Management Today

Australia's leading magazine for managers

T-shaped people: the new employees of the digital age

29th Aug 2012 00:08

By Amy Birchall

The digital age has spawned a new type of employee: the T-shaped person. While T-shaped people can work in a range of disciplines, are creative and make good collaborators, they have long been overlooked in favour of workers who excel at one specific task, or who are experts in a particular field.

With the ever-present skills shortage, uncertain financial times looming and the growing pressure for organisations to have an online presence, it’s finally time for T-shaped people to show employees what they’re capable of.

What is a T-shaped person?

T-shapes have depth of skill in one discipline, which is represented by the vertical bar of the letter “T”. They also have an ability to collaborate across disciplines, which are represented by the “T’s” horizontal bar.

The term “T-shaped” was reportedly brought into widespread use by global design firm IDEO in the mid 2000s. IDEO has been ranked by BusinessWeek as one of the most innovative companies in the world and is renowned for its interdisciplinary project work. In an interview with Chief Executive magazine CEO Tim Brown attributed this success to hiring and fostering T-shaped people.

He says that companies such as Apple, IBM and Procter and Gamble are fans of T-shaped hiring, although they tend to steer away from using the phrase “T-shaped”.

Why are T-shaped people valuable?

Organisations are expected to have an online presence and to be practising two- way communication with customers. This means interdisciplinary teams have to collaborate more than ever before. Managing a website might require input from a designer, an IT specialist, a marketing guru and a PR professional. Employers will favour those with expertise in one area, but who are also literate in other disciplines.

Who's hiring?

IBM made the switch to T-shaped people as job descriptions became more complex. I-shaped people (the opposite to T-shape) were perfect for writing computer code, because it was a single discipline. But these days, tasks such as detecting credit card fraud requires skills in maths, law, finance, technology, psychology and political science. Expertise in one area no longer cuts it.

Melbourne-based brand agency TANK, which lists Holden, Australia Post and Virgin as clients, exclusively recruits T-shaped staff. Director Jim Antonopoulos says T-shapes are most effective at generating and executing new ideas.

“We need people who can generate ideas, who can think laterally and creatively and can cross-pollinate across disciplines. The need to have broad range of experiences and a linear depth of expertise is crucial,” he says.

“We’re one of the few in our industry to hire people in this way. It’s surprising there aren’t more creative organisations doing the same thing.”


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