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Don’t underestimate the role of generalists in innovation

October 15, 2021, 10:27 AM UTC
When Kinect was hacked, researchers without prior experience played around with motion-sensing technology. Patrick Bouffard installed it on a drone to detect and avoid obstacles.
San Francisco Chronicle–Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images

Companies looking to leverage new technologies like A.I. often seek out specialists with deep subject expertise, but a team that mixes generalists and specialists is more likely to produce innovation.           

Companies are always looking for the latest technology that will help them beat competitors, but technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchains are only as good as the people using them. If you want to leverage new technology to drive innovation, you need the right people on your team.

In today’s world, we increasingly prize depth over breadth, particularly in research-driven fields. Organizations often fixate on hiring niche experts while ignoring the role generalists play in innovation. However, my research as a professor at USC Marshall School of Business has shown again and again that to achieve innovation, you need both specialists with deep expertise in an area and generalists who can make unexpected connections across fields.

The best ideas arise when insights from different arenas are combined in new ways—one of generalists’ greatest talents. Quantum computing, for example, is merging physics, mathematics, and computer science to produce a synthesis with potential applications in fields from computational biology to data security.

New technology can turbocharge innovation by sparking new, more diverse ideas. My research shows the critical role generalists play in this process. Contrary to what might be expected, new technology fosters the greatest amount of knowledge production on the widest range of topics among teams comprising both generalists and specialists.

In a study about what happens when new technology becomes available, Frank Nagle and I found that researchers with a history of publishing on more diverse topics are three times as likely to use the technology in their subsequent research, compared with scholars who are more specialized. In another study, Jeffrey Furman and I found that the introduction of new technology in a field spurs greater productivity (i.e., more papers on more diverse topics) among teams composed of generalists and specialists from outside the field than those within it.

Why is technology such a potent spark for generalists? It is a substitute for in-depth expertise, reducing the need for specialists and making a field more accessible to experimentation by those with different skill sets. The breadth of generalists’ knowledge allows them to take advantage of the opening and identify creative opportunities pulling from diverse fields.

One example of this phenomenon is Microsoft Kinect, a motion-sensing technology originally developed for the Xbox video game system. When Kinect was hacked, it allowed researchers without prior experience to play around with new ways of using motion-sensing technology. Roboticists used Kinect to build robots that can navigate complex landscapes. Archaeologists created tools for people to virtually explore three-dimensional models of historical sites. Computer scientists drew on Kinect’s ability to recognize facial expressions to develop algorithms for detecting human emotions. In all these cases, generalists led the discovery of new applications for the Kinect technology.

If you want to drive innovation at your organization, craft teams carefully to balance different domains of knowledge and levels of expertise. The recruitment process should devote as much time to hiring talented generalists as it does to finding subject matter experts. Within the organization, encourage those who are suited for it to become generalists. Beware of incentive structures, like those in the academic publishing and tenure systems, that reward specialization and deter talented individuals from exploring interests across a variety of fields.

Be attentive to how new technology opens up opportunities for generalists to get involved in innovation. Technologies may enable more people to participate in a project or free up capacity by replacing the demand for certain skills. For example, data modeling software might reduce the need for multiple specialized statisticians in a lab, creating space to bring other skills onto the team.

At its core, innovation is about finding new ways to combine knowledge. This process requires both the breadth to identify creative solutions and the depth to refine and bring them to life. Unfortunately, we tend to favor specialists over generalists, especially as new technologies make it feel increasingly essential to hire people with specific expertise. But technology has little value when it’s not in the hands of creative, talented people. If you want technology to drive innovation, you need the right mix of people to leverage it and put it to work.

Florenta Teodoridis is an assistant professor of management and organization at USC Marshall School of Business. Her research focuses on the economics of innovation and the impact of technology on society.

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