PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Be as versatile as a Swiss Army knife
© 2010; 2014 Michael Turney Return to
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Many public relations and other professionally-oriented college communication programs, especially those accredited by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) or the PRSA, limit how many credit hours of communication courses students can earn. This policy is meant to ensure they obtain content knowledge in several disciplines instead of focusing solely on how-to-do-it communication skills courses.

If you're a public relations student, now is a good time to ask yourself if you've been taking a broad enough range of classes.
If you're over-specializing and/or taking too many communication courses, you may be seriously hurting your future prospects.

Flexibility is now paramount in almost all career fields.

In his landmark book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century Thomas Friedman warned that the best and most numerous employment opportunities in the future will go to "versatilists" who are able to easily switch gears and move into a number of different types of jobs rather than to specialists with advanced and well-developed skills but whose in-depth knowledge is limited to a single field.

Friedman was certainly not the first person to suggest this. -- But, he did receive much more attention than most of the others who made similar proclamations. -- By reaching and staying on the best-selling book lists with The World Is Flat, Friedman popularized the concept of employee "versatilism" far beyond previous levels and across many more job markets.

Worker versatility and adaptability.

Friedman has always acknowledged that the term "versatilist" was not original with him. He he had adopted it from a 2005 analysis of the IT job market prepared by Gartner, Inc., a Connecticut-based research and consulting firm within the IT industry. Friedman, however, expanded the term's use well beyond IT and successfully associated it with virtually all job markets, not just IT.

Citing the distinctions established in the Gartner study, he described three different types of workers and outlined their perceived value to others and their adapability to future job markets. Listed in order from the least adaptable to the most adaptable, and presumably also from the least employable to the most employable, they are:

The distinction between specialists and generalists is obvious and self-evident. It's also a well-known and widely accepted distinction that has been around for a long time. And, over the years, it has trended from one end of the spectrum to the other and has been debated and argued in many professions, including communication fields such as journalism, broadcasting, and public relations.

The notion of versatilists, however, didn't have as much history. It was "coined by Gartner ... to describe the trend in the information technology world away from specialization and toward employees who are more adaptable and versatile." (p. 291) In the wake of the Gartner report, there were other articles and presentations by IT and human resources professionals that talked about "versatilist employees", but the term didn't gain widespread cachet until Friedman began using it.

Once that happened, hundreds of other articles and countless follow-up studies of various industries and job markets picked up on the terminology and came to essentially the same conclusion: the jobs of the future will predominantly go to versatilists.

Colleges used to stress being a specialist; now it's being a versatilist.

Gone are the days when college graduates could expect to enter a well-defined career path upon graduation and stay on that track throughout their entire work life. Now the experts say most college graduates will go through three, four, or even more distinct "careers" during their work life. And, they almost universally believe that the job seekers of the future will need to be adaptable and versatile if they wish to remain gainfully employed and keep up with the rapid changes that will sweep through the job market.

If you haven't already done so, it's time to ask yourself if you're taking the necessary steps to be ready for this?

Don't want to call yourself as a vesatilist. -- How about a Swiss Army knife?

Quick to latch onto a clever and catchy analogy, Friedman quoted Joe Santana, a director of training for Siemans Business Services, who strongly endorsed the Gartner findings and the importance of vesatilist employees. He said, "People need to become less like specialty tools and more like Swiss Army knives. Those Swiss Army knives are the versatilists." (p. 292)

How many different blades do you have, and how well are they honed?

Public relations is not about writing press releases or writing speeches, or taking photos and creating slide shows, or making films, or any of dozens of other message construction tasks. Public relations is about helping people solve problems.

Robert Dillenschneider      
PRSA Annual Conference (Cincinnati; 1989)      

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6 Jan 2014