The nature of the generalist has changed. Instead of being a generalist for business, the new generalist possesses a broad range of skillsets to handle human beings. The ability to handle people, guide them, counsel them, lead them needs a different set of skills than the accounting and operations functions.
The last 30 years have seen the rise of the MBA. With large scale globalization and the creation of mega-corporations, the need to manage businesses across countries, cultures and time-zones became imperative. Who better than a MBA to manage such complexity? Someone trained in all aspects of business (marketing, finance, operations, HR, etc.) and having studied hundreds of different businesses (the business case study method pioneered by Harvard Business School had become the de facto way to teach this program since the mid-1990s). With a big rolodex of current and future business leaders (alumni and classmates’ network), the MBA degree became the go-to degree for all success aspirants.
Along with the demand came the supply. Every institute worth its name started offering the MBA program, and then when there was a surfeit, started offering a program with a differentiation, namely a specialization. At the core of it, the idea of an MBA was to produce generalists who could also masquerade as domain experts after having spent some time in the function.
But times have changed. The advent of Machine Learning and AI has led to the rise of the nerd. Technologists have become the new leaders as more and more industries employ technology to make their operations more efficient. The new wave of nationalism and the failure of the theory of too-big-to-fail has led to the companies becoming focused on operations and efficiency, and so experts are needed. Therefore, the pressure on generalists to specialize is increasing manifold.
But, does it mean that the era of generalists is dead? I would argue against the fact and say that it is not. Only the nature of the generalist has changed. Instead of being a generalist for business, the new generalist possesses a broad range of skillsets to handle human beings. The ability to handle people, guide them, counsel them, lead them needs a different set of skills than the accounting and operations functions. Computers are managing to take over these (systems are replacing traders in banks and paralegals in law firms, for instance), but I still need to come across examples where an employee has managed to go and complain to a robot about his co-workers, or a nurse has been replaced by a robot and people have welcomed such a move whole-heartedly.
Managing people and their emotional and behavioral patterns is an edge that all businesses look for today. Financial services firms look for Behavioral Finance experts, social media firms are looking for Influencers and Experience Designers. Manufacturing firms are looking for salespeople and communication experts… the list could go on. Therefore, being the best education consultants for MS in psychology and MBA, I feel that a degree in Psychology (it is a broad field and accepts people from all kinds of backgrounds) would be a good starting point to a generalist career. Also, while there is a dearth of good Psychology focused programs at the undergraduate level, it is changing quickly as more universities increase their offerings at all levels. However, as is common to all programs, it will help to go with established courses with deep industry and alumni networks, as the quality of the program would determine the future potential of the candidate. Go Shrinks!