The quality of an organization’s human capital is more important today than at any time before. Global, dynamic markets eradicate the competitive advantages of capital, equipment, and land (Drucker, 1992; Friedman, 2006; Hayton, 2005; Teece, 2011). Today, differentiation comes from combining undifferentiated inputs and resources in unique ways (Dutta, 2012; Reeves & Deimler, 2011; Teece, 2007, 2011, 2012; Teece, Pisano, & Shuen, 1997). As such, the source of competitive differentiation and strategic value is not having superior resources, but the skill and knowledge necessary to innovate. One way to describe this organizational ability is dynamic capabilities (Teece, 2012). Dynamic capabilities characterize the organizational ability to sense and seize new opportunities and transform the organization, maintaining a competitive position. Organizations with strong dynamic capabilities change and adapt to dynamic markets, are strong innovators, and build lasting strategic differentiation. The only place this knowledge and skill resides is within the individuals working for the organization: human capital (Blair, 2002; Ployhart, Nyberg, Reilly, & Maltarich, 2014).
If we take the notion of dynamic capabilities and apply it to a person, instead of an organization, you get versatilists. Versatilists are wired to sense and seize new opportunities, leverage new skills and abilities, and innovate who and what they are. They are always changing and adapting to the world around them to become experts in new areas. They don’t have access to different knowledge or methods of learning than other people, but they combine them in new ways to create new versions of themselves. If organizations need dynamic capabilities to innovate and be successful, who better than versatilists to drive that effort. This is why organizations should identify and recruit versatilists as employees.
Unfortunately, current recruiting and hiring strategies are ill aligned to this goal. Just look at your average Sr. level job description: 5 -7 years doing one thing with 10+ years in the same industry, with the same focus; another: 10 years in this job role, plus 5 years in specific industry. The job descriptions go on to list several dozen areas of knowledge and experience necessary to be considered a good fit. These descriptions will use terms like “successful track record of”, “expertise in”, and “demonstrated experience with”. While this likely doesn’t sound out of place to many, especially those in HR and recruiting, it puts the job in a nice, little box tied with a bow. The versatilists will rarely look twice for a couple of reasons.
First off, after 5-7 years doing the same thing, most versatilists are ready for the next challenge, not the next opportunity to do the same thing. The industry experience is less of an issue (although it’s still a bad way to get new ideas into your organization). Versatilists don’t just adapt and change because of external forces; we’re not forced to go down a different path. We choose to do new things in new ways. There is an internal drive to know more, to do more, and to do it better. Once a versatilists has become an expert in a role, we see little opportunity for growth, either personal or professional, and are naturally attracted to the next opportunity.
Second, unlike a generalist who tends to oversell their experience, versatilists, having become experts, generally undersell. This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003; Kruger & Dunning, 1999). According to this research, people tend to estimate their knowledge on any topic as at, or slightly above average. Those with the least amount of actual knowledge overestimate grossly what they know (and don’t know they are doing it). However, this works with experts as well, who underestimate their knowledge by assuming it is also just at, or slightly above average (this is sometimes referred to as imposter syndrome). Because versatilists become experts in each of their chosen areas, even if you ask for “expertise” in that specific area, they will not feel qualified generally. This is further compounded when the job description suggests the candidate should be competent in dozens of areas.
Consequently, organizations limit their ability to hire versatilists the minute they draft a job description, making themselves unattractive to the very human capital they should really want. Organizations cannot become innovative or develop dynamic capabilities, and yet hire based on check boxes and job descriptions of what the job has always been. Instead, organizations should be hiring the people that can adapt and change the job to what it needs to be tomorrow. Unless you change the way you recruit and hire, you’re more likely to hire someone without the skills you thought you needed and no capacity to develop the skills you really need.
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