People – and companies, for that matter – with deep, specialized knowledge and skills are often lauded. This makes sense, especially when you consider that they can promote decision-making efficiencies and profound, rich insights that lead to industry breakthroughs in fields like science, manufacturing, technology, engineering … and the list continues.

Learning, as a function, historically has honored and reinforced the specialist model, designing and delivering tools and experiences that teach people to be better specialists and to flex their expertise. Innovation in the learning field has primarily focused on creating better ways to drive and reinforce specialization and to measure its outcomes.

The challenge for learning professionals, employees and their organizations is that skills can quickly become irrelevant when the marketplace drives structural changes or when the skills required shift dramatically.

For an example of how this has played out, we can look at financial services, where technology’s capabilities have surpassed those of people and effectively displaced hundreds of thousands of hyper-specialized, skilled employees.

Similar situations are playing out across industries, affecting everything from power generation to healthcare to banking to customer service call centers. As technology’s capabilities increase and societal needs shift, hyper-specialized human skill sets, especially those that require repetition for consistent outcomes, are at high risk for becoming obsolete. According to conservative estimates in a 2017 report by McKinsey, technology will force 75 million people globally to change occupations by 2030.

Still, many companies continue to promote cultures that value only deep specialization. We hire for, train for, reward and measure the results of specialization. This singular focus puts our livelihoods at risk and can stifle innovation in unexpected ways.

Why do we do this? One reason is that we focus naturally on what’s worked in the past, so it’s the path of least resistance. We know how to operate, manage and train for this environment. We have also designed methods for measuring our effectiveness.

Even within our learning and development (L&D) organizations, we can succumb this thinking; our own specialized skill sets can prohibit us from teaching skills where there are no “right” ways and results are hard to measure. What if we’re so intent on building better specialists that we’ve lost sight of the long game, innovation?

Innovation occurs when we explore beyond what’s in front of us and consider disparate opportunities, which are often far afield from what’s familiar. These are generalist perspectives, which get far less attention in strategic learning plans.

It’s time for us to drive the next learning disruption, a “generalist awakening.”

This approach is not “anti-specialist.” However, the narrow focus of specialization can keep employees’ and leaders’ focuses down among the trees – or even in the roots of the trees.

How do we break the sole emphasis on specialization and lift employees up above the trees to reveal the complete forest, along with the mountains, oceans and continents in the distance where the next innovations lie? How do we promote “blue sky thinking” at all levels?

As learning professionals, we can help layer in a generalist focus by leveraging tactical approaches like job rotations and exchanges, cross-organizational information-sharing and mentorship, and social communities. We can invite outside speakers from different industries to share their insights. These all harness informal learning opportunities to bolster current capabilities by adding an “outsider” perspective.

However, it takes more than building systems and opportunities to drive meaningful adoption throughout the organization. It’s as much about shifting the culture and reward systems as it is about creating tactical approaches.

The arc toward realizing the value of generalist thinking is long. Therefore, leadership must become comfortable with the absence of familiar, discrete short-term results for these initiatives.

To build generalist capabilities, we need to shift leadership culture at the highest levels. No more driving only for short-term metrics and reinforcing an extreme focus on what has worked in the past. While these metrics have an important place, as learning professionals, we need to lead an exploration of leaders and learners into the wilderness beyond what we have already mastered and into the benefits of building generalist capabilities in our organizations.

Learning leaders need to promote layering long-term goals that can be more challenging to measure into their playbooks. These could include a different set of key performance indicators (KPIs) that are less granular and financially focused.

For example, if our intention is to increase thought diversity, we can promote and monitor the impacts of increasing the number of departments and roles at the problem-solving table or increasing the degrees of separation between the topic and the roles of those included in brainstorming. While it might seem that your executive administration staff is far removed from the sales team, what might happen if you brought them together to consider solving a problem that is stumping your sales team?

Consider constructing or leveraging KPIs that measure progress toward a generalist culture:

  • Decreased time to problem resolution.
  • Increased number of ideas presented or attempted.
  • Increased employee and leader engagement.
  • Increased leadership diversity and versatility.
  • Increased employee retention and internal promotions.

It’s about supporting a culture of learning and exploring that extends beyond the existing organizational competencies.

In many organizations, it will be quite a stretch to shift the culture to accommodate this layered effect. So, how do we get there?

Like any culture change initiative, our efforts will lean heavily on our team’s internal consulting skills. We need to influence and build our internal sponsors or advocates. Provide them with relevant examples of what others have done. A good starting point for ideas of what other successful firms have done could be seen in the popular books, “Range,” by David Epstein or “Drive,” by Daniel Pink.

Then, model the mindset you want to promote by facilitating idea-generation among leaders and employees for the change. Identify where short-term goals make sense and which longer-term goals you could layer into your KPIs.

Consider where your current model inhibits achieving these, and what you can alter to promote them. Do you need to revisit hiring and promotion preferences? Do you need to restructure key meetings? Do you need to reconsider internal learning and promotion paths and the behaviors we reward?

As with all change, it starts within you first. What are your concerns about long-term generalist approaches? What skills will you need to build for yourself and your team to bravely step into the unknown?  Consider piloting a generalist approach among your own L&D team. Invite someone from another department into your team for six months, or include disparate groups into L&D strategy sessions.

While it may seem like a disruptive pivot for L&D leaders, creating cultures that honor specialization and promote generalization, is a strategic way to prepare our organizations for the ambiguous and exciting next chapter of skills.

Register for the June TICE to see Laura Smith Dunaief and Michelle Thill’s session, “Promote Innovation, Empathy and Retention: L&D’s Role in Disrupting the ‘Specialist’ Model.'”