The Integrating Generalist and the Art of Connecting the Dots



“Music is the silence between the notes.” — Claude Debussy

If you like to connect the dots, or put the puzzle together, or simply see the big picture, you just might be an Integrating Generalist.

Integrating Generalists are masters of the art of integration.

Integrating Generalists can apply specialist knowledge to general problems.  They are expert pattern matchers.  They see patterns in things, even where others do not.

They can cross-pollinate ideas, perform creative synthesis, and apply their skill across a wide range of disciplines, domains, and fields.

In the book, Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective, Hans Eibe Sørensen introduces the concept of an Integrating Generalist and how they make the world go round.

Integrating Generalists Bring Ideas to Life

Business developers and entrepreneurs are great examples of Integrating Generalists.  They use their knowledge across business functions, such as marketing, sales, sourcing, product development, distribution, and customer service to bring ideas to life, create customers, and create new markets.

The Business Developer Sees the Business as a Coherent Whole

If you want to bring things together, then you need to be able to see the big picture.  You need to see the whole, and how the sum is more than the parts.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“… doing business should not be confused with an academic exercise within one of our favorite areas of specialized expertise.  Nor is it about having a full set of specialized, but disconnected, courses in business administration and economics.  The business developer works with the knowledge that the business and its environment is a coherent whole with highly interdependent tasks and processes.”

Integrating Generalists Make the World Go Round

Integrating Generalists avoid getting bogged down in the unnecessary details and complexities so that they can make the world go round.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“First, the business developer is specialized as an integrating generalist, which implies (a) we work with entire business operation as our subject and thus view the world in a different perspective and (b) we draw on and are dependent on specialists for our activities.

Second, idiosyncratic complexity usually arises when there is something you do not comprehend, like a child beginning to learn their letters, grammar or maths.  Because something is complex to you, it does not mean that it is complex to others. 

Third, while you may be overwhelmed and confused by the details of your areas of specialization, we—the integrating generalists, business developers, entrepreneurs, leaders, etc.- make the world go round.  That is to say that specialists, in academia as well as in practice, tend to get bogged down by unnecessary details and complexities.  Moreover, the integrating generalist, who understand the interconnectedness of the specialist’s work, must ensure that the specialist provide only what is meaningful to the particular task or assignment.”

The Business Developer as an Integrating Generalist

A business developer, by their nature, needs to be an effective Integrating Generalist.  They have to integrate the parts of a business to make an effective whole.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“The words, ‘specialist’ and ‘generalist’ will be used frequently in my exposition, but what do I mean by them, really? Let me use an analogy to demonstrate the meaning of specialist and generalist in a business context.  Consider the development of the modern mind as argued by, for example, Annette Karmiloff-Smith (1994) and Steven Mithen (1999).  This modern mind analogy will also allow me to introduce the notion of ‘;integrating generalist’, which is of critical importance when trying to understand our focal concept, business development.”

The Modern Mind: A Mash Up of Common, Specialized, and Integrating Knowledge

Specialists are those who have developed experience and skills in a restricted field.  But there is also a place for common or cross-cutting knowledge, as well as integrating general knowledge.  It’s the Integrating general knowledge that helps the whole function effectively.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“Our minds consist of a capacity to apply common general knowledge, specialized knowledge and integrating general knowledge.  Each of these capacities represents stages of our evolution, but all are usually present in modern minds, our minds.  In the context of an organization, this corresponds to having people and business functions with:

Common general knowledge

Specialized knowledge

Integrating general knowledge

The critical distinction to make is that between ‘common general knowledge’ and ‘integrating general knowledge.’  But let us first clarify what we mean by a specialist and specialized knowledge.  Specialized knowledge is developed over time and is acquired with experiences in a specific and restricted field.  We therefore refer to specialists as those highly skilled in a specific and restricted field.”

Common Generalists  Can’t Integrate Specialist Knowledge Into General Areas

Just because you are a generalist, doesn’t mean you can integrate specialist knowledge into general areas.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“Being a ‘generalist’ needs to be elaborated upon as well.  Holders of common general knowledge know about many relevant things to sustain daily life but are not specialists in any area, nor have they the capacity to integrate specialist knowledge into general areas.  Nonetheless, common general knowledge allows for organizational activities, such as running a household.  Note that even such trivial activities may pose huge challenges.  Specialists and integrating generalists possess common general knowledge. We refer to those who are able to use common general knowledge to sustain daily life but are not specialists in any area or do not have the capacity to integrate knowledge from specialist areas as common generalists.”

