Ecosystems Thinking for Social Change

Ecosystem, or “system” thinking is not necessarily about ecology, but uses an ecological metaphor to explore the interconnectedness of various aspects of any system (Mars, Bronstein, & Lusch, 2014).  This is a critical skill for business organizations to aid strategy and innovation.  It is also an area where versatilists often shine, because versatilists are uniquely adept at taking deep knowledge from one system and applying it to their understanding of new systems, often leading to unique insights.  However, that is not what this blog is about.  This is about how a lack of systems thinking is trapping our society into repeating the same issues repeatedly.  This is about how electing people who comprehend systems thinking might be a better means of bringing about social change.

The Heart of Systems Thinking

At the heart of systems thinking is to keep in mind that no problem, no solution, no individual exists in a vacuum.  The whole world is a set of interrelated systems that influence and affect those around it; changes in one system ripple throughout our entire society.  Systems thinking involves attempting to understand and evaluate any problem or solution within the context of the bigger picture.

For instance, take constraint theory (Tulasi & Rao, 2012).  Constraint theory suggests that any system or process is constrained by the least capable or least efficient step in the system; this is often equated with the “weakest link” idea that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain.  The idea behind constraint theory, however, suggests that if you fortify the weakest link (solving that problem), you have simultaneously created a new “weakest link” (formerly, the next-to-weakest link).  In addition, the newer, stronger link may also have other unintended consequences (maybe by making it stronger, you have also made it bigger, which affects some other function).  In essence, the process to creating a stronger chain is a never-ending task as each solution has ramifications.

In systems thinking, you must evaluate how a solution to one problem may create a new problem or change the dynamics of another system.  This potential new problem must also be evaluated to determine if it is a bigger problem than the one you are attempting to solve, or makes the solution you have proposed untenable.  Problem solving, like creating a stronger chain, is a never-ending process.  However, the intended result is improving the overall whole, ensuring one solution doesn’t create a bigger problem somewhere else.

Unfortunately, without systems thinking, we are failing to create an overall better society, but are remaining mostly stationary.  Solutions examined and evaluated within a vacuum, create ripples that, instead of moving us forward, keep us in a constant state.

Examples of Non-Systems Thinking Challenges

The worst part of failing to apply systems thinking to the problems of our society, is when the same groups of people argue for two independent solutions, which are counterproductive; i.e., when the same group argues for one solution that aggravates another problem they are trying to solve and vice-versa.  It is important to understand that, in and of themselves, the proposed solutions may be perfectly good solutions; it is only when you combine the system effects that issue become apparent.  It is also important to note that this is not an analysis of the merits of any particular solution or point of view.  There is no intent to endorse or oppose any of the individual solutions, simply to illustrate the systems effects of those solutions.

Immigration Reform and Free Trade Agreements

By itself, building a border wall, while economically questionable, is a perfectly legitimate solution to preventing illegal immigration via our southern US borer.  It is not the only solution of course, but it is a possible solution.  We can debate this one way or the other, but even opponents must admit that it is a solution whether they agree it is the right one or not.

Similarly, eliminating or significantly reducing free trade, particularly with low-cost labor countries like Mexico is a legitimate solution to reducing job-loss in the US via off-shore outsourcing by US companies and keeping US investment in the US.  Again, not the only solution, but certainly one way to address the issue.  We can once again debate this, but it must be accepted that it is a solution.

However, when put together, these solutions are counter-productive.  By eliminating the ability for Mexico to continue to develop and build their economic capability (by granting them easy access to US markets and US investment), their standard of living will likely decline.  A decline in standard of living (loss of jobs and the income from it) only perpetuates the growth of illicit enterprises (e.g. drugs) as well as makes illegally emigrating to the US more attractive.  As such, from a systems perspective, reversing free trade agreements will likely compound the issue of illegal immigration, as well as drug smuggling and other issues.  This places even bigger demands on the needs of border protection and immigration control.  These are misaligned solutions from a systems perspective.

