In the modern era, where specialisation holds the keys to the kingdom, its worth remembering that it wasn’t always so. Hyper specialisation may be fashionable at the moment, but is it the only answer or even the correct answer with technology evolving so rapidly in most disciplines? Will the social media specialists of three years ago find themselves in such demand in three years time one wonders.
Asked to think of a famous polymath and Leonardo da Vinci will spring to mind. Artist, scientist and engineer; all time super hero, he hails from a time when it seemed possible to span enormous distances between disciplines. But a more recent example of successfully leveraging across disciplines might be Florence Nightingale. Mainly remembered as a nurse who tended to wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War, Nightingale was an accomplished mathematician who used statistics to in a modern and effective manner, a great social reformer and a medical innovator. What made Nightingale so effective was her ability to collect information at source, to collate it and present it in a thoroughly readable fashion. So far, so modern. The rose diagram that she (self-) published identifying cause of mortality in the British Army is a classic example of data visualisation that would make modern corporate power pointers hang their heads in shame.
Nightingale went on to set up the first modern school of nursing at St Thomas’ in London and was capable of leveraging skills from one discipline to another with great effect. Medicine, social reform, mathematics: all totally modern skills. Which begs a simple question: does it make you more effective to have an unusual set of skills or expertise that you can re-combine in unusual ways? Does it make sense to specialise in the modern sense or is it worth collecting together a eclectic set of skills before looking for ways to combine them in new fields. In many respects, becoming a traditional specialist is the easy way out – the pathways through education are neatly laid out and the problems are framed in a way that suits to knowledge base.
But does real innovation require a different way of looking at things, a combination of odd viewpoints?