Integrating Generalists Apply Specialist Knowledge to General Purposes

Humans are good at pattern matching.  An Integrating Generalist is especially good at applying specialist knowledge to other domains or broader areas, in new ways.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“Integrating general knowledge, on the other hand, involves being able to apply specialist knowledge to general purposes that life beyond the possibilities of that of holders of common general knowledge and specialists.  Back to our mind analogy, it is actually a hallmark of our species to have evolved an ability to apply specialist knowledge to general purposes.  We will therefore refer to integrating specialists as those who are able to apply specialist knowledge, which lies beyond that of common general knowledge and specialists to general purposes.”

Integrating Generalists Have a Wide Array of Knowledge Across Different Fields

Integrating Generalists are able to build bridges across silos because they have a good understanding of how things work across a wide variety of functions.  They know enough of the mechanics to be able to put the puzzle together, and shape things towards better outcomes.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“An integrating generalist is generally argued to be a person with a wide array of knowledge across different fields, such as strategic management, marketing management, innovation management, finance and organization, as opposed to the specialist, who is an expert within a particular field, such as corporate finance or market research.”

Integrating Generalists Bring Together and Synthesize Specialized Information

The greatest skill of the Integrating Generalist is the ability to put it all together.  It’s like a conductor who can bring out the best from the orchestra.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“As such, integrating generalists and specialists work with the same amount of detailed information on a daily basis, but a different levels of aggregation.  The business developer’s tasks as an integrating generalist are to bring together and synthesize organizational and environmental information from the various areas of specialization that make up our entire business venture.

Maintaining and refining this integrating generalist approach seems only plausible if the business developer does not get lost in the details of particular details in specialized areas.  This also highlights the importance of the business developer’s extensive knowledge of the role and relevance of the different areas of specialization, and that they have a good and frequent interaction with the respective specialists within an organization.

Conversely, this also highlights the importance of making the specialist aware of their role and area of contribution to the business venture.  A recurrent observation of the many specialists I have engaged with is that they tend to be quite able to realize and accept the extensive difficulties with the understanding of their own subjects among their specialist peers.  On the other hand, they seem quite quick to neglect  that the same fact is prevalent in all other areas of specialization as well as for those specialized as an integrating generalist, such as the business developer.

As an integrating generalist, the business developer is therefore working closely with specialists as well as the senior management and the board of directors, to conceive , craft, and implement superior business plans.”

Specialists vs. Integrating Generalists

Integration might look easy, especially when it’s performed by somebody that’s skilled at doing it.  But it’s really it’s own discipline with special skills and experience required.   There is a science to it, and making it looks easy is the art part.

Via Business Development: A Market-Oriented Perspective:

“Distinguishing the specialist from the integrating generalist can generally be understood in terms of the business tasks and activities they perform and their knowledge about their interconnectedness.

… Based on this stylized setup, we say that the feature which distinguishes specialists from integrating generalists in their respective focus on either increasingly detailed knowledge about interrelated activities within a business function (light blue box) or integrated general knowledge about the interrelatedness across business functions (dark blue box).  As an artifact of this example’s design, we can imagine the limits of knowledge of both the specialist and the integrating generalist.  It should also be easy to imagine a person with common general knowledge as well as scattered knowledge from various specialist business activities but without any meaningful capability to integrate this knowledge.

Note, for example, than an entrepreneur must usually cope with all the business tasks and activities across functions and their environment in the start-up phase.  With the simple wisdom presented in our little example, it should be no surprise that entrepreneurs and other business professionals who are not willing or capable of (a) acknowledge their professional and cognitive limitations and (b) delegate responsibilities to specialists and integrating generalists perform poorly or go bankrupt.”

Now, when somebody asks what you do, you can say more than just “connect the dots.”

You are an Integrating Generalist.

And that’s the playground of the most effective entrepreneurs, business developers, and any role that requires creating synergy from the parts.

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Image by Rob Swystun.