Welfare Reform and Birth Control

Another counterproductive combination of arguments is simultaneously arguing for reducing the US welfare system, while simultaneously arguing to eliminate birth control options, including sex education and access to safe abortions.  Again, in and of their own, each of these arguments are perfectly reasonable and can be understood.   Without applying personal judgements on them, they are reasonable goals and can be respected.  From a systems perspective however, these are not isolated issues or goals, they have complex interactions which makes arguing for both less reasonable.   The only logical result of limiting sex education and access to birth control measures is an increase in women and children within the welfare system.  It is illogical to argue for both actions, even if either one of them in isolation can at least be recognized as reasonable.

Cyber Security and Encryption Strength

Just this last week, there were two articles published.  The first one detailed how Russian hackers have been targeting the personal (non-government) cell phones of NATO soldiers to track, intimidate, and spy on them.  The second one detailed the Department of Justice (DoJ) pushing for US technology firms to make it easier for law enforcement to access the encrypted (personal) devices of accused criminals.  Again, arguing for improved safety and security of our personal information, particularly through strong encryption is a reasonable solution to rampant cyber crime.  It is also reasonable to argue that law enforcement should be able to access the information they need to convict criminals for breaking the law.  Unfortunately, you cannot reasonably argue for both as the one comes at the cost of the other.  Arguing that we need to better protect our personal information from thieves, while simultaneously arguing to hobble encryption for government access are mutually exclusive goals.

Understanding the Bigger Picture is Essential

Systems thinking requires us to look at the proposed solutions and understand their ultimate effects.  It asks us to better understand how seemingly separate systems interact and how changes in one creates ripple effects in others.  Besides allowing us to mediate between counter-productive arguments, systems thinking also provides an opportunity to discover new solutions.

By broadening our thinking, systems thinking allows us to uncover new solutions to old problems.  If we see how changes in one system can ripple into others, we can harness these ripples for positive change in our society.  It asks us to look at why things happen, at root causes, rather than addressing the ramifications or symptoms of those problems.  It allows us to explore how numerous problems in our society may be linked by ripple effects of similar issues we haven’t imagined.  For instance, could the rising costs of US health care (and its effects on treatment of mental health issues) be a progenitor of the rising threats of violence and recruitment of disaffected youth by terrorist organizations?   Could the antiquated US tax system be a progenitor of immigration challenges, job-loss through outsourcing, and increased income divisions?  Could US foreign policy be a bigger source of terrorist threats than religious extremism?  Systems thinking helps us see how solving one challenge may also have positive benefits on others.

Unfortunately, we do not look at problems as components in a unified system of systems, we tend to look at individual problems and argue solutions without thinking about the ramifications of those arguments.  We frequently miss the forest for the trees.  The effect is to leave us in a perpetual state of uncertainty, never moving society fully forward no matter how many problems we try to solve.  We never address the true source of the problem, only applying patches that don’t align and don’t solve the underlying problem.  We would all do better if we took a more holistic view of the problems we face, rather than reactively addressing symptoms.



Mars, M., Bronstein, J., & Lusch, R. (2014). Organizations as ecosystems: Probing the value of a metaphor. Rotman Management, 73–77.

Tulasi, C. L., & Rao, A. R. (2012). Review on theory of constraints. International Journal of Advances in Engineering & Technology, 3(1), 334–344.


Fear Not the AI Overlords! Humans Have Intrinsic Value.

There is significant hype about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential to take over many jobs thought safe from Automation.  It has been suggested AI could replace accountants, lawyers, doctors, and even general management activities.  While it is true that advances in AI will certainly change many jobs, as so often happens, the fear is exaggerated.  First, there is no evidence to support the notion automation has ever eliminated more jobs than it has created.  Second, and more importantly, humans have intrinsic value that is unlikely to ever be replicated or replaced.

The Fear of Losing Jobs

Before anyone gets too excited, a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights the facts of mass automation in the past.  Technology from the cotton gin through AI has always eliminated some jobs, but historically it has also created far more and better paying jobs as a result.  Sure surrey drivers were put out of work with the advent of the automobile, but the auto industry created millions of jobs supporting the US GDP for decades.  AI is simply the latest in a long-line of technological advances feared to lead to the end of our society.  It has never happened before and is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  It is true that some jobs may cease to exist, but this will be accompanied by a growth of new jobs supporting the AI industry.  Even more remarkable will be the new jobs that don’t even exist today.

