge that can be applied across various fields.
Whither we go then?
We are realising that specialisation alone may not be enough in today’s increasingly complex world. Specialisation often means narrowing our knowledge or skills to a particular area, but this narrow focus is no longer sufficient in the face of rapidly evolving challenges. Instead, we need to develop in-depth knowledge and expertise in multiple areas and learn how to integrate them effectively to provide innovative and efficient solutions.
The old adage of “Jack of all trades, master of none” is no longer applicable in the same way. Rather, we need to strive for becoming a “master of some” by developing deep knowledge in multiple areas, as well as “generalists” who can bring together a variety of perspectives to solve complex problems.
This shift in thinking is driven by the speed of change, which has become increasingly rapid and widespread. Change is one of those constants in life, and it is an inevitable one too. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of adaptability and innovation, and the role of technology in enabling rapid change. We saw how technology was used to overcome the hurdles brought about by the pandemic. A look into the 1918 Spanish Flu will give a glaring comparison.
The need for multi-disciplinary skills in a fast-changing world
In today’s world, when change happens, we can see it being adopted at lightning speed. It is one of the reasons why specialisation can no longer enable us to keep up or remain relevant. It is limiting in a way. The speed of change is such that innovations can quickly spread and be adopted across various fields, and a narrow focus may limit our ability to keep up.
One example of how the pandemic has accelerated change is the shift towards online consultations in the healthcare industry. With the increasing availability of wearables that can monitor vital signs, doctors will need to not only hone their traditional consultation skills but also be adept at using tools and analysing data. The nature of innovation in today’s world is often recombinative, meaning that ideas from different fields are combined to create new solutions.
The need for multi-disciplinary skills has never been greater, and those who cultivate a diverse range of skills and knowledge will be well-equipped to thrive in this constantly evolving landscape.
Challenges for the next generation
Thus, the challenge that is faced by every young person about to enter the job market is they must be able to fit into this constantly evolving world. A broad set of skills and experience of the old ways of doing things, at the same time being able to also understand how new technologies can be harnessed to bring the best practice out, become a necessity. It seems highly likely that one has to spread the knowledge net far and wide.
Today’s children must prepare themselves for jobs of the future. The jobs that exist today may not be relevant tomorrow due to the rapid pace of technological advancements. As history has shown, jobs can disappear due to innovations. For instance, just fifty years ago, typists were required in many institutions. However, with the advent of computers and their applications, this job has become obsolete. Similarly, telephone operators who were once needed to man the switchboards to connect calls are now replaced by smartphones and digital networks, which are more efficient and cost-effective.
Our period of rapid advancement is quantified into four Industrial Revolutions, with the fourth being characterized by the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) coupled with Machine Learning. Smart robots and humanoids are becoming increasingly present in our lives, with machines taking on specialized tasks and even learning on the job.
Machines are good at specialisations. Even the not-so-smart Spinning Jenny, an invention of the first Industrial Revolution could spin threads way more efficiently than human hands. Fast forward a hundred and fifty years, machines are now beginning to learn on the job.
The launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November 2022 marked a turning point in the progress of AI. Within months, the language model surpassed human performance in fields such as business, law, and medicine, causing some to question the value of a traditional university education. Despite concerns from tech leaders, the rise of AI is inevitable, and it’s only a matter of time before we see similar progress in other areas.
So, if a language model AI is able to achieve so much in such a short time, it is logical to assume that we will be seeing similar performances in other AI and machine learning driven areas too. The progress of ChatGPT has been so giddying that a group of tech leaders and entrepreneurs has issued a statement for the halt of ChatGPT so that they can study its impacts. But this is an inevitable change.
Future-proofing yourself: Why creativity, critical thinking and IT skills matter
It is therefore prudent for young people today to develop their skill sets that will keep them relevant. They need to work on their creativity. With the rise of AI and machine learning, it is essential to work on areas where machines are not able to perform, such as creativity and critical thinking. Students must understand the basics of AI and pick up IT skills to stay competitive.
It’s not just about technical skills, however. It is also crucial to be able to make connections between diverse fields and operate in different domains. While AI currently operates from narrow scopes, as it develops into a machine that can think, understand, learn and apply its intelligence to solve problems as humans do, it will eventually exceed the expertise of human specialists in most fields.
Therefore, practical skills, critical thinking, and creativity should be prioritised over rote learning, which is no longer a guarantee of future success. Unfortunately, many schools have been slow to recognize this shift and continue to place an emphasis on chasing grades through rote learning. It is important for students to understand that keeping up with developments in the world and cultivating a passion for lifelong learning are essential for success. In addition, developing creativity, emotional intelligence, intuition, and grit will be crucial for staying adaptable and thriving in the changing job market.
As AI continues to outperform humans in more fields, it is clear that many jobs may become unemployable. It is important to realise that the bottom 90% of the world in terms of income or education will be badly hurt by AI-induced job displacement. Therefore, ethics in using IT should also be taught and learned, and a sense of urgency should be instilled to understand the importance of being adaptable.
It is without a doubt that all areas of human life will be impacted by AI in the near future. Autonomous cars, smart grid and AI doctors will make the world a safer place. However, as these continue to outperform humans in more fields, it is also clear that many humans may become unemployable.
The traditional model of specialisation is no longer enough to keep up with the rapidly evolving and complex world we live in. The rise of technology and globalisation has created a need for generalists who can see the big picture and connect the dots across disciplines, industries, and cultures. While specialisation still has its place, it is essential to develop a broader range of skills and knowledge that can be applied across various fields. The need for multi-disciplinary skills has never been greater, and those who cultivate a diverse range of skills and knowledge will be well-equipped to thrive in this constantly evolving landscape.
The future is full of excitement and possibilities. In the next decade, we will be seeing colonies set up on the moon before the journey to explore the universe by earthlings begin. We will be seeing more of man and machine in sync. How we fit in will depend on how ready we are to embrace these challenges.