Preparing Today’s Students: Notes from the 2015 T-Summit

what-is-tHow can industry, universities and students work together to address the business analytics skills gap?

I was fortunate to speak on this topic at the 2015 T-Summit at Michigan State University in March.

Demand for business analytics skills has increased sharply in just the past few years, with the rise of powerful analytics tools and Big Data. Companies today need business analytics skill sets at every level and in every department. Organizational demand for people with business analytics skills is increasing, while at the same time, more people are leaving jobs than coming in – and that’s a problem.

While companies look to universities to increase their pools of analytical staff, business leaders consistently report that there is a yawning gap between the skills that are required and the training that most academic institutions provide.

Currently, higher education is producing I-shaped graduates, or students with deep disciplinary knowledge. As I’ve noted before, T-shaped professionals are characterized by their deep disciplinary knowledge in at least one area, an understanding of systems, and their ability to function as “adaptive innovators” and cross the boundaries between disciplines.

The defining characteristic of the “T-shaped professional” is the horizontal stroke, which represents their ability to collaborate across a variety of different disciplines. To contribute to a creative and innovative process, one has to fully engage in a wide range of activities within a community that acknowledges their expertise in a particular craft or discipline and share information competently with those who are not experts.

Responsibility for training graduates is often mistakenly seen as belonging to universities. But businesses are in an essential training role through internships, mentoring, and on-the-job training. Likewise, businesses need candidates with more than just a degree, but who are actually qualified for the positions they are seeking to fill.

Research I’ve done through interviews with corporate executives suggests several key ways to improve:

– Encourage strong and collaborative partnerships between universities, placement offices and businesses. Course offerings should foster the T-shaped skills that hiring organizations demand.

– Create, support and manage robust internship and mentoring programs that include students in curriculum planning and emphasize the enhancement of T-shaped thinking.

These suggested improvements can help corporations and universities to become better partners in providing students with most effective training for tomorrow’s workplace.

At this year’s T-Summit, Jeff Selingo, author of “College Unbound,” shared his findings about some of the innovative approaches underway right now to close the skills gap. I highly recommend watching his presentation, which is included below.


Colleges and T-Shaped Training: Build it and They Will Learn?

Though the idea of T-shaped management is gaining traction on American campuses, there are some important roadblocks along the way. Some of those roadblocks are ivy covered. In some ways, the relationship between colleges and major tech corporations is beginning to look a bit like ju jitsu. Ju jitsu, roughly translated, means that when you get pushed, pull, and when you get pulled, push.

fieldofdreamscorn-400In principle, most business colleges clearly want better partnerships with major corporations. Most colleges accept the importance of using business analytics, T-shaping their students, and embrace change when it comes to education, at least in concept. In reality, however, change seems to move at a glacial pace in the halls of higher learning.

In 2011, the president of New York University observed that monumental change in America was something “people love to talk about,” while also referring to universities as islands of stability in that sea of change: “(W)e should not lose sight of the fact that, of the 80 institutions that existed 500 years ago and still do, 75 are universities.”

And while NYU’s president praised university longevity, he also said that academia continued to do some things badly, in the same old way, over and over again. Specifically, he noted universities still hadn’t come to grips with T-shaping their learning: “One thing the proprietary institutions do that is not a good thing is delivering an ‘I-shaped’ education (depth in one area) as opposed to a ‘T-shaped’ education (broad learning, with depth in one area).”

Academic resistance to T-shaped training often seems to be over matters of control, and fears about giving it up. It is true that the enormous potential influence of corporate technology giants, who are donating massive sums of money and expecting nothing less than drastic changes in what universities teach, cannot be overlooked.

The “Gates Effect”

While Bill and Melinda Gates are not the only major influence on university reforms, they are big enough to have a gravitational effect. In the context of their almost $500 million in donations to universities, this is to be expected. In a July, 2013 article, The Chronicle of Higher Education (which has also received Gates Foundation support) noted that the bulk of these donations (over $300 million) have come in since 2008. That’s a lot of money. And a lot of influence.

One example of how the Gates Effect is transforming the future of college education is seen in a sprawling ConAgra plant in Troy, Ohio. Employees there are participating in an Gates-funded program that awards college credits — not for conventional course work — but for mastering “core competencies.”

Working through the University of Southern New Hampshire and taking online course work, students are assessed in such areas as “logic, reasoning, and analysis,” which help the student solve real-world business problems.

