T-Shaped People, Jobs, and Recruiting

Feb 11, 2010
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Picture 6Recruiting is about to be forced to start looking for people and assessing them in very different ways than they have.

The nature of organizations is transforming right under our noses, but most of us are too deep in the forest to see what is happening. Over the past 100 years business owners and human resources folks created the concept of a job as a way of looking at and doing work. We define a job as a set of skills, experiences, and activities that a single person does. We record that set of skills, experiences, and activities in a document we call a job description. The idea is that many people, each doing a little thing, will produce something larger and more complex than they could have produced themselves.

Recruiters and hiring managers look for the people who are very good at doing the “little thing.” Recruiters and hiring managers use the lists of skills and experiences to search for people and assess them by looking for the ones that match the defined requirements.

This worked fairly well in the mechanistic, industrial world where there was some correlation between experience, training, and performance. In those kinds of organizations, it may still work well. But fewer and fewer organizations do this kind of work. Instead they need people who can do much bigger things and think more broadly. They are looking for out-of-the-box ideas and disruptive solutions to create innovative products and services and meet the far-more-complex needs of their clients and customers. They need people who are willing to experiment and take risks to find a disruptive solution. The old idea of cataloguing the required skills, experience, and activities runs out of gas. We don’t know what these skills, experiences, and activities are; they change constantly and they are interdependent on others in our team.

Many recruiters I talk with already know this in their gut, but have trouble expressing it or explaining it.

They know that work is more cross-functional, requires more collaboration and sharing, and relies less on how things were done in the past. Jobs today are harder and harder to define as they are constantly morphing around us. Nothing remains constant for very long. Part of the reason we have lost 14 million “jobs” since the start of the recession is because of this confusion. The “work” these people were doing, for the most part, has not gone away. It has been diffused into the organization or been transformed into technology. In some cases it may have been sent somewhere else, but this is temporary until a way to automate or eliminate the need for it is found.

New jobs will have an expectation of scope, responsibility, and effectiveness that we have primarily only seen in law firms and consulting companies until now. These new jobs will not be static and will require an eclectic set of skills. For example, a very successful WordPress template creator, who works for himself, started out as a computer science major. He then moved to engineering and after a brief stint as a computer engineer became a graphic designer and typographer. This then led him to start a business writing code to create beautiful templates noted for their outstanding focus on fonts and colors. He combined several “jobs” into one, but had to start his own business to earn money doing it.

I believe that we will evolve to focus on roles people can take on, rather than on specific skills and experience. We will look for people who have the ability and the mindset to find where they can add value on their own. And people who can move from technical to soft areas with ease will be in high demand. Many companies are experimenting with putting people into role-based work. Google, for example, often assigns engineers to a team where they work out, with the team members, the role they will play. The same happens routinely at IDEO, the well-known design firm in Palo Alto, California.

Organizations are realizing that when people are assigned to or choose roles to play in an organization they are often more creative and efficient than when they are confined to the duties prescribed by a title or position.

I just read an amazingly thought-provoking blog written by IDEO CEO Tim Brown. In it he talks about IDEO’s quest for T-shaped people, who he believes are the engine of IDEO’s creativity and success. He describes these people this way: the vertical shaft of the “T” represents the depth of expertise/skill that a person exhibits, while the crossbar of the “T” represents the amount they are willing and able to collaborate. People who are T-shaped are well-rounded and versatile. They are better able to contribute their ideas to a discussion and are able to take on a variety of roles. It’s no wonder that IDEO is one of the firms pioneering the change to formalize role-based work and reduce the work that is based on position or title.

We have a ways to go to fully realize the potential of role-based work, as we are caught in a web that pays and promotes people based on such criteria as degrees, years of experience, time in the current position, and so forth. T-shaped people, free to take on different roles as work changes, are far more valuable than those trapped in rigid silos of scope and responsibility.

However, Baby Boomer/hiring manager attitudes about work, laws, and policies will have to change, and there will need to be sweeping changes in how human resources thinks about compensation, promotion, and development to fully transform organizations.

At the Future of Talent Institute, we are focusing our research this year on this issue and will be doing surveys and working with some organizations closely to better understand how role-based work will be defined and what skills recruiters will need to be successful. You can follow our thinking on this at my blog, Over the Seas, and also at our website, I’d also love your comments and thoughts on what you are seeing.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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