Hunt for the new type of employees – from I-shaped and T-shaped to T2-shaped capabilities

This blog text aims at introducing the fundamental shift in the way modern companies see the capabilities needed for business success. As always, the “new world” offers both opportunities for the agile actors as well as poses big challenges to companies in their human resource management from recruitment to training and performance management. In a recent webinar by the leading ICT-research and consulting company the change in the talent sought for described as “from generalist and specialists to flexible versalists”. Quite a challenge!

The current tide of societal and economic development has been described as the knowledge era, the latest step of the continuum preceded by the industrial and information era. The idea of knowledge work and knowledge workers is not new, since Peter Drucker has in his works from the end of 1950s developed the concept and he has concluded that the biggest managerial challenge of 2002 is to “make the knowledge worker more productive” (Drucker, 1959, 1969, 1999).

Mainville and Ober (2003) stated in the early 2000s that even though we already were in a knowledge economy, managerial and governance systems were inherited from the industrial era, and new models and knowledge paradigms would be of urgent need. Knowledge as a construct can be coined, e.g., as the capacity of the individual and/or organization to act successfully in the operating environment. As that definition is very wide, it has been divided further into sub-segments by many scholars. Zack (1999) claimed that knowing for an organization means: a) Knowing what, b) Knowing how, c) Knowing why, d) Knowing who (having in place the needed relationships) and e) Knowing where.

The model by Zack (1999) stresses the communal element of knowledge. The organizations of the industrial era were typically divided into functionally and knowledge-wise separate business lines, functions, and jobs. In modern terms, a company, as well as occupations in it, got siloed. The cross-functional information flow was largely missing due to organizational barriers and even differing sub-cultures between the functional departments (like marketing, finances, ICT) and subject matter experts working in them.

The answers to the needs of the modern era have been new organizational forms such as team- or cell-based organizations (Mohrman et al., 1995). This organizational trend has been further emphasized by actors like the Finnish gaming company Supercell, which has organized itself into fairly independent and internally cross-functional/cross-expertise cells around their project. In addition to organizational forms, the new era calls for management styles that see an organization as an open system (Quinn and Rohrbaugh, 1983).

The dilemma of this approach is that putting together people with a non-integrative mindset and overly specific skills may be a barrier to the employees’ ability to foster and support each others’ performance. The concept used for the employees with narrow but deep expertise has been described as possessing an I-shaped capability profile. As Demirkan and Spohrer (2018) lament, educational institutions and organizations are still training professionals to remain siloed, whereas the current needs would be for T-shaped professionals, that would be better equipped to support innovation and renewal on an organizational level (Barile et. al., 2015). The letter of I in the so-named capability profile describes the very narrow horizontal dimension of capability, like mastering one discipline and system, for example to the software program that would mean mastering Python programming language and using that for one element in the service of the company, like online ordering system. The danger of I-shaped professionals lies in “not seeing the big picture”, i.e., understanding the total business process of the organization and core issues of other processes outside one’s domain. The letter T symbolizes the horizontal larger view added to the specific vertical capability that is still needed in the highly competitive business environment for today.

What is the horizontal capability made of, then? Depending on the scholar and their model the answer varies. In some depictions, the horizontal line of the T-shaped capability is made of very generic and soft skill sets like communication, teamwork, empathy, and internationality, whereas in others the silo-crossing dimension is made of understanding of the industry- or even company-specific processes like supply chain, R&D process, sales and marketing process. Demirkan and Spohrer propose (2018) that the horizontal line for a T-shaped professional would contain the layer where more than one discipline and more than one system are understood. As criticism of that model one can argue that if there are two disciplines and systems mastered, the model is closer to phi( )-shaped model standing on two vertical feet. One can argue that modern companies are standing on feet much more than two and thus, two verticals are not enough to understand the company operations in full. Likewise, mastering even two different disciplines with depth may be an unrealistic demand.  On top of the systems and disciplines layer, Demirkan and Spohrer (2018) add the layer of boundary-crossing competencies like perspective and critical thinking.

My current research work elaborates on the T-shaped model and proposes an update named the T2-shaped capability profile. The work adds to the T-shaped capability model by separating the boundary-crossing (independent whether the boundaries are occupation-, department- or function-based) capabilities in two layers that differ in scope but also in the level of expertise expected from the future professionals in them.

In the prospective T2-model, the upper horizontal layer is made of capabilities that are context-independent: megatrends and demands that all organizations need to consider and where the basic knowledge is needed in all levels and functions of the company. Such issues can be found, as an example, within the 10 megatrends as listed by the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies (2018): Globalization, Acceleration, Immaterialization, Individualization, Network Society, or by the Finnish research institute Sitra (2020): Ecological reconstruction is a matter of urgency, the population is aging and becoming increasingly diverse, and technology is becoming embedded in everything. The rise of sustainable thinking as imposed by resource scarcity and climate crisis has raised the issues of ethics, compliance and responsibility to crosscut through societies and companies in them.

The second layer where a future – or today’s – professional needs advanced knowledge is to understand the total business process and specific contextual environment of the industry and company where the professional operates. These two horizontal layers (“T2”) support the growth to the full potential of the expert knowledge in one’s own professional sphere, the vertical I-dimension of the capability profile.

The future work on the model will include the finetuning of the model and its verification via qualitative study as well as the development of organizational and educational solutions to foster T2-buildup. Thematic hackathons, temporary task force organizations, and job rotations are examples of such practices, but systematic development and assessment on them are still scarce in research.

The reason for that might be simple: To proceed to the T2-direction, we need managers, educators, and researchers of the same shape. And that is not what we were brought up to.

Juha Saukkonen D.Sc. (Econ.), Senior Lecturer of Management, School of Business, JAMK University of Applied Sciences.


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Demirkan, H. and Spohrer, J. (2015). T-shaped innovators: Identifying the right talent to support service innovation. Research-Technology Management58(5), 12–15.

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