Kirsty Marrins: Do we need digital specialists or 'jacks of all trades'?

This question threw up some interesting responses when I ran a Twitter poll

KIrsty Marrins
KIrsty Marrins

In my day-to-day working life I would consider myself a digital generalist. I can turn my hand to most things comms-related, but over the years I’ve focused more on honing my social media and copywriting skills, which is now my specialism.

The reason I’m a generalist is that I started my career at a small charity and, as everyone who works for a small charity knows, you have to get stuck in and do everything. In my role I was managing the social media channels, updating the website, writing press releases, sending out the e-newsletter, helping to design a new website, project managing a rebrand and more.

But as the third sector increasingly focuses on digital upskilling, I wondered whether it is better in the charity sector to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, or to have a deep understanding of a specialist digital area if we want to keep up with the pace of change?

To help answer this question I first wanted to understand how most people working in charity digital class themselves, so I carried out a Twitter poll.

I wasn’t surprised that the majority of people considered themselves generalists, but I was very interested in some of the responses, particularly the ones about leadership.

Dave O'Carroll, head of content and stories at Dogs Trust, said he believed that a digital communications leader should have some understanding of content creative, search engine optimisation, data analytics, site development, user experience, social channels, digital marketing algorithms and more. “They don’t have to be experts, but should understand the role and value of each in the bigger strategic picture,” he said.

Serena Snoad, online community manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, agreed. "As I've progressed in online community management it's been important to develop a specialism within my generalism in order to deeply understand and develop skills like community strategy, content moderation and community policy,” she said.

“This has meant I don't just know how to operate, but also how to lead and grow an online community and to develop the community team.”

And what of the specialists? Jo Eden, social media manager at the British Heart Foundation, said: “I feel like ‘specialist’ can be a dirty word, as if it narrows your abilities and makes you blinkered. For me, it just means that I’m the person in the room who needs to champion that area, make sure it’s represented and take responsibility for driving that focus.”

Despite being a specialist in her current role, it’s her generalist background that Eden feels allows her to work collaboratively with specialists in other areas because she understands the principles of their work and knows how they can work in tandem rather than fighting for priority.

David Hunt, assistant director, digital, at Breast Cancer Now, said that a large digital team should have a mixture of generalists and specialists, the right blend of people bringing different skills and perspectives.

“For me, it’s important that I lead our digital team as a generalist, so I can support the whole team with direct experience in and understanding of their different areas,” he said.

So is being a generalist better for your career than being a specialist? It would appear to be neither. Rather, the way forward appears to be a “T-shaped” employee: someone who has a specialism but also knowledge of other, related areas.

Andrew Berrie, employer programme manager at the mental health charity Time to Change, found huge benefits to having a team of T-shaped employees when he was working at the University of Northampton Students' Union.

“Having an understanding of each other’s work meant better collaboration when delivering campaigns across the department,” he said. “It was also very useful when managing periods of transition, when team members were on holiday or during times of peak activity, for example supporting the social media manager on A Level results day.”

As well as benefiting the team, having a range of specialisms and generalisms can bring personal benefits. It helps provide variety to people’s roles as well as giving staff opportunities to develop their skills in other areas.

Snoad agreed: ”I think the T-shaped model works best. Your team should know the key operational skills but have flexibility to explore a preferred specialism, because this gives the team a little more depth in those areas."

The answer to my question seems to be that we need generalist leaders who lead T-shaped teams of specialists, all of whom hold generalist knowledge of their related areas.

So if generalists make better leaders, how can specialists develop more rounded skills in order to progress in their careers? Hunt said he encourages them to “self-study, take on volunteering opportunities and keep across what’s new in the sector, to help gain broader experience across multiple areas of digital”.

And with the huge scope of the digital charity world, there should always be plenty of great opportunities to do so.

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant

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