Everyone seems to like the potential of this approach: except for entrenched college executives.

“Build it and they will learn”

In the movie Field of Dreams, the apparently crazy idea of turning a cornfield into a baseball field is justified based on the mantra, “Build it, and they will come.” The threat to American competitiveness, in terms of highly desirable T-shaped employee skills, is that there is a whole lot of T-building going on — elsewhere in the world. Until recently, Poland’s national education system was widely perceived as falling apart, regarded as suitable only for low-trained, low-tech, and low-paying jobs. This view changed with the successful adoption of innovative T-shaped education strategies there.

Interestingly enough, critics of the Gates approach have claimed the Gates Foundation is approaching the “problem” as something that “engineering” can measure (through technical algorithms) and fix . Yet the Gates Foundation seems to be hewing very closely to the Polish model of making T-shaped students. We know through example that it works. Confusing the necessity for a better, T-shaped core curriculum with the need to accurately measure that curriculum is confusing cause and effect.

The lesson for America from Poland is the benefit of every college developing a core curriculum that leverages that specific institution’s unique offerings in such a way to develop T-shaped skills. The shift from a traditional, “I” shaped curriculum to a T-shaped one is very much in evidence in what the Gates Foundation has done with the Southern University of New Hampshire. Whether crossing that “I” to get a “T” will happen in the next decade or not may rest on the influence of a new era of outside-the-box, dotcom entrepreneurs. Will it be enough for the U.S. to compete globally? Or will it be too little, too late? We shall see.

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.

Moving the Employment Line: How State Job Centers May Fuel T-Shaped Skills

Often, the best ideas are so good because they have more than just one application. Take T-shaped training, for example.  The concept of the T-shaped employee is helping companies to maximize the potential of their workers.  Could T-shaped training also help today’s unemployment picture? Some states seem to think so, and are taking steps to include it in their employment programs.

For some time, many of us in high tech management have seen the ways that workers have used T-shaping to flourish in the workplace, and it has helped guide our management decisions about hiring and training. Universities have a mixed record when it comes to preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the Big Data future, but “T-shaping” is increasingly viewed as an educational priority. In my view, the development of T-shaped skills may be equally important for the under and unemployed workers of today.

Despite ourmen-in-bread-line stubbornly high national unemployment rate of over 7 percent, The U.S. Bureau of Labor points to a major problem in finding workers who are skilled in analytics. Even with so many people out of work, there are some 3.7 million unfilled jobs in our economy right now that relate to the new Big Data reality.  And as Baby Boomers retire, the skills gap is likely going to get worse. After all, the average age of the “ideal” high skilled worker is now 56 years of age, according to one estimate.  T-shaped employees are clearly becoming part of  employer expectations.

An industrial employer in Milwaukee described the skills-gap problem his company is facing to a reporter, noting that computer skills were needed to run his mill’s equipment. Out of more than one thousand applications, he found only 25 that had the required computer and data skills. A year later, the employer said, he had laid off or lost 15 of those workers.

If given the chance to hone their T-shaped skills, older unemployed workers may be part of the answer.

T-shaped Skills as a Competitive Advantage for States and Regions

What, if anything, are state unemployment training programs doing to fill the the need for T-shaped workers?  It turns out that most states aren’t doing anything, but there are some exceptions. Both New York State and California have specifically adopted the use of T-shaped training (with a focus on such qualities as emotional intelligence), while several other states are more quietly embracing T-shaped training for unemployed workers.

New York and California have two very different ways of approaching T-shaped employee training. New York relies on a more traditional model, using workshops to teach large groups of potential workers at once, while California uses a unique, one-on-one mentoring approach.

Some of the key beneficiaries of T-shaped training efforts in New York, California and elsewhere have been state community college systems. As a result of a demand for high tech-trained workers, community and technical skills colleges have their highest levels of enrollments since World War II.

It is too early to tell if T-shaped training is effective for all or even most of the people and managers who rely on state employment programs for personnel. The rise in part-time employment is especially pronounced among graduates of state employment programs, and some studies suggest T-shaped training is effective in very specific settings, industries, or usually work best only for full-time work.

However, one thing is for certain: corporations are demanding skilled, T-shaped workers. And if state employment programs are unable to provide them, hirers will look elsewhere, or develop these training programs themselves.