Drowning in data: The case for the business generalist

Expertise and algorithms are overrated. Try using your brain, says this Harvard academic.

by Vikram Mansharamani

Approximately 2,700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin took up the idea in his 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, contrasting hedgehogs who “relate everything to a single central vision” with foxes who “pursue many ends connected . . . if at all, only in some de facto way.”

It’s really a story of specialists with a single focus versus generalists who pursue many ends. In the decades since Berlin’s essay was published, hedgehogs have come to dominate academia, medicine, finance, law and many other professional domains. Specialists with deep expertise have ruled the roost, climbing to ever higher positions. To advance in one’s career, it has been efficient to specialise. And all of us have come to respect the highly paid expert specialist. But as said by philosophising baseball catcher and manager Yogi Berra, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

Our world is increasingly interconnected; seemingly unrelated developments now rapidly and profoundly affect each other. Meddling with interest rates can rapidly affect house prices that drive local school funding, which in turn can impact inequality not only of income and wealth but also of opportunity. Or perhaps a local renewable fuel standard impacts global agricultural prices, generating social unrest in food-vulnerable Africa.

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