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February 9, 2015 No Comments

Featured article by Carol Howard, program director, Brandman University School of Extended Education and Greg Chansler, instructor, Brandman University School of Extended Education

Decades ago, sage advice for college students may have sounded something like this: choose a career, find a job, and stick with it. This directive most likely came from well-intended earlier generations who rose through the ranks of one company over the course of their entire careers. But those days are long gone, thanks to quantum leaps in science and technology and workplace paradigm shifts. People no longer make a lifelong commitment to one company, nor do they—or their employers—see value in committing to a one-dimensional career. In a 1991 London newspaper editorial, industry expert David Guest commented on a report regarding employment in the field of computer technology. With obvious insight to the future, Guest wrote about the inevitable need for the T-shaped employee. “These are a variation on Renaissance man,” he wrote, “equally comfortable with information systems, modern management techniques and the 12-tone scale.”

T shaped

The widespread use of the term, however, is a more recent phenomenon attributed to Tim Brown, founder of the global design firm, IDEO, renowned for its interdisciplinary project work and top ranking among the world’s most innovative companies. In an interview with Chief Executive magazine, Brown revealed that the success of IDEO was due to hiring cross-disciplinary individuals; in other words, the T shape—or those with both breadth across a variety of disciplines and depth in one specialization.

IDEO is not the only company to acknowledge this new hybrid employee as the secret to its success. Apple, IBM and Procter and Gamble are just a few companies who early on saw the value in hiring individuals with a kaleidoscope of abilities—technical, creative, and collaborative—rather than one-task wonders who had expertise in a single discipline.

The integration of T-shaped employees also supports the requirement of strong employee engagement for today’s workforce. If employees do not feel a sense of community, value and respect they will quickly move on. To address these human needs, leaders need to cultivate interpersonal skills. Competence in managing conflict, delivering inspiring presentations, active listening, decision making and customer service added to an expertise in technical knowledge will create a magnet attracting well-qualified passionate employees.

What is a T-shaped person?

In simple terms, T-shapes have depth of skill in one discipline, represented by the vertical bar of the letter T, and the ability to collaborate across disciplines, represented by the T’s horizontal bar. History is filled with T-shaped people—better known as Guest’s Renaissance men—with a list that includes Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Sir Isaac Newton, to name a few. Add to that list present-day T-shapes, like Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart. What these T-shaped individuals had in common was their passion for not just one field of study but for many, realizing that by connecting what appeared to be disjointed dots, they could create ideas that would in some way revolutionize the way humans live.

Steve Jobs, in particular, was a great example of a modern-day Renaissance man, and his life was proof that “the mother of invention is necessity.” Jobs knew he lacked the kind of experience and knowledge needed to create one of the world’s largest and most prolific consumer electronic and software companies, but he was confident in his business acumen. The combination of the two provided the foundation of his T. “Technology alone is not enough,” Jobs said. “It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”

The Value of T-shaped People

Long overlooked in favor of the highly specialized candidate, the T-shape in engineering and computer science was once viewed as a non-conformist, or a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But, as job requirements have become more complex, coupled with a fickle economy and a rapidly changing digital world, the need for the T-shaped employee is growing. Employers filling IT positions are increasingly looking for individuals who demonstrate a combination of skills, from mobile application and development to business data analytics and processes. The jack-of-all-trades is no longer seen as a renegade, but rather a master of a discipline with transdisciplinary and complementary knowledge. While engineers are at the forefront of this concept, every field will require T-shaped professionals—passionate individuals with a deep understanding in one subject, and a broad understanding across a variety of disciplines, coupled with a thirst for knowledge and desire to collaborate, which translate to the perfect fit.

It’s no secret that T-shaped professionals can ultimately benefit everyone in an organization—including its customers. Consider the recent and endemic credit-card security breaches; big companies are scouring resumes for IT candidates who not only have a solid background in cloud computing but also understand IT security.

Career Advice for the 21st Century

Today’s career advice—no longer reserved for the traditional college student—might sound something like this: no matter the career, never stop learning. Making a dent in the world and future-proofing a career requires the ability to see a problem from another point of view. Those individuals who commit to lifelong learning and continually seek new solutions to the changing needs of a technology-based society become priceless.

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