Generalist versus Specialist - The better route to take

There are several Human Resource graduates entering the market and workplace each day. They are exploring the variety of roles that companies are offering and defining their career paths. In the midst of this kind of growth, many or almost all of them will often wonder about the right route to choose. Does the HR generalist reach the top position of the Chief Human Resources Officer or the HR specialist? Who do the business leaders value more? Who does the market perceive as a thought leader? These are the questions that figure at the top of their minds.

As a human resources generalist one has to have a wider scope, and acquire knowledge in all core HR disciplines such as hiring, training, compensation, performance management, and so on.

 As a human resources specialist, one can choose to focus only on one or two of the above areas and develop in-depth skills in those. Many generalists might choose to acquire additional certification as well, in order to switch to this kind of a career path.

Individuals can be successful in both these career paths, provided they choose them wisely and the choices are based on their interests. One might be the better route for some while the other might be the better option for another person. This difference will depend on many factors. Here are some parameters to keep in mind. We must remember that choosing a particular route can be very tough and there will occasions when one might regret the choice. Those instances will be fewer if the approach used to make the choice has been logical and firmly rooted in some fundamental principles, as shared below.

  1. Personal Strength Areas – Some individuals are extremely detail-oriented and able to focus on specific tasks or activities, with unmatched commitment. They are also inclined towards learning everything that there is to learn, about any topic that catches their interest, and so they deep-dive into the information. Their preference for learning is more vertical or depth-linked. Others are different when it comes to the same. They work better when they get a variety of tasks to do. They do not like to spend too much time on a single activity and prefer to be exposed to multiple things at the same time. Their learning is more broad-based and spread horizontally. Yet again, there are some who like to plan out and organize their day by the hour. But there are others who thrive in the unpredictability of what each day brings. These are personal attributes and strengths that are directly linked to learning and performance, on the job. Depending on the ones the individual possesses he or she should decide on a Generalist or a Specialist profile.
  2. Career Aspirations and Goals– The career aspirations and goals have a big role to play in the path that is chosen. If career aspirations are aligned towards gaining some level of working knowledge of various areas, the Generalist profile might be suitable. If they are aligned towards being viewed as an expert in a key HR area, then a Specialist role is more relevant. Similarly, if the goals are related to becoming a Functional Leader who wears multiple hats, or a Thought Leader who shares perspectives on a core area, the roles to be chosen will differ. Similarly, if one envisions oneself in another market or country, it is likely that having a generalist profile might make the shift easier. A specialist profile might need a higher degree of re-orientation especially if there is a need to learn statutory guidelines or compliance elements, in the new country’s role. For example, as an HR Business Partner moving from India to Singapore might not need the same degree of re-learning, as against a Rewards Head or a Learning & Development specialist.
  3. Motivators – What motivates a person to give his or her best to their jobs? It is usually the inherent motivators, such as being paid well, or being empowered, or learning new things each day, or having stability. So the motivators that impact one’s engagement levels are the ones which will then lead to the choice of career path for that person. Being in a role where one is the decision maker for many processes or a people manager who manages people performing a variety of tasks is one motivator. On the other hand, some people find a role which has a different level of learning and the recognition of being a thought leader, as more exciting.  
  4. Organization of Choice - Different organizations will offer different kinds of roles. Smaller organizations have more hybrid kind of roles which entails working on many people processes at the same time. Larger organizations are focused on ensuring that there is a clearly defined role which is mapped to one sub-functional area, to ensure a more planned approach. Both ways of working are fine and will have their pros and cons. As an individual, one needs to assess which one is more enriching as an experience. Another example would be private and public sector organizations. Private sector companies are easier when it comes to shifting from one route to the other. They also tend to have hybrid roles as well as specialist roles. So they offer both career paths. Many government entities in India specifically, do not have specialist roles such as a Rewards Head, or Hiring Manager and so on. They tend to have generalist profiles for each band or level, in HR. So this could also be a parameter to consider.  
  5. Market Opportunities – While each individual wants to pursue the option of their choice, sometimes it is also important to be externally focused and check what the market opportunities are. There are usually crests and troughs that apply to each kind of HR role. For some years, the Generalists will be in demand because the requirement is to be absolutely aligned to business and apply that knowhow to all people functions. There are other years when companies are focusing on setting up Centers of Excellence which entails that they hire and groom specialists in various areas of HR, to lead those. So keeping one’s awareness levels high about how the market opportunities come, is a good idea.
  6. Compensation – Many people decide the route to take based on how well-paying it is. Pay is a factor of many different elements and so the pay for the same role might differ from organization to organization. But, there might be some aspects that can help to decide. This is also linked to demand and supply. If there is a high demand for Diversity professionals currently, the market trends and organizational pay practices will reflect that. If there is a rise in the Business Partner roles or conversely there are too many people with this skill-set, the pay can change to reflect that. So current compensation trends will also determine which route should be taken.

One route is not better than the other in a generalized manner. Some organizations believe that Generalists are more flexible in their skill sets and can be mapped across different HR sub-functions. Others believe that, Specialists are stronger in terms of the extent of their knowledge and can therefore innovate better. The individual does not decide on the specialized or generalized approach right from the beginning. Many practitioners choose to explore both routes if their career choices allow them to, and then decide which one to focus on. So using the above parameters, to assess which route works better, is important. It allows individuals to introspect and combine their goals, with market possibilities.


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