A recent report from the Institute for the Future estimates 85% of the jobs today’s students will perform by the year 2030 haven’t yet been invented.  This is a difficult prospect for today’s workers to imagine, but it is not without precedent.  Student’s graduating high school in the 1990’s could not have imagined careers working in web design, social media, or – for that matter — artificial intelligence, machine learning, and big data.  Another recent article from MIT Sloan Management Review hints at some of the new jobs AI technology may create.

On top of all of that, it is unlikely many of the jobs being predicted to succumb to AI will actually go away.  It is much more likely they will be augmented and changed than disappear entirely.  And the reason is simple: humans have innate value in performing jobs in a human society.

Humans Have Intrinsic Value

Although AI is redefining what is considered automata by allowing more variation in performance, it is still not human.  Human beings are defined by the irrational and emotional more than they are by cold, calculated precision.  While this may seem to be a negative aspect of humans, it is also the source of the innovation, creativity, and passion that simply cannot be replicated.  Just for sake of argument, let’s examine just one of the jobs proposed to be replaced in the future by AI: management.

Business management is an oft misunderstood discipline, which does not benefit from the HR moniker “people manager”.  You manage objects, but you lead people.  Objects are managed to gain efficiency, but they have finite limitations. You cannot encourage a robot to be more productive.  You cannot ignite passion in your inventory tracking software to go above and beyond.  Yet human beings have nearly limitless capability to “reach for a goal”, “put in extra effort”, or “embrace shared visions”.  While this can also work to reduce human performance (as discussed in this article from MIT Sloan Management Review), this is critical distinction when looking at the effects of AI in particular.

Management, in its truest sense, is absolutely ripe for AI replacement.  Eliminating the idiosyncracies of human performance can have significant value to organizations.  AI is simply better able to gather, process, and act on vast amounts of data where human input is less vital (although not necessarily irrelevant).  By offloading these tedious and taxing responsibilities, while also improving their performance, humans can spend more time doing the things where they have intrinsic, and irreplaceable value (See article from Swiss Cognitive).

Leadership, on the other hand, will no longer need to take backseat to management.  By focusing on leadership, organizations will not only gain the advantages of AI-based management efficiency, but also from the benefits of stronger human performance.  In essence, organizational leaders will be able to offload the tasks they don’t do very well anyway, and focus on the actions that lead to truly superior performance.

Fear Not!!

While the example above focuses on my area of expertise, the same can be said for many other jobs ripe for AI augmentation.  AI, like the cotton gin and automobile before it, are tools that will augment and improve the way we work.  Yes, some jobs may be significantly reduced or eliminated; however, they will be replaced by newer and better jobs.  The jobs getting augmented by AI will simply change, putting more focus on the human aspect.  It is not the end of the world.



You’re a little bit racist, and so am I.

One of the more well-known, and potentially contentious, songs from the musical Avenue Q declares everyone is a little bit racist.  What it doesn’t state is that we are all also a little bit sexist, regionalist, and nationalist as well.  We naturally identify with people who are like us and are suspicious of those who are different.  If you are travelling in a foreign country and meet up with someone from your own country, there is an immediate affinity.  If they happen to also be from the same region (state, province, whatever) that bond is intensified.  If they are from the same city, you are like long-lost friends who have found each other in a sea of unfamiliar sights and sound, regardless of any other differences (race, religion, sex, etc.). This is how human beings are wired and how we have survived as a species.

The Biology of Prejudice

Prejudice and stereotypes are part of our genetic makeup, the biology allowing our species to survive.  When our ancestors heard growling and rustling in the shadows, the immediate sense of fear and suspicion is what saved them; those that didn’t, or couldn’t, make the association between these inputs and the savage beast about to attack, didn’t survive.  The fact our ancestors survived to give rise to the current population is a testament to their natural ability to take in their surroundings, match complex patterns of association, and make sound, rationale assessments.   While those assessments may not have always been correct, it only took one instance of being correct (or seeing someone else be incorrect) to cement the association and the behavior. Continued exposure to patterns matching our expectations, solidify and codify these reactions until they become unconscious and automatic.  We have little control over it.

