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In nature -- and maybe the corner office -- scientists find that generalists can thrive
Date:1/30/2008

these brainless creatures confounded his plan.

Sea anemones are simple, and yet we see complex behavior with them. If you put them in a lab, sometimes they attack, sometimes they dont. Sometimes they attack and run away. Sometimes they do nothing but attack. Sometimes they get attacked and dont defend themselves. For something that you would think would be so simple, its much more complex. Behavior cant be predicted even in this one group, he said.

And thats why its attractive to apply this concept of incomplete division of labor to humans, Waite said. Humans are, after all, animals that might be driven mainly by biological urges. But the superimposed culture, rules, laws, race, class and gender make it hard to know for sure.

DOrazio and Waite use a small cookie business to illustrate their findings. If three individuals work in a group and all are specialists, two members make cookies and the other sells cookies. If the seller is out sick, the whole operation must shut down under previous assumptions about division of labor.

The business could hire a fourth person who can bake and sell, but thats an expensive option. Another possibility is sticking with three employees but training one of them to do two tasks.

So now you have a generalist, Waite said. Youve lost something in terms of time and profit initially because you have to invest in training this person. You might even train all three people. But if you have even just one generalist, then youre safeguarded against the possibility that the specialists dont complement each other.

For Waite, the findings reinforce his broader world view. We should value each other much more. We should value people who have a diversity of skills and interests. They might not have really recognizable specific skills but they might be good at doing lots of things, he said.

For biological purposes, the new model will set a standard for future work, DOrazio noted.


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Contact: Emily Caldwell
caldwell.151@osu.edu
614-292-8310
Ohio State University
Source:Eurekalert

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