Yet more on ‘No jobs for generalists’ [3e]

Why is it so hard for enterprise-architects and other generalists to get employment as generalists – despite the evident very real need for such skills in the workplace? And what part do current business-paradigms play in this problem?

[[This post has been split into six parts, in line with the chapter-headings:

  • Part 3a: ‘An incomplete science’ – about Taylorist notions of ‘scientific management’
  • Part 3b: ‘Management as a service’ – a service-oriented view of the role of management
  • Part 3c: The impact of the ‘owners’ ‘ – about how and where financial-investors come into the picture
  • Part 3d: ‘A question of fitness’ – exploring the use of ‘fitness landscapes’ to guide selection of appropriate architectures
  • Part 3e: ‘A question of value’ – how we could describe the business-value of generalists
  • Part 3f: ‘No jobs for generalists?’ – a brief(ish) summary of the whole series

Previous: Part 3d: ‘A question of fitness‘]]

A question of value

All of this brings us back to one of the questions with which we first started: how do we establish the value of generalists’ work?

One of our core problems here is that Taylorism assumes a direct, linear, causal connection between work and final value.

[The only exception that Taylorism will usually acknowledge here is management – and it says that that’s obviously valuable, because, well, because it’s, it’s, because it’s management, isn’t it! In fact must be much more valuable than anything else, because it’s management! Must be!

Hmm… perhaps a more service-oriented view of management might illustrate a different side to that story? Anyway…]

A typical Taylorist work-role is a ‘box’, a ‘cog in the machine’ that carries out a specified item of work with a specified outcome and specified end-value, usually in a specified amount of time – making it simple to identify not only the nominal value of the work itself, but its connection and contribution to the saleable-product or other end-value for the organisation. And it’s usually straightforward to establish that kind of values-linkage for specialist-work, especially as we get closer to the point of production – or ‘point of measurement of performance’, rather, that occurs at the end of the production-phase.

Not so straightforward for generalists, though, because the whole point is that generalists’ work sits between the boxes – the bits of glue and string and duct-tape that take up the slack in ‘the machine’ and make it possible for ‘the machine’ to work amidst the uncertainties of the real-world. And that’s a problem for value-mapping, because by definition our work contributes to the value of the end-product via at least two other work-roles, maybe more – so which of those roles should pay for our services from their own work-value, and by how much? Each of them could claim it’s some other specialist’s cost, not theirs… which gets kinda messy when we’re trying to establish ‘value’, especially via the usual mechanisms of price and the like.

Worse (for us, anyway), Taylorism is likely to purport that generalists should never be needed, that in the self-referential terms of the linear-paradigm, the existence of generalists actually prevents it from achieving the ‘perfect machine’. So there’s often a huge ‘anti-want’ for generalists anyway – or, perhaps especially, to admit to and face up to the embarrassment that in reality ‘the machine’ can never be made ‘perfect’, and that the skills of the generalists actually are needed if it’s to work well, or even work at all. So we get hit by a kind of double-whammie here: the linear-paradigm not only can’t cope with ‘between’-type multi-variate value-equations, but many of the people involved really don’t want to believe we should even exist. We deal with the awkward, the uncertain, the things that mess-up the ‘cleanness’ of the equations: so ‘obviously’ all of those things must be our fault, that we’re actually the cause of them rather than the means via which they can be resolved. Definitely tricky…

The reality is that, by definition, generalists’ work has a non-linear connection to value – which is inherently going to be problematic given that the predominant paradigm assumes that value-connections are always linear. And all of this gets worse if our work is necessarily several steps distant from that measurable point-of-action; worse again if we can’t predict the outcome beforehand – which by definition we can’t in any form of innovation; and worse yet again if we can’t even define explicitly what it is that we’re intending to deliver.

In my own case, my works fits under all three of those categories. As a cross-context ‘connector’, I often literally have no idea what will happen in a conversation; no idea where that conversation will lead; and also no idea about what will be seen as ‘of value’ to the people with whom I’m conversing, because they – not me – are the ones who determine what ‘value’ actually is in that context. Identifying value is there is hard: often the only signal I get that indicates that’s someone’s obtained value from what I do is when they say “Oh! – I hadn’t thought of it that way…” – and go off to do something different as a result.

Yet how do I put a price on that value? After all, I don’t do the end-work that delivers: all I’ve done is talk about ideas a bit – or that’s all it looks like from the outside, despite the long, long history of research and suchlike that’s preceded that conversation. And that trigger-idea may only be one idea amongst many others, from many other sources. In some few cases, such as in that earlier example in the post ‘More on ‘No jobs for generalists’‘, I can show some kind of direct linkage to the end-result: there, the client’s new published strategy incorporated not just ideas but exact phrasing that came up from our conversation. But even where end-value is demonstrably in the millions of dollars or more (as in that example), how is anyone going to believe that that kind of value came out of a few key comments in the midst of a two-hour conversation with ‘just some consultant-guy’? Again, very tricky… much easier to pretend – as occurred in that case, unfortunately – that the conversation never really happened, that the key ideas that underpinned the crucial rethink of strategy just arrived ‘from nowhere’ into the manager’s own head. Whether intentional or not, that kind of ‘deniability’ is sometimes a bit too useful in a Taylorist-dominated world… Oh well.