This is not to say that we are born specifically racist or bigoted.  It is more that we are wired to trust the familiar, and distrust the dissimilar.  We naturally find safety in similarity, and discomfort in differences.  The more dissimilar, the more discomfort.   Given a choice between aligning ourselves with those that are like us, and those that are different, we will choose similarity every time.   This is the biology of prejudice.   It is not about sex, religion, race, nationality, or anything specific, it is simply a cognitive process that seeks affinity with those most like ourselves.  We are social animals and seek similarity.  It is who we are, the way we are wired, and all of us are subject to it.

What to do About It?

If this prejudice is hard-wired into our brains, what, if anything, can we do about it?  Interestingly, telling people to quit being prejudice may have the wrong effect by focusing on the differences instead of the similarities.  However, there are a number of things that individuals, organizations, and society at large can, and should, do to combat the negative aspects of prejudice.

As Individuals

As individuals, there are two things we can do.  The first is to accept and understand our own biases, and not discard them as characteristic of low moral fiber; they are a part of us and still have value in today’s world.  If you are walking alone in a foreign city at night and see a group of locals hanging out on the street corner, maybe it is okay to have a heightened sense of awareness.  It is not inherently bad to follow our instincts and to have caution; it has kept us alive for centuries.  Maybe, just maybe, it is appropriate to take steps, like crossing the street, in order to minimize your unease.  It does not make you a bad human being.  There is a distinct difference between being cautious and going out of your way to harm those who are unlike you.  Being cautious is okay; being mean is not.

Which brings us to the second thing we can do.  If you happen to be one of those locals hanging out on the street corner and notice someone crossing the street to distance themselves, don’t be so quick to take offense.  This act, which might be labeled a “mirco-aggression”, is not aggressive; no one has done you direct harm.  You don’t know that individual, just like they don’t know you.  Prejudice works both ways and is a general stereotype, a pattern that says nothing about you as an individual or the other person.  Reacting negatively to the situation does more harm as good, because it reinforces the original, negative prejudice.  Acknowledge your own biases and show empathy for another; focus on your similarities.

As individuals, we must accept that we are all prejudiced against the unfamiliar.  It biases our view of the world, including how we interpret other people’s behavior, and words.  What we see and hear, may not be what the person actually did or said; our interpretations of reality are just as biased.

As Organizations

Diversity is an essential ingredient to organizations, as diversity is a key ingredient to the innovation that drives success.  Left to their own devices, however, diverse groups of individuals will naturally segregate themselves based on their similarity or dissimilarity with other members of the group.  This works against getting the benefits of diversity because innovation comes from not just having diverse employees, but getting them to collaborate.  There are also things organizations can do to improve this.

Organizations should find ways of fostering shared experiences and socialization for their diverse teams.  Sponsoring a bowling team, a reading club, toastmasters, or anything that can developed shared experiences will help employees do two things: 1) it allows diverse teams to get beyond inherent prejudices by engaging with individuals and discovering hidden similarities; and, 2) it creates similarities that can override other differences. As we come to see our coworkers as more similar to ourselves than others, we change the dynamics of our prejudices. Coworkers take on new shared labels, like coworker, bowling buddy, or literature lover.  Just like the travellers from the same city who meet in a foreign country, even the smallest similarities can foster connections.

Another way organizations can foster cohesiveness is by employing great leadership.  Organizations are formed for a purpose, and great organizations are effective at connecting that mission to the contributions of each and every employee. Organizations creating passion for their purpose, create an environment of inclusion and solidarity.  This simple fact, once again, creates a new kind of similarity between diverse employees: they are all champions of the organizational mission.  By encouraging an “us against the world”, the “us” becomes a new, powerful form of similarity.

If organizations want to harness the full potential of diversity, they need to focus on creating similarity.  While this is counterintuitive and often runs contrary to most organization’s diversity programs, focusing on differences will not suffice.  Organizations must seek to redefine employee perceptions through inclusion and redefining who “we” are.

