In 2019, one of the terms we are going to hear more about is the ‘T-shaped employee’.
The term T-shaped employee was popularised a couple of years ago by Tim Brown, the CEO of the IDEO, a California design firm known for its innovative practices.
A T-shaped employee is an individual who has deep knowledge and skills in a particular area, along with a willingness and ability to make connections across disciplines. The horizontal bar of the T represents the ability to collaborate across disciplines through a breadth of general knowledge and soft skills, while the vertical stem of the T symbolises the depth of technical hard skills. Essentially, a T-shaped individual is both a specialist in one area, and a generalist with people skills.
Although it has only recently been assigned a label, learning and development circles have been talking about the need for organisations to cultivate T-shaped employees for some time.
As organisations of every size contend with the challenge of digital transformation and future workplace uncertainty, companies need people who are adaptable, who can think outside their own specialisation bubble and mould their approach as a business evolves. In fact, we think the T-shaped employee is required for true transformation to occur within a business.
T-shaped employees and the empathy advantage
One of the key things that sets the T-shaped employee apart from others is empathy. Strong soft skills typically include a sense of empathy. This is not only good for company morale; it is also more likely to result in a person getting involved in helping another to the extent they are willing to explore another discipline. For organisations that are constantly requiring upskilling, T-shaped employees are more likely to be multi-disciplinary, which means more skills to deploy according to your needs.
T-shaped employees make good leaders
Because a T-shaped employee boasts strong soft skills – attributes like collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and more – they also make good leaders. Late last year, a US study by HR.com and Skillsoft found that most organisations lack effective leadership, and that HR departments need to respond to the shifting paradigm of leadership development. As traditional workplace ‘ladders’ dissipate and organisations become flatter, leadership development must become democratised to ensure that all current and potential leaders master the practices and mindsets needed to excel in today’s fast moving, technology-enabled business context. As a T-shaped employee, mastering these mindsets is second nature, and leadership is a natural extension of that. Leadership today is not about someone giving orders; individuals need to be nimble and prepared for a new responsibility at any time.
Out with the ‘I’
On the opposing team from the T-shaped employee is the ‘I’ – people with specialised experience in a single skillset. If you’re panicking because you or your business still follows the I-shaped model, don’t. Our educational system and workplace hierarchies have advanced the I-shaped archetype for decades, and change takes time. What’s important is awareness of the need to build soft and cross-disciplinary skills.
Structuring learning and development to foster T-shaped employees is all about building breadth and depth simultaneously.
Although we know the hard skills required today will look different in just a few years, they remain the foundation of a company’s core capability and can’t be ignored. Rather than investing in costly, in-depth hard skills training, what’s needed is speedy, continuous learning, allowing hard skills to be updated in line with new technologies and changing business environments. Microlearning - short (online) modules of just a few minutes - is a way to learn fast, with small doses of actionable learning for optimal retention. A platform that allows individuals to access various forms of microlearning and ‘collect’ new hard skills as required will deliver biggest bang for buck.
Crossing your Ts
Employees can also dramatically improve their soft skills proficiency by leveraging high-quality learning content in three critical areas: interpersonal skills (collaboration and teamwork, for example), logic skills (critical thinking and decision making) and communication skills (listening and speaking). Work with a learning partner that can customise this according to the individual in an on-demand format and across a range of modalities.
The organisation also needs to support the existence of these soft skills by encouraging collaboration in the day-to-day running of the business. Everyone to some extent should sit across the horizontal bar to get a broad understanding of what is occurring with specialists moving down the verticals. This collaboration allows for improved monitoring and reactions to events impacting the whole business. It’s an extra pair of eyes and diverse perspectives for problems that would traditionally be tackled in silos.
For employees, honing your T-shape can take your career to the next level, opening doors through new disciplines and responsibilities you may not have previously considered in a typical ‘I-shaped’ career path. For organisations, T-shaped employees are more than a label; they are what will set your organisation apart and allow it to thrive through future change.
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