Halfway through Thomas Friedman’s new book The World is Flat (which I will post more about later) I encountered the word “versatilist” for the first time. Apparently, the word was coined in 2003 by Gartner Research in a study titled Unlocking the Business Value of People: Building Versatility. Analyst Diane Morello, the study’s author, defined versatilists as people who are “able to apply a depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences.” Applied specifically to the IT sector, versatilists are human “Swiss Army knives” equally at ease with technical issues as with business strategy.
Specialists generally have deep skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers but seldom valued outside their immediate domain. … Generalists have broad scope and shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly but often without gaining or demonstrating the confidence of their partners or customers. Versatilists, in contrast, apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles.
I quite like this term and I’m encouraged to see such strong support for the concept in the IT realm, but I question the idea’s sustainability outside of narrow industry-specific application. Hyperinnovation, fragmentation, personalization, globalization, decentralization — all those “-tions” — really force people into just one of two camps, specialism or generalism. As more stuff develops, deeper and faster, you need people looking after the “more” and “wider” while others handle the “deeper” and “faster”. The force is polarizing (it didn’t used to be so in simpler times). The trick, I believe, is arranging these two groups to cooperate and collaborate effectively (hence Creative + Generalist).
The versatilist position (from what I’ve read so far) claims to be able to do both depth and breadth equally and simultaneously. That’s fine — actually, amazing — in a short-term and niche industry sense but Herculean in any larger ideation sense. It’s still a form of (useful) specialization, only closer to the surface. The IT department, for example, may gain a stronger grasp on its portfolio of projects and the synergy among them but it still misses out on inspirations and intersections with ideas in completely different non-IT areas of endeavour.