Generalists in specialists’ clothing…

My colleague and friend, Novak Rogic, wrote a thought-provoking post recently, arguing the value of the generalist in the climate of rapid change and experimentation that we are embedded in at the University.

We work (teach, design, code…) in the environment of rapid and constant change (perpetual beta) and by building so many layers between the faculty member who wants to experiment and embrace change, and the developer who wants to give, hack and create change, we are actually killing the experiment and killing the change itself.

The layer he is talking about here are the “specialists” that are (currently) dominating our workforce and being assigned to projects – often without a clear role but with a very specific set of specialist driven goals to accomplish and measurements to document (time, progress, budget, etc). The problem (as I see it) is not with the people themselves in those roles (I am a learning design strategist after all) it’s with the orientation towards the work. I am not a specialist, I am a generalist – despite a job title to the contrary. I align myself with the person who wants to “give, hack, and create change” and with those who like to approach projects by divvying up the work around the table – based on what we can contribute. There are others like me who “operate at the edges, intersections and overlaps where innovation thrives”. We know a little about a lot and a lot about some things. And while my knowledge of frameworks and approaches specific to learning design may come in handy for some projects, I can easily set that aside when the more immediate need is to rapidly understand the broader context and potential impact of a particular project. As generalists, we can draw connections, translate between technologists and teachers, encourage wild ideas and wide vision and (if the stars are aligned in the right way) create an environment for true creative collaboration to flourish.

As an example, I remember a project that Novak and I worked on a number of years ago (the seed project-LEAP for the now flourishing Learning Commons) The core of it was to build a website (but really a community) where content would be aggregated, openness encouraged and students the authors. Sure, he brought his experience as a web designer and architect to the table, and I my experience with designing learning experiences, but (more often than not), we were imagining and experimenting together with collaborators, including students, most of whom who had no experience with web development or learning design. We were trying things out, working together, seeing what worked – designing on the fly. We didn’t have a web graphics expert at the table, just someone with a great design eye. We didn’t have a project manager, that role shifted and changed depending on what the focus was at the time (shifting from web design to learning design to content development to blogging to…). We won a Spencer Innovation award for that project – not because we were a committee of specialists but because we approached our work as generalists: problem solving, communicating, translating, drawing connections with other work and projects on campus and working in collaboration WITH students not FOR them – a novel idea at the time!

Despite the administrative structures that are encouraging specialist approaches and tightly managed projects, some of us (call us generalists in specialists clothing) continue to do what we can to break down the silos, work across disciplines and share what we are learning (not just what we are paid to know). And we respect the role of the true specialist when specialists are required. When I had cancer, I wanted to be treated by someone who knew about cancer – alot about cancer. But when I go to my GP feeling generally unwell, I don’t expect to be shuffled off to the MRI.


One thought on “Generalists in specialists’ clothing…

  1. Cindy, thanks for continuing this discussion and bringing good examples and memories! Leap was one of the kind site. If we were going to do hundreds of similar sites, we could have hired all these specialists, but not in the discovery and learning phase. But for the higher-ed administration to understand this, they would have to deeply understand all the processes involved, and they do not have the background, will or time to go there. It is just easier to hire and think problems will go away and work will get done automatically.

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