As a Society

As a society, we also need to quit focussing on our differences and foster our similarities.  It is not without coincidence many Sci-Fi storylines show all of humanity coming together when aliens invade earth. This scenario clearly creates a strong definition of “us” as humans, overcoming all of our other differences. It changes our calculus of difference as  race, religion, and national origin seem pretty insignificant compared to differences in species.  And, we can learn from that.  There are two great examples from the past year or so that illustrate how we could focus more on our similarities than our differences: the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the term “Radical Islamic Extremists”.

While any rational person should not be able to argue the statement that black lives matter (they obviously do), the movement has often generated contention because of the implication that only black lives matter.  Of course, this was not the intention of the organizers, but the resultant backlash is instructive.  By calling out labels, which focus on our differences, rather than our similarities, our biology gets in the way.  There are important issues that this movement seeks to address, and while many of them may affect one racial group more than others, solving them will not be effective when we focus on differences, rather than similarities.  More inclusive language, focused on similarities, may have been a better choice and promoted greater engagement.

A similar thing can be said for the term “radical Islamic extremist”.  Applying the label of “Islamic” immediately divides our social understanding of the issue.  Suddenly, we not only see how we are different from others because we are not radical extremists, but also because we may or may not be Islamic.  Highlighting this difference, instead of the ones that matter, does not help us work together to solve the problem.  Instead, it further divides us.  There should be no difference between how we react to Islamic extremists or Christian fundamentalist extremists.  The part that matters is “extremist” or “terrorist”, not what faith or doctrine they happen to hold. Further segmenting the issue only serves to blur who “us” and “them” are.

As a society, we need to work harder to focus on our similarities, rather than our differences.  This does not mean that we should attempt to create complete homogeneity and make all people exactly the same.  We just need to foster greater affinity between ourselves.  Only then can we truly celebrate our differences – from a place of safety and familiarity.

Coming Together

If we are going to survive as a species, we need to focus on that fact: we are all the same species.  We need to accept that we are inherently wired to be prejudiced towards people who are not like us, and foster our understanding of our similarities.  The more similarities we can find, the less the differences will matter.  Furthermore, in today’s globally interconnected world, it has never been easier to uncover our similarities.  It has never been easier for us to get beyond our prejudices and create new patterns of behavior.  If we find a way to come together and focus on our similarities, we not only make it easier to celebrate and harness our differences, but we may also find ways of eliminating negative bias for our future generations.


Diversity is not just a social issue, it is an economic one.

The problem with treating diversity as only a social-justice issue is that social issues rarely get solved without demonstrating how they indirectly affect all people, not just the disenfranchised.  All you must do is look at the history of social corporate responsibility (CSR) to see this effect (O’Toole & Vogel, 2011).  CSR was treated with mostly lip-service until two things were demonstrably clear in the marketplace: 1) consumer trends were changing to favor organizations demonstrating CSR principles; and, 2) CSR (or sustainable) practices made economic sense by reducing waste, improving operations, and elevating brand.  While the messaging is about being socially conscious, CSR business models can lead to competitive differentiation, which leading to profits. The only real academic argument against CSR is the implied altruistic nature of most CSR proponents; every corporation engaging in CSR generates either direct or indirect economic profit from those actions, meaning CSR is nothing more than “enlightened self-interest” (Smith, 2003).  As much as we should care about social issues, until they affect us directly, critical mass is not achieved towards solving them.

Diversity is no different.  We, as a collective species, should promote diversity (religious, nationality, sex, age, values, etc.) simply because it is ethical and just. However, because of the numerous permutations of bias, no single group of disenfranchised gains sufficient support to make true change solely on the basis of justice.   Unless we can demonstrate how biases affect everyone, progress will remain slow, or non-existent.  The best way to combat isses of diversity is through developing the enlightened self-interest of the greater society.

Fortunately, there is tremendous support that diversity is the key to economic profit and productivity benefiting everyone, including those who are not victims of bias.  It is no accident that our national headlines, business articles, and social commentary are inundated with stories about both diversity as well as innovation.  These two concepts are intimately conjoined. Without diversity of experience, thought, and perspective, innovation does not happen; without innovation, society will no longer grow and prosper, but decline.  This affects everyone.

