Everybody is a specialist

(Click here for Malay Mail’s online version)

SOMETIMES, some signboards just jump out at you, grab you by your belt and won’t let go.

This was what happened to me last week when I was driving somewhere around town. Bold as brass, right before my jerebu-irritated eyes, a signboard proclaimed, “Specialist in repairing all kinds of Continental and Japanese cars.”

Not much further down the street was another one that declared the insurance agency was a “Specialist in all kinds of general and life insurance.”

This got me to thinking: how can anyone be a specialist in ‘all kinds’ of anything? I suspect I wouldn’t trust a doctor who claimed he was as “specialist in all kinds of medicine” as far as I can throw him – which isn’t very far at all. This is probably why doctors (and lawyers, for that matter) refrain themselves from claiming to be specialists if in fact they are not. Besides, the law forbids this as well.

But what is behind the business community’s obsession with the word specialist? After giving this some degree of serious thought, I came to the conclusion that we, the consumers, are at fault. How so? At some eep-rooted psychological level we, the consumers, are enamored with the word specialist. We associate specialists with superior service.

To a certain extent we are right. But do we really need to have a specialist change the oil in our cars? Does the person who we buy our Coca Cola from have to be a specialist? In fact, whenever we fly, we hope that the pilot is proficient in as many aircraft types as possible rather than just in one.

But the fact remains, the word specialist sells. And the business community knows this. This is why it has latched onto the word like a baby would its mother’s breast. Whether or not they are specialists is secondary; what is important is that they are perceived as such.

Taking this a step further, does a specialist necessarily occupy a higher rung in the food-chain as compared to generalists?  Personally, I don’t think so. More often than not, the so-called specialist ends up working for the generalist anyway.

Take for example your typical high-tech company that is packed to the brim with all sorts of specialists. Chances are the PHP-expert, the JAVA-guru, the database-sifu and the myriad of other specialists all answer   to one guy: a general manager who is an MBA (the mother of all generalists).

Need another example? Take your local specialist hospital. Guess who is the head honcho there? The consultant cardiologist? The consultant endocrinologist? The ENT specialist? I don’t think so. The CEO of that hospital is likely to be another generalist who is not even medically trained. So, despite the perception of superiority, specialists seldom (if ever) make it to the top of the food-chain.

This isn’t a ‘generalists are better than specialists’ rant; far from it. My point is that we can go too far with our admiration for specialists, and at the same time, overlook the importance of the generalist. It is not a question of which one is better; they are just different sides to the same coin.

The trick is being able to differentiate which one is called for in which circumstance: the generalist contributes with his all important wide-angle, broad spectrum perspective while the specialist adds value with his detailed and much focused field of vision.

What has happened is that, in our mad rush to put Malaysia on the world map, we have focused on producing more and more specialists – people who know a lot about very few things. This has served its purpose and has made Malaysia what it is today. As a result of our preoccupation with specialisation being ingrained in our psyche, we may have collective lost our sense of perspective; we now probably lack the kind of people who can truly see the big picture and show us a more panoramic view of things.

So, should a youngster ever ask me, “What kind of specialist shall I be when I grow up?” my answer will likely be, “Become the rarest of all specialists; become a generalist.”

In this last column of mine I beg you not to put much emphasis on the word specialist lest you have millions to spare; and if I have ever ticked you off in this space, that’s probably because you need to loosen up a little. Until then, c’est la vie!

Elviza Michele wrote this piece without malice to her soft-spoken gynecologist, Dr Gunasegaran. She will continue to write at http://www.elviza.wordpress.com.

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