My mentor and many consulting books tell me that I have to specialize to survive and that the days of the generalist consultant are over. Does this make sense?
Let's step back a bit and ask what specialization gets you as a consultant. Although he didn't start the trend, Frederick Taylor and others have impressed on management the need to examine major business processes in more and more detail. For nearly a century (actually dating back to the Enlightenment of even further), deconstruction of systems presumably has provided more insight, predictability, and, thus, control.
This resulted in rapid specialization of business functions, and professions like law, engineering and consulting followed suit. This subject matter and functional specialization created the organizational silos management now decries and, indirectly, created a need for management consultants and other professionals to bridge and integrate them. It also highlighted the need for a systems view of organizations, made even more critical as systems become more complex and networked.
Thus, the serious downside to specialization is a loss of perspective of first principles about the systems within which you specialized. Ask a consultant with a specialization in human resources about the fundamentals of process management and they may not be able to discuss it, even though those principles are fundamental to understanding how HR functions work. Or see if two consultants in strategy and leadership really speak the same language.
So, to answer your question, it is useful to have one or more areas of specialization for the purpose of gaining a more defined reputation and the ability to deliver highly valued services in a specific market. Remember, however, that the rest of business and management principles are evolving rapidly and you need to be conversant in those principles across the entire range of the enterprise. Tip:
When you develop each year's research and education plan (you do have an explicit one each year, don't you?), remember to include survey work on management topics outside your specialization. For example, if your area is strategy, include in your reading finance, intergenerational relations, quality management techniques, cybersecurity, and emerging topics in business schools (e.g., ethics as a competitive advantage). © 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA