Abstract: Past research is divided on whether specialists or generalists have superior creative performance. While many have highlighted generalists’ advantage due to access to a wider set of knowledge components, others have underlined the benefits that specialists can derive from their deep expertise. We argue that this disagreement might be partly driven by the fact that the pace of change in a knowledge domain shapes the relative return from being a specialist or a generalist. Using the impact of the Soviet Union’s collapse on the performance of theoretical mathematicians as a natural experiment, we show that generalist scientists performed best when the pace of change was slow, but that specialists had an advantage when the pace of change increased. We discuss and test the roles of cognitive mechanisms and of competition for scarce resources. Overall, our results highlight important trade-offs associated with the choice of becoming a specialist or a generalist.
Previous version published in Academy of Management Proceedings (2017) under the title of “Can Specialization Foster Creativity? Mathematics and the Collapse of the Soviet Union”
Keywords: Creativity, Knowledge Creation, Specialization and Diversification, Pace of Change, Specialists, Generalists