T-Shaped People, Jobs, and Recruiting

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.

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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, www.futureoftalent.org. I’d also love your comments and thoughts on what you are seeing.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for ERE.net, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at kwheeler@futureoftalent.org.


9 Comments on “T-Shaped People, Jobs, and Recruiting

  1. I think the trend is toward “Super Generalist” where they have multiple vertical shafts of the T with certain areas of deeper expertise, similar to a medical sub-specialty.

    Agree that the collaboration factor or breadth of the T IS a definite prerequisite.

  2. There is a new book out called Country Driving by Peter Hessler about driving around the new new China. In the book Peter describes a guy he met on his journey who gave him his business card and it had something like 27 job titles on it as the man wanted to be able to take advantage of any – and it appears every opportunity that came up…

    Now that is someone who is ready for role-based work!

  3. Nearly every time we create a new “role” in our company, we struggle to create a JD sufficient to the task. We’ve been opportunistic in creating roles for the right people who know will make great additions to our team. Great post, Kevin, I think you’ve expressed something many hiring managers and recruiters have struggled to articulate for some time now.

  4. Where are the rest of the companies in the economy who think like this? Companies should be hiring the best available “athlete” and figuring out which role would benefit the company by taking advantage of the skills the individual possesses, and at the same time, which role would be challenging and interesting to the individual. Hiring should be a constant process to continually improve the quality of the organization, and at the same time provide a path for individual growth. Slot filling has been antiquated for some time. Corporations haven’t changed or adapted to the knowledge based economy, that is why we are stuck in neutral while other economies are progressing. Collaboration, knowlege and communications are keys to the success of any organization, but it all starts with quality people.

  5. A very though provoking..It’s true that the required skills, experience are highly changing due to the dynamic work environment, but it’s not heavily interdependent on a team only..as people have to collaborate, so recruiter should describe the skills of each member to work in a team…

  6. Hi Kevin,
    Thank you for the excellent post. As someone deeply interested in organizational structure, culture and their links to innovation and employee engagement, finding the right people that can deliver “out-of-the-box ideas and disruptive solutions to create innovative products and services” becomes so critically important. Unfortunately my experience and ongoing conversations lead me to believe that the vast majority of organizations continue to follow the old slot filling model. This if anything has been exacerbated by the risk averse business environment we live in today. For your new model to succeed beyond innovative companies like IDEO, companies need to embrace looking for the T in their new hires and embrace leadership & organizational development for their people in order “to prepare to meet the complex needs of their clients and customers”.

  7. Thank you, Kevin. I am a strong proponent of the “Can Do Instead of Has Done” School, but darned if I know how to find this out for a mid, sr level, managerial, executive or a re-entry person. We’re back to the performance-predictor question again, which last I saw indicated was probably a General Mental Ability test in conjunction with something(s)else, but NOT an unstructured interview.

    Your further thoughts, folks?

  8. In today’s global economy, talent is the major source of competitive advantage. In addition, companies will have