So the end-result of this mess is that, especially for ‘far-out’ generalists like me (‘far-out’ in the sense of far-distant from the measurable point-of-delivery, not necessarily ‘far-out’ in ideas! 🙂 ), our work often isn’t valued at all – in a monetary sense, at least. We end up either being forced to do some kind of specialist-work – which we don’t do as well as the ‘real’ specialists, and is a distraction anyway from where we would deliver our best value to the organisation – or else just have to accept that we ain’t gonna get paid for what we do. It’s a constant challenge and constant source of irritation for those of us who do any kind of broad-scope generalist work – yet it’s both a direct and inevitable outcome of the inadequacies of Taylorism. From which everyone loses. ‘Oh well’, once again…

It is possible to get employment as a explicit generalist – but that isn’t the same as ‘a job’ in the usual Taylorist sense. And at the kind of level that enterprise-architects should typically work – a mid- to senior-level consultant, or, for employees, one to two steps ‘below’ executive-level in the Taylorist hierarchy – the difference in value-as-pay is often very real: as a commenter here put it, “I was once told by an executive I really respect that I could make 30% more if I would specialize”. The comment also illustrates that point about loss of value to the enterprise: “Alas, I would be bored to tears if I had to specialize at that level. I feel like I’m making a much greater contribution as a generalist, so I stick with what makes me happy.” So even in a somewhat-more-realistic concept of ‘value’, as generalists we’re forced to choose between accepting a permanent and significantly-lower valuation of our worth, or change to do less-satisfying specialist-work that is of less value to the organisation yet actually costs that organisation more. In short, that overall Taylorist-driven model for valuation of work just does not work.

It’s not entirely true to say that “there are no jobs for generalists”, but the ones that do turn up in recruitment-ads tend to be very low-valued indeed – usually right down at the bottom end of the pay-scale. Here’s a real example from a large department-store in the local shopping-mall:

“As a Restaurant Assistant your diverse role will include [list of task-areas]. Most importantly you will interact with our customers with ease and confidence, to deliver that special experience: adding the whipped cream to their chocolate and their day.

Your awareness of health, safety and hygiene will stand you in good stead and you won’t be afraid of the nitty gritty bits; always being willing to muck in and wash up and clear away as you know how every element of this role contributes to the exceptional customer experience we deliver.

A naturally fast paced environment requires a vibrant and adaptable person and, if this is you, we are dedicated to ensuring you fulfil your potential. We offer a structured development programme whereby our management teams are committed to assisting you to achieve the goals and designing your future within [the company].”

(That job pays just £6/hr, by the way. Gosh…)

I’ll pick out some specific points in this, in terms of what they imply about what the organisation actually values, and for what characteristics it will pay a generalist significantly less than the respective specialist:

  • your diverse role will include [list of task-areas]“: multi-task roles are worth less than single-task roles
  • you will interact with customers“: customer-relations are of relatively low worth to the organisation
  • with ease and confidence“: soft-skills and adaptability are of relatively low worth to the organisation
  • to deliver that special experience: the whipped cream … to their day“: a focus on the overall customer-experience (customer-perspective, ‘outside-in‘) is of lower worth than on the product itself (organisation-perspective, ‘inside-out’)
  • your awareness of health, safety and hygiene“: roles that must be aware of broad-scope values-issues are of lower worth than specialist roles that may purport to be ‘value-free’
  • you won’t be afraid of the nitty gritty bits“: dealing with low-level implementation-detail is of lower worth than abstract-oriented roles that may dismiss such details as being Somebody Else’s Problem
  • always being willing to muck in and wash up and clear away“: willingness to do whatever is needed has a lower worth than sticking strictly to the ‘job-description’
  • you know how every element of this role contributes to [the whole]“: systemic knowledge has lower worth than domain-centric knowledge
  • a naturally fast paced environment“: roles in slower-paced, more-predictable environments have higher worth for the organisation
  • vibrant and adaptable person“: indifference and rigidity have higher worth for the organisation

Kinda scary when we frame it like that, isn’t it?

Especially when we translate that up to the kind of organisational-levels at which enterprise-architects would work…

What’s even more scary is that those themes are what Taylorism inherently does value: single roles, robotic non-relations, product-orientation, ‘value-free’ indifference, rigidity, certainty of ‘control’, minimal to no variation, and glacial pace of change – none of which are good survival-traits in most present-day business contexts…

Which kinda might explain why so many organisations are in so much trouble these days?


Clearly we need a much better balance here, and much stronger respect and support for generalist roles. There definitely do need to be explicit jobs for generalists, properly described in terms of how generalists actually work – and not trying to force them into a pseudo-‘specialist’ mould that simply does not make sense.

Anyway, time to move on, and wrap up this monster of a post.

[[Next: Part 3f: ‘No jobs for generalists?’]]

4 Comments on “Yet more on ‘No jobs for generalists’ [3e]

  1. Hello Tom,
    What you explain applies also at each level : enterprise, solution, technical.
    I am a software Architect. A software architect is also a “generalist” , “generalist’ work has a non-linear connection to value” as you say.
    Lot of projects could have better outcome with a big picture and someone providing the glue between components provided by specialist. I see more and more projects without architecture

    From the book 101 Things I learned in architecture school :
    “An architect knows something about every. An engineer knows everything about one thing”
    Thanks lot Tom for your books, your blogs and your advices.

    • Hi Jacques – yes, strongly agree: my examples here have mainly centred around enterprise-architecture, but that’s merely one class of examples, and generalist/cross-function skills are needed at every level of abstraction, all the way from strategy to operations and back again. (On software-architecture, I would strongly recommend the work of Simon Brown – see Coding The Architecture, )

      Many thanks-for-the-thanks 🙂 – it really does help me to know that my work has been useful for others.

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