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An interesting discussion was born on LinkedIn after a comment from a digital leader I know which I thought was worth expanding into a blog post on the matter. The discussion went as follows;

 

Dave Thackeray

“I’m absolutely fascinated by what constitutes roles in the creative sector. Heading the digital fortunes of a leading health charity here in the UK I find myself crafting Google AdWords campaigns one minute, and forging ahead with a pattern library strategy for our boundless array of websites the next. Coaching social media will be next on my plate, followed by figuring out a forthright partnership initiative with influencers in Yorkshire who can help us develop further the success of our new adventure centre for families.  Being a master juggler is a prerequisite for every role today.”

 

Me

Agreed. And I’d go as far to argue that anyone who is an apparent specialist in a single field is missing the point entirely. In the digital world, it is so important to understand so many aspects and how they all fit together as part of a wider strategy. Sure, be an expert in something, or many things, but don’t be so blinkered to only do those things.

 

Dave Thackeray

But because of the choice paradox perhaps we DO need to specialise.  Because you can’t do everything well. If you know where your audience lives (predominantly) then become a master of that platform or communications channel and surprise and delight them there, constantly.  Otherwise you’re in perpetual chase mode trying to win with the latest shiny thing. I rarely see success accomplished leveraging this strategy.

 

Me

Isn’t digital marketing / the online world a specialism in itself though? Are we being too specialist by focusing purely on a single channel which may or may not exist in a few years with how fast things change? For example, people who classify their self purely as a social media specialist, I’d argue that most 90% of people who work in digital could be a social media specialist too if they wanted to go down that route. I’ve even seen people in the past being so specialised that they only work with a single platform within a channel, i.e. Google+ – and we all know what happened to that. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t have to learn a new skill or implement something in a different way that hasn’t been done before, that’s just the nature of digital. I see being too specialist as avoiding these challenges i.e. ‘sorry that’s not my job, let’s get a {insert tech here} specialist in to do this’ when in fact, given a few hours of research, these people could probably do this their self to an adequate level. I’m not saying don’t specialise, what I am saying is that to specialise only is a bit of a dead end as there are so many overlaps in digital that you need an awful lot of skills to maintain relevance in this ever changing market.

 

Dave Thackeray

Here’s where it gets muddied. In your first comment you said “anyone who is an apparent specialist in a single field is missing the point entirely” but in your last, “Isn’t digital marketing / the online world a specialism in itself though?” So are you saying specialising in digital marketing is missing the point? Because you can’t specialise in something so diverse as digital marketing, and consider yourself anything but a generalist! I don’t think there’s an answer here.

 

Me

It’s a fine line indeed. It depends on the level of specialism. Personally I classify myself as a specialist in many areas of digital marketing / technology. Does that mean I’m a generalist or multi-specialist? Its an academic discussion but gets people thinking about options. Knowing you, I’d also classify you as a multi-specialist. IMO a generalist knows a little about a lot but can’t really do anything well. A multi-specialist can do a lot of things well on their own. I think I need to do a blog post on the differences to explain better 🙂

 

Specialist or Generalist or Multi-Specialist in Digital

So what should you be, as someone working in the digital sector? Well here’s the thing about digital, when you work in digital, from the client’s eye you are expected to know everything about everything. That is what they are paying you for and hence why I use the term above about being a multi-specialist. To specialise in any specific area, I believe, is simply too limiting for what is required on a day to day basis when working in the field. It is just not possible to limit yourself to such as narrow field of expertise such as SEO or PPC or Email Marketing or WordPress etc. etc. You need to know all of the above. And herein lies the challenge.

All of these aspects of digital marketing are indeed specialisms which take a great deal to master, yet they are possible to master when you’re working in the digital sector. Just as it’s a lot easier to learn a 3rd and 4th language after you have learnt your 2nd one. Looking at myself as a prime example here, it has taken over a decade of daily improvements in skills, knowledge and experience which has led me to this point today. Each individual skill takes years to master and requires you to continually keep up to date with changes as you need them. And this point is important which I’ll come back to in a minute. Here are a few examples of what I would classify myself personally an expert in and a few details about why to put this into context;

  • SEO: Years of experience and achieving awesome results
  • PPC: I’m Google AdWords qualified, worked in teams spending £ millions per month on AdWords
  • Google Analytics: I’m Google Analytics qualified and have implemented some pretty cool analytics tracking setups
  • WordPress: I co-organised WordCamp in Manchester in 2015, regularly speak at WordPress events on various topics and have worked with WordPress for years, I know the ins-and-outs about how everything fits together and how to get things done
  • Java: I built https://www.tendojobs.com, from scratch along with other Java based setups.
  • Digital Strategy: Years of experience and achieving awesome results and being recognised in highly prestigious awards for these results.
  • And many more

The above headings are just the categories really, the finer details is around the underlying technologies and specialisms beneath here. The type of work that we do, and I would argue most people working in the digital world do, is extremely diverse and requires an ever growing skill set. Hence why I believe that you can no longer be a specialist in just a single area of expertise but you must become a multi-specialist to stay relevant.

Keeping up to date with changes in digital can be a full time job in itself. So how much time do you spend doing this when you are a multi-specialist? Well, that depends on your choices and what you actually need to know right now. The amount of information created on a daily basis these days is so unbelievably massive that it is impossible to know everything and understand everything before everyone else does. That’s what Google is for and knowing where to look when you need to know something precisely. You’ll have all seen the image below about knowledge VS experience.

Knowledge VS Experience

Source: http://lifehacker.com/the-difference-between-knowledge-and-experience-1516486966

 

The difference being that in a digital interconnected world, it is impossible to have all of this information in your head. There is just too much information for any one person to store. This is where the skill comes in to identify the detailed information when you need to know it. To be able to do this effectively though requires you to be aware of the changes, not necessarily the finer details, but the headlines which is why I rarely read articles in full these days until I actually need to. This isn’t the same as what an inexperienced person will do and just Google for answers and not have any idea of what they are looking at. No. This is about knowing exactly what to look for, quickly digesting the finer details when you need them and using this to implement effectively and quickly because of the years of experience and knowing how to digest this quickly. The same is true for development related work, no-one on this earth can memorise the API documents for the variety of languages and platforms they use, they use this as a reference point to implement what they need.

I believe that being too specialised in the digital world is far too restricting and can blinker people from the wider strategic view for how everything joins together. Sure, in your early career you are always going to specialise in something to get your feet in the door to places. As you progress throughout your career though, you soon become a multi-specialist and are extremely proficient at many aspects in the digital world. And I would argue this is more beneficial for organisations than using a lot of very narrow specialists to achieve the same goal. In my experience, those people who are highly specialised in very specific areas with little knowledge outside of this field often miss the bigger picture about why things are being done and instead focus too much on the extremely fine detail, which in the grand scheme of things really doesn’t matter.

Whatever your position is on the specialist VS generalist vs multi-specialist is, leave a comment below. It’s an interesting discussion and there is no right or wrong position to be in as everything depends on what you need right now and in the foreseeable future.

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Michael Cropper

Founder & Managing Director at Contrado Digital Ltd
Michael founded Contrado Digital in 2013. He has experience working with national and multi-national brands in a wide range of industries, helping them achieve awesome results. Michael regularly speaks at local universities and industry events while keeping up with the latest trends in the digital industry.