It is said that much effort in days of yore went into discussing how many angles could stand on the tip of a needle.
Today we don't discuss this subject very much. It has become a proxy for knowing a lot about nothing - being an expert in a field so narrow that it has stopped being meaningful.
It has also been said that much invention isn't really new as much as it is taking something that is already knowledge in one field and applying it in a totally different context.
That is a good thing. It means that a lot of people can have a go at being an entrepreneur. It doesn't require a Ph.D. to be creative.
What it may require, however, is knowledge about more than just one thing.
I was first guided towards this line of thinking by a series of articles by Bruce Vojac, Associate Dean, College of Engineering, at the University of Illinois.
In these articles, professor Vojac talks about T-shaped, Π-shaped, and M-shaped people. I would rather refer to T-, Π-, and M-shaped knowledge.
If you think about the things you know, you probably have a lot of abilities and knowledge "3 inches deep". You can drive a car - but not like "the Stick", the faceless test driver from Top Gear. You can cook - but not like Jamie Oliver or Michael Mina. You know something about biology - but you could never teach the subject.. This general knowledge is the cross-bar on the "T".
What about your profession? My guess is that you know a good deal more than a lot of other people about something specific. Your deep knowledge is the vertical pole in the "T".
Some people have deep knowledge about two fields. They have Π-shaped (from the Greek letter pi) knowledge. And finally there are the people that know a lot about many fields. Vojac refer to M-shaped (three areas of deep knowledge) or comb-shaped when they are really broadly and deeply informed. They used to be called Renaissance People; like Leonardo da Vinci living when people actually talked seriously about angles dancing on top of needles.
The interesting point is not what we call people or finding a new way to describe brilliance. The interesting point is what happens when you can apply something you learned in one setting to another field.
It has been my experience that America to a much higher degree than my country of birth, Denmark, has people who are highly specialized. Part of the explanation is that when a country has more than 300 mill people, there is a home market for niche experts - a market that can't be sustained in a country with only 5 mill or even 10 mill people. Likewise, organizations with several hundred thousand employees will employ specialists. In small companies, you have to be able to fill many roles - and most Danish companies are very small.
Might it at times be an upside in the fairly small Scandinavian countries that people are used to "wearing many hats"? Could it help explain why they pull above their weight class when it comes to starting new companies - as shown in this charming Bloomberg video from Sweden?
Might the smallness of the home markets explain why too few startups grow very big? You can't create a vision of something you can't imagine - and imagining global organizations can be difficult if your frame of reference is filled with mainly small - or very old - companies. Danish companies are generally smaller than Swedish and Sweden has produced most of the Scandinavian startups that hit the $1Billion valuation mark. It can't be a coincidence.
On a smaller scale, cross pollinating knowledge across fields is possible when people have a chance to have lunch with those different from themselves. That is one reason startup incubators are popular.
It also has much in common with taking knowledge across geographical distances. A product or a process that works in one place on the globe may have to be tweaked to work among different people. The result may be completely new products because different preferences and contexts - and different laws and regulations - call out for solving slightly different problems.
But we would't know unless we looked - laws, regulations, contexts... are also areas where we have deep knowledge about our own country but generally know painfully little about the rest of the world.
Organizations have slowly begun to realize that there is a competitive advantage in being aware of more of these "slightly different problems". People with Π-shaped or M-shaped knowledge are few and far between, but if we collaborate, we might be able to harvest not only knowledge from different technical domains but also gain insights into the needs of market segments that don't resemble our standard employee profiles.
Whether it be diversity in biology, in one person's knowledge, or among several people, cross-pollination is needed if we don't just want to create clones.