What's Better: Jack-of-All-Trades vs. Expert in One Area?

Hey community, 

I'd like your input. What's better in the e-learning and instructional design world, someone who's a little bit skilled at many things (e.g., a mix of tech writer and developer, or graphic designer and instructional designer, etc.) or someone who's a serious pro/expert in a specific domain or area?

Do you think one is better than the other? If so, why? What are the advantages, disadvantages? 

Thanks in advance! I appreciate your input. 

14 Replies
Alan Bourne

Experts every time. Having a team of experts means you can truly get the best out of the learning and user experience.

Having your developers work on creating a bug free course allows the instructional designer and graphics teams focus on getting their domain right. Of course collaboration is key to getting the best results.

So many times do we see courses developed, written and designed by a single person and it usually shows. Something has to give somewhere right?

A disadvantage to this however could be cost in some cases. However many times having a specialist in each area can actually yield more efficient ways of creating a course. Saving you lots of time and money in the long run. 

Steve Flowers

I tend toward focus as well. However, having a sense of and interest in the big picture is also critical, in my opinion. A T-shaped team member has deep expertise in one area but knows enough about other roles to communicate and collaborate well.

Image from Valve Software's Employee Handbook.

A few of these types of folks can manage to switch roles easily as a "versatilist". This still leverages focus and specialization on a team, but helps to balance things out by making sure every talent area is potentially free from lag.

Lots of folks don't have the luxury of specialization in their day-to-day work. This is unfortunate. I agree with Alan that it typically shows when a one-person-show produces an entire product. It's a tough thing to juggle and never get enough time to focus and "go deep" in one area. 

Personally, I've switched up my "dives" over the years to try to develop a versatilist capacity. There are still many areas / modes that I don't have as deep a level of expertise as I'd like. 

So my recommendation is both. Generalize at a shallow level and know a little about everything. Then spend some time and go really deep in one area at a time to develop specialization. Guaranteed never to get bored and you're always expanding your horizons. 


Jerson  Campos

 I agree with Steve and Alan about focusing in a certain area is better, but it is helpful to have knowledge in a variety of areas. I'm more of a Jack-of-all-trades myself. It's mostly due out of necessity (and because I like to learn about everything). I have either been in very small teams and I did a short gig as a freelancer. If you have the luxury of being in a larger and diverse team, then it would be a beneficial of each member to specialize in a certain area. If you are by yourself or in a very small team (2-3), it would help to pickup several different skills.  Diversity is the key for both situations.

For me, having a variety of skills in different areas (ID, Graphic Design, Animations, Web Design, Html, CSS, Some Javascript) has  made me invaluable to my team or clients. But I also consider many of these skills to complement each other. Graphic Design helps me create better animations, which helps me be a better Instructional Developer because I can better execute my ideas for the course. 

I remember joining a company that had previously only hired individuals that had Instructions Design (not development) or technical writing skills for their training team. So while the content was good, the courses where horrible. It took me a while, but I was able to implement templates with better color schemes and develop new courses with better presentation and engagement. 




Cary Glenn

I'm more of a generalist. I've worked in small to very small training teams, where I am the only designer/developer to a team that was about 3-4 developer/trainers. I usually have to read and interpret legislation/regulations/codes and then see what training needs to be done and then create the entire package myself, including graphics, voice-over, learner resources, and LMS implementation. So far being a generalist has been successful for me. 

David Glow

It depends-

1. On the level of skill needed in an area for an org and team composition. If you org is really committed to gamification, and you don't have someone with deep knowledge...  same with data analytics, JavaScript, etc...  But if your org needs pretty basic skills in the area, generalists are okay.

2. On the needs of collaboration. I've seen teams with experts with truly silo'd views of their job and having extreme difficulty relating to others and that critical white-space between where their role ends and the baton is passed to others.  Sometimes, you need the bridge folks to smooth all those issues.

I actually think "depth vs breadth" can be the wrong question- flexibility and learn-ability is key. Authorware pros needed to retool, most Flash pros have retooled are in the process of doing so, designers are retooling to think screen size and think responsive web...  the shelf-life of expertise is getting smaller each day.

Allison LaMotte

In my experience, the "jack-of-all-trade" IDs have been more successful because they are able to take graphic design and development needs into account in their course design. Working with a team where every person is an expert in their field but knows nothing or next to nothing about the other team members' fields, while possible, requires excellent communication skills.

For this reason, I think it is essential for all members of the project team to have a certain understanding of all the different things that go into course development. If the graphic designer doesn't understand the needs of the instructional designer who doesn't understand the needs of the developer you are bound to run into issues. 

Leonard Puglia

Great discussion.

For me, flexibility is the greatest asset of the Jack of all trades approach. Experience and the ability not to get 'too' precious about things allows the client to get what they want while delivering a quality outcome for the learner.

The expert brings a deeper experience of what has been tried and true, and makes for much quicker and targeted outcomes.

Ultimately, as most people have mentioned already, both have their place depending on the circumstances. Personally, I'm trying to be 'more' of an expert in lots of things so that I can add value for and with my clients. Usually, this comes through collaboration.

Trina Rimmer

This is a great topic and I love reading everyone's perspectives. I would say I'm a generalist, but I see the benefits of having a mix of generalists and specialists. At the end of the day, I have to agree with David's point: agility is where its at. In a typical workplace L&D setting, I'd choose a team of generalists who are willing to flex and strengthen their skills over a team of specialists who don't like leaving their bubble of expertise.

Marley Hoggatt

I think flexibility is one of the greatest skills anyone can have in our job market. It's easy to get boxed in to being an expert, and not branching out- but that can limit opportunities. I'm a one-man show in my institution, so I am a jack of all trades by necessity. Although I do feel the strain in some areas, our time and budget limitations don't allow for a team of experts- so I've gotten to learn a lot, stretch my skills, and consistently evaluate what I need to do better. 

Terry Coe

I happen to be a generalist, mainly because I haven't been in eLearning long enough to become an expert in any one part of it.

While I feel having a general knowledge of all things eLearning benefits the company I am working for, having access to experts is very beneficial for when I get stuck on things.

Its kinda like a doctor. Most people won't go to a specialist when they have a cold, but they wouldn't go to a family doctor when they need eye glasses.