Yale professor Vikram Mansharamani, writing in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, recently asserted that the era of the specialist might be coming to an end. Instead, he posited, the globalization of business and information means that the future may “belong to the generalist.”
This assertion aligns closely with my theory on disintermediation, which holds that the constant communication, 24/7 news cycle and endless social media interaction that serve as hallmarks of the modern age have eroded barriers between information and the public. In a world where the average citizen has an ever-increasing degree of influence on the economy, the political arena and the business environment, corporations must use all available tools and pathways to connect with and understand the general public.
Most businesses — regardless of industry — are driven by a “bottom line” of profit maximization and sustainable growth. However, a tunnel-like focus on that goal alone can be dangerous. A myriad of factors — chief among which is corporate reputation — have significant and measurable impacts on a company’s long-term success.
Here enters the generalist, who can cut through internal biases and provide counsel that considers all factors, perspectives, risks and opportunities — regardless of the industry or issue at hand. When dealing with the public, the same trends and principles apply across sectors, making the big-picture outlook that only a generalist can bring to the table an essential facet of sound decision-making.
Former Soviet chess champion and current Russian political activist Garry Kasparov affirmed this theory in a recent interview with the World Policy Journal: “The moment you expand the circle of people who participate in decision-making,” he explained, “you create a new political reality. What we are seeing is that the circle has been expanded from millions to hundreds of millions. We don’t yet know the consequences of the move from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.”
BP is a classic example. Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — itself a perfect illustration of the decisions that can result from a dependence on specialists — the company’s community outreach and cleanup efforts were criticized and labeled by critics as insincere. Both the spill itself and the subsequent backlash against the company’s attempts to repair its reputation highlight the importance of roundtable decision-making that includes a variety of backgrounds and expertise.
Incorporating generalists’ knowledge about the public and decision-making is a key component of corporate success. As Professor Mansharamani affirms, “Our highly interconnected and global economy means that seemingly unrelated developments can affect each other.” The ability to identify those relationships in advance allows a company to not only anticipate and prepare for potential fallout, but also to provide leaders with tools to mitigate risks from the onset.
In a business environment characterized by competing viewpoints, active watchdog groups and large amounts of unfiltered information, any corporate decision can run awry very quickly and without notice. Some situations or announcements may be unavoidable, but companies should ensure, at the very least, that they have a respected voice in conversations involving reputation and business practices.
The generalist is a critical resource in that effort. An informed approach and heightened awareness of potential effects have a strong, undeniable impact on a company’s success and sustainability in today’s mutable and competitive world.
Special thanks to Jack Hughes, a vice president in Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ Ottawa office, for his insight and suggestions for this column.
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