10 Ways T-Shaped Training Is Affecting American Industry Right Now

The year 2020 is now just six years away. Perhaps because it’s such a nice, round number, predictions for 2020 are building steam. What will businesses look like then?


The view from 2014 suggests that the workforce will be more T-shaped than ever. T-shaped employees, as you may recall, have a specific area of deep knowledge (the vertical line of the T) along with a broader understanding of a range of areas, as well as “soft skills” like emotional intelligence (the horizontal line) that they can connect to their specialty.

Support for this point of view comes from a Palo Alto think tank, Institute for the Future (IFTF). Their research seems to place the lion’s share of responsibility for the T-shaped trend on the aging American workforce: “As extended life spans promote multiple careers and exposure to more industries and disciplines, it will be particularly important for workers to develop this T-shaped quality.” The report coincides with related developments that are underway right now — from the transformation of traditional learning methods to challenges to the traditional top-down leadership style — that are paving the way toward a T-shaped future. With that in mind, here are ten ways T-shaped training is affecting American industry right now.

1. Professional education is being revolutionized, but without specific leadership

Not every revolution has an acknowledged leader. Still, it is something of an irony that T-shaped skills, which are sure to be a critical force for management in coming years, seems to be developing randomly and organically, without any clearly ascertainable paradigm or process. Bill Gates was met with the derision of academics when he proposed to overhaul the methods used to teach analytics and big data skills. The reflexive, almost defensive response from traditional universities was that Gates was being too much the “engineer.” As The Chronicle of Higher Education noted, “Academic researchers who have spent years studying higher education see their expertise bypassed as Gates moves aggressively to develop strategies for reform.” The tug-of-war between corporations and academia isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Students may be keener to listen to Bill Gates than inhabitants of the ivory tower. As a result, learning’s center of gravity may end up slipping way from academia and toward industry.

2. Increased globalization is creating the need to lead across cultures.

Jeff Barnes has been tasked with articulating GE’s notion of “global leadership.” As part of his approach, Barnes has come to describe and emphasize the importance of globalization. Barnes sums up the new age of management and training simply: “There are no boundaries any more.”  As a result, a broader level of knowledge (“boundary-spanning”) is more critical than ever.

3. CEOs are predicting and planning for “whitewater” conditions

GE’s Jeffery Immelt argues that management capabilities for this century will require an “ability to handle ambiguity.”  T-shaped skills fulfill this demand. The bad news for American businesses is the very low number of workers who seem to have this ability. One frequently cited study suggests a meager eight percent of all managers are currently operating in a T-shaped manner. What’s notable about the low rate of T-shaped management adoption is the huge competitive advantage that it gives to the businesses that actually do use T-shaped management systems. It is as if only eight percent of all baseball players on a team are allowed to use aluminum bats, with the rest still using wood against the best pitchers from around the world.

4. Specific management “skills” are being replaced by “characteristics”

In many ways, this set of changes is very much a matter of replacing the “old ways” of managing. Research by Dr. Phil Gardner of Michigan State University underscores how T-shaped traits are beginning to take root, including the integration of studies from divergent academic areas (from sociology to psychology) to help define personal ethics and character.

5. Companies are more frequently absorbing full costs of new training techniques.

“Learning” won’t mean the old-fashioned method of just telling someone how to do something. The Institute for the Future notes workers (especially younger workers) are using social networking to learn about and understand new ways of doing things. Video, digital imagery and the web are offering a visual, interactive method of teaching with few if any historic parallels (unless you count cave paintings).

Fortune magazine has highlighted the growing importance of government funding in what can only be described as “experimental” training techniques for today’s data-driven economy. Historically, the federal government has had a profound impact on the overall health of the American workforce in eras of widespread transition. Yet as employment demands continue to evolve, a growing number of companies are likely to bear the full costs of training in bad times as well as good.

Morten Hansen (now at University of California at Berkley, formerly of Harvard University Business School) and his colleague Bolko Von Oetinger found in their pioneering research in 2001 that while T-shaped managers can help companies of any size, they are “particularly crucial in large corporations where operating units have been granted considerable autonomy.” Large companies have deeper pockets for employee training than smaller ones do, and hence a disproportionate level of resources are likely to be dedicated to T-shaped training as a result.

IBM has invested extensively in the T-shaped model and will host the T-Summit 2014 in San Jose, Calif. in March. Jim Spohrer, Director of Global University Programs at IBM, explained it this way: “Projects teams at IBM often span multiple disciplines, sectors, and cultures – and so we need T-shaped graduates who can work well together to co-create solutions for a Smarter Planet.”

6. A new era of innovation in leadership development has already begun.

There is not just one rigid type of T-training, since it appears that most businesses— high tech or not—can benefit from T-shaped management. Put another way, the “T” may be of many different fonts and applied in an endless variety of ways. The coming era in management will also be defined in part by exactly “who” will be managed. The Institute for the Future notes the increasing replacement of mundane human tasks with smart machines.

7. Increased focus on ‘vertical’ instead of ‘horizontal’ development.

The traditional top-down leadership style has been challenged by many factors in recent years, and T-training is likely to further contribute to its replacement paradigm. For that matter, leadership itself is no longer viewed as a personal characteristic that you either have or don’t, but as more of as a deliberate process of “big picture” decision-making (McCauley & Van Velsor, 2004).

The Institute for the Future takes an even longer view on trying to define the shape of organizations as they grow organically, and calls these future, successful organizations “superstructures.” The ability to manage these superstructures will be beyond the ability of single managers, and will rely instead on teams of T-trained employees.

8. Transfer of greater developmental ownership to the individual.

One of the reasons this is among the most fascinating changes is the way it forces an organization to learn from “failure.” Managers in the “T” are expected to be able to explain what is happening across several areas. You can see this aspect of emphasizing development in organizations such as Google (using Rypple) and IDEO, where there are bonuses for positive development as well as for traditional performance competencies.

9. “Change” via T-shaped management is being resisted.

As with any revolutionary paradigm shift, the “T-shaped” transformation is already facing predictable sorts of resistance, and this is likely to continue. One transformational group, Implementation Management Group (IMG),  suggests that when it comes to resistance, the toll can be very high. IMG estimates that 25 percent will “jump on board” change and 50 percent will “eventually” embrace change, with support and encouragement. But a stunning 25 percent “won’t make it” and will, because of the change in culture, leave the company.

10. The decline of individual leadership is causing a rise of collective leadership.

In a 2009 IBM survey of over 2,500 CEOs, the most widely cited skill expected for a future leader was “creativity.” Creativity and T-shaped management go hand-in-hand. Big picture thinking requires a broad understanding of all of the parts that contribute to it. Envisioning “what’s possible” necessitates a good understanding of “what is.”

Conclusions: Resisting the Rear View Mirror

Hindsight may be 20/20, according to the old cliche, but experts in new management techniques have a special word of caution about hindsight. As the change cycle continues to accelerate, we are finding that what happened in the past is increasingly less likely to be instructive for the future. Still, what Bonheoffer had to say in the 1940s still seems to echo with where we find ourselves today. Bonheoffer wrote, “The ‘polymath’ had already died out by the close of the eighteenth century, and in the following century intensive education replaced extensive, so that by the end of it the specialist had evolved. The consequence is that today everyone is a mere technician, even the artist.”

As Samuel Arbesman notes in Wired, “the most exciting inventions occur at the boundaries of disciplines, among those who can bring different ideas from different fields together.” The challenge we face today, and will certainly face in 2020, is to train our workforce to think both as technicians AND as artists, combining deep practical knowledge with creative thinking to navigate the ever-changing seas of the future.