T-shaped people are beneficial to an organization for several reasons. They often bridge gaps between teams, produce efficiencies, and are adept at creating an innovative work environment, along with many other benefits.
Before explaining additional benefits of having T-Shaped people in your organization, it’s important to identify what both I-shaped and T-shaped people are.
An I-shaped person lives in a limited space of specialization. Their knowledge on a particular subject is deep and precise. As an employee, their skill set is focused on the deliverability of a specific output, largely to the exclusion of other considerations. While their skills are critical in times where expertise is required, they can also be a liability for the organization. They are limited as employees. Outside their sphere of proficiency, they have little to offer other departments or the organization as a whole. They are like a single-use tool; they are perfect for specific applications only.
A T-shaped person balances their depth of knowledge with their breadth of competency across more than one department. Where they have expertise in specific areas, their knowledge and interests range across a variety of topics and skills. Therefore, they are able to contribute to the organization in multiple ways. The T-shaped person sees linkages across people and departments. They can comprehend issues more quickly and identify solutions outside of their primary role and can bring to bear knowledge that they have accumulated from exposure to other disciplines.
An Example of a T-Shaped Person
Consider the role of the graphic designer in an ad agency. Typically, they are expected to be able to design for web, print, and complete production work related to that design. An I-Shaped designer would be highly skilled in these competencies. Their designs would be expertly crafted, and their production work held to the highest standards of quality. However, that would be the extent to how they can support and contribute to the agency. In contrast, a T-shaped designer will likely bring additional skills beyond design and production work that enhance the quality of their output. For example, a T-shaped designer may have coding skills typically found in a developer; a critical skill in creating intelligent emails. The T-shaped designer’s ability to code not only supports the designer in delivering a superior product but also alleviates pressure on already typically overloaded engineering teams. Additionally, the T-shaped designer who understands the underlying code can anticipate in their designs how the email will display and make changes as they create their design. An I-shaped designer, on the other hand, could design a beautiful email layout that could never be realized due to the limitations of email coding of which they are unaware. Now imagine the time and energy wasted in just that one example. Now multiply that across all the I-shaped individuals in an organization.
The Benefits of Having T-Shaped People
The advantages of employing and supporting T-shaped individuals are numerous. With their exposure to different areas of the business and their knowledge of their craft, they can contribute in myriad ways. A T-shaped employee can step in to help out a teammate in another, related area. This can save the company both money and losing out on opportunity cost. The T-shaped employee can serve as a mentor and trainer to colleagues where they see opportunities. Going back to the example of the T-shaped designer, they can share their design knowledge with their counterparts, creating a cycle where their counterparts are asking for and providing the needed requirements for the design to succeed.
Promoting and valuing T shaped employees is necessary for enhancing the organization’s competitive advantage. Their knowledge across a broad swath of the business creates an environment for collaboration and new ideas. They can anticipate and resolve issues before they impact the organization negatively, as well as identify opportunities across divisions to generate growth and revenue. For example, the T-shaped designer who has branched out to animation can offer the organization a new (and revenue generating) product without the hassle and difficulty of procuring a new resource. Additionally, this same designer can deliver against new requirements that are unexpected from the client. The T-shaped employee can also own multiple smaller responsibilities within an organization, allowing the agency to employ one person versus several.
Given the benefits of T-shaped employees, it is incumbent upon the leadership of an organization to foster and develop knowledge and skills beyond what is simply required. This means prioritizing and dedicating resources and time to training for all their employees. This training should align with organizational goals and priorities. For example, the leadership should know the gaps in their employee’s existing skill sets and focus on expanding the knowledge of their team in that area. Training can be delivered in a variety of formats with shadowing colleagues in other, related areas of the business, being particularly effective. This is because, in addition to the skills, they are developing relationships and experiencing, in real time, the issues impacting other areas of the business to which they could contribute positively. Given the amount of investment that goes into creating T-shaped employees, the leadership team should periodically review their resource allocation and plan accordingly.
“In a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 87% of leaders acknowledged skill gaps in their workforces — yet less than half of respondents had a clear plan for confronting this challenge. From mastering new technologies at home to remotely managing sales relationships and collaborating virtually with colleagues, the need for upskilling employees is only increasing.”
––Lisa Bodell, Forbes Contributor
It is important to acknowledge that there is intrinsic value with the I-shaped employee. Their depth of knowledge can be necessary at certain times and can be required by the type of work to be done. However, I would argue that the need for an I-shaped employee is far less than that of a T-shaped employee simply because the application of their skills reaches so much further. Adding depth to knowledge is an easier task than learning a completely foreign, new skill. Employees that can have a balance between breadth and depth offer the best of both worlds.