Innovation is the only true competitive differentiator in today’s world economy (Drucker, 1992; Friedman, 2006; Salchow Jr., 2016; Teece, 1998, 2004). Whether the innovation is a means to increase organizational efficiency, develop new business models, or an innovative product, the days of competing solely on accumulated land, capital, equipment, or market dominance are long over.  Those who don’t innovate, fail in the long-run. This affects people, companies, communities, and countries not just certain individuals. The inability to adapt to the global economy has decimated entire regions in the U.S. from miners, to steal producers, to manufacturers.   The number of companies and individuals directly affected is miniscule to the number of companies, individuals, and communities that have collapsed indirectly from these failures.  Lack of innovation capability affects us all.

Yet, we know that diversity in perspective, knowledge, experience, and capabilities is a foundation of innovation (Gladis, 2017). We know that diversity drives innovation (Niebuhr, 2010; Parrotta, Pozzoli, & Pytlikova, 2014), and creates economic rents, productivity, and success (Beck & Walmsley, 2012; Crook, Todd, Combs, Woehr, & Ketchen, 2011; Kim & Ployhart, 2014). Without diversity, we cannot hope to innovate because innovation is all about seeing things from a different perspective, a different value structure, a different life experience, a different cognitive lens.  It is through exploring and evaluating these differences that we see new possibilities, new solutions, and new ways of moving forward as companies, communities, and societies.  Diversity forces us to challenge what we think we know, and that leads to innovation.

It is sad that at a time when collaboration and access to diverse perspectives is so easy, we have instead taken to divisiveness, to segregation. We seek the illusionary safety of the known and miss the forest for the trees that don’t look, act, talk, or believe like us.  However, if we fail to see how diversity is an asset, not a liability, we fail our society. We fail, not because we violate the social contract, but because we will bankrupt society.  We fail by succumbing to what we believe is, rather than seeing what could be.  Without innovation, driven by diversity, we become static and eventually decline (Second Law of Thermodynamics anyone?).

Diversity is an economic imperative, not just a social one. The best way to secure your own future, is to seek out and embrace diversity. It is in our own self-interest.


Beck, J. W., & Walmsley, P. T. (2012). Selection ratio and employee retention as antecedents of competitive advantage. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 5(1), 92–95.

Crook, T. R., Todd, S. Y., Combs, J. G., Woehr, D. J., & Ketchen, D. J. J. (2011). Does human capital matter? A meta-analysis of the relationship between human capital and firm performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 443–456.

Drucker, P. F. (1992). The post-capitalist world. Public Interest, 109(Fall 1992), 89–101. Retrieved from

Friedman, T. L. (2006). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gladis, S. (2017). The Formula for Achieving Innovation. TD: Talent Development, (February).

Kim, Y., & Ployhart, R. E. (2014). The effects of staffing and training on firm productivity and profit growth before, during, and after the Great Recession. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 361–89.

Niebuhr, A. (2010). Migration and innovation: Does cultural diversity matter for regional R&D activity? Papers in Regional Science, 89(3), 563–585.

O’Toole, J., & Vogel, D. (2011). Two and a half cheers for conscious capitalism. California Management Review, 53(3), 60–76.

Parrotta, P., Pozzoli, D., & Pytlikova, M. (2014). The nexus between labor diversity and firm’s innovation. Journal of Population Economics, 27(2), 303–364.

Smith, H. J. (2003). The shareholders vs. stakeholders debate. MIT Sloan Management Review, 44(4), 85–90. Retrieved from

Teece, D. J. (1998). Capturing value from knowledge assets: The new economy, markets for know-how, and intangible assets. California Management Review, 40(3), 55–79.

Teece, D. J. (2004). Knowledge and competence as strategic assets. Handbook on Knowledge Management 1: Knowledge Matters, 40(3), 129–152.

Why you want to, but won’t, hire a Versatilist

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.



Blair, D. C. (2002). Knowledge Management: Hype, Hope, or Help? Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 53(12), 1019–1028.

Drucker, P. F. (1992). The post-capitalist world. Public Interest, 109(Fall 1992), 89–101. Retrieved from

Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83–87.

