Generalist versus Specialist

April 3, 3018

What headlines in the health insurance industry! It is an industry which has traditionally looked at itself as relatively protected from outsiders. (Remember the concept of “barriers to entry”?) First, Obama Care turned the individual market upside down and may have threatened its very existence. Then, there is massive change is coming or pending due non-insurance firms including CVS, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway.

Question – did the competitive intelligence teams at the major health insurance companies foresee this sea change and warn their management? I do not know for certain, but having spent time there, I am guessing not. Why?

I think that the health insurance industry, like too many others, erroneously favors experience in the industry over CI experience/training in its CI providers, both inside and out. And that preference for industry specialist over generalist is widespread.

Let me give an example. Some time ago, a head hunter contacted me looking for a candidate to fill a slot in another “health” industry. The client’s detailed specifications required x years of direct CI experience in that industry – only. The client was willing to drop back on time in CI, but not in time in the industry. It was non-negotiable. I told the recruiter that there were not just very few people that met that standard, but in fact there was only one. And that person I knew was soon retiring. I pressed, and soon learned that the headhunter’s client was the very firm where that person worked.

I told the recruiter that I knew of many excellent candidates with extensive CI experience, but their industry experience was in related industries. The recruiter replied that the client was adamant. So, the client ultimately found no one, by ignoring more general experience in favor of specialized industry experience. Over time, the CI unit basically dissolved.

Sometimes generalists have it over specialists. Listen to the late Joseph Campbell, world-renowned expert on myths (and regarded by some as inspiring the Star Wars sagas):

“Specialization tends to limit the field of problems that the specialist is concerned with. Now, the person who isn’t a specialist…sees something over here that he has learned from one specialist, something over there that he has learned from another specialist – and neither of them has considered the problem of what this occurs here and also there. So the generalist…gets into a range of other problems….” [1]

[1] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, NY, 1988, p. 9



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