Dutta, S. K. (2012). Dynamic capabilities: Fostering ambidexterity. SCMS Journal of Indian Management, 9(2), 81–91. Retrieved from

Friedman, T. L. (2006). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hayton, J. C. (2005). Competing in the new economy: the effect of intellectual capital on corporate entrepreneurship in high-technology new ventures. R&D Management, 35(2), 137–155.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It : How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated. Journal of Personnality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134.

Ployhart, R. E., Nyberg, A. J., Reilly, G., & Maltarich, M. a. (2014). Human capital Is dead; Long live human capital resources! Journal of Management, 40(2), 371–398.

Reeves, M., & Deimler, M. (2011). Adaptability: The new competitive advantage. Harvard Business Review, 89(7/8), 134–141. Retrieved from

Teece, D. J. (2007). Explicating dynamic capabilities: the nature and microfoundations of (sustainable) enterprise performance. Strategic Management Journal, 28(13), 1319–1350.

Teece, D. J. (2011). Dynamic capabilities: A guide for managers. Ivey Business Journal Online, 1. Retrieved from

Teece, D. J. (2012). Dynamic Capabilities: Routines versus entrepreneurial action. Journal of Management Studies, 49(8), 1395–1401. Retrieved from 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2012.01080.x

Teece, D. J., Pisano, G., & Shuen, A. (1997). Dynamic capabilities and strategic management. Strategic Management Journal, 18(7), 509–533.

Becoming the versatilist

A “versatilist” is someone who can be a specialist for a particular discipline, while at the same time be able to change to another role with the same ease (Wikipedia).  I first became aware of the term while researching my dissertation in the book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Friedman, 2005) and the term was first applied to me by a fellow scholar during doctoral studies.   I had always considered myself a generalist, not the guy you want to hire to do the job itself, but the guy you wanted to help plan, create, and innovate using a vast background of disparate knowledge and experience.

So, what is the difference between a “generalist” and a “versatilist”?  I think the difference is the degree of competency within each domain of knowledge.  A generalist has experience or is familiar with the various domains of knowledge they have, while a versatilist becomes an expert (albeit briefly) in each domain they pursue.  Generalists are philanderers in a sense, never truly committing to any particular domain of knowledge and content with superficial awareness; versatilist are serial monogamists, committing deeply to each domain with passion and intensity, but never staying for the long-haul to make a career of it.

This perspective certainly makes my varied career history a lot more understandable, explaining how I have achieved success in each of my roles, but never staying long enough to truly define what I do or give any clues as to what I want to be when I grow up.


  • computer nerd, basic/pascal programming for fun and profit
  • DOS expertise


  • DEC MINI administrator
  • Associates Degree in Electronics Technologies
  • Component-level repair of IBM mainframe logic boards and POS systems
  • Achieved Novell CNE and Microsoft MCSE
  • Independent Small Business technology consultant (design, sell, install hybrid LANs) specializing in “Internet Connectivity”
  • Started installing first wireless networks / fiber optic solutions
  • Achieved CCNA/P, Network+ certifications
  • Fortune 100 Retailer “eCommerce” team building “new” web architectures


  • Field Service Engineer for technology manufacturer
  • Achieved CISSP, C|EH and CCE security certifications
  • Independent computer forensics consultant
  • Security Architect for technology manufacturer
  • Technical Marketing Manager for technology manufacturer
  • Completed Bachelor’s in Information Technology
  • Manager Technical Marketing


  • Completed MBA (IT Management)
  • Corporate Press/Analyst Spokesperson
  • Manager of Professional Certification for technology manufacturer
  • Completed DBA (Strategy and Innovation)
  • Begin Data Science training

At each point in time, I was committed to being the best “whatever” I could, applying all my passion and effort towards achieving competence.  Yet, once I could consider myself an expert in that endeavor, I moved to the next thing, generally not looking back.  I’ve programmed, but am not a programmer.  I’ve been a systems administrator, but don’t do systems administration.  I’ve written numerous articles, whitepapers, and academic papers, but am not a writer.  I’ve done many things, but don’t feel that any of them define who I am or what I do.

The only moniker that makes sense is . . . I’m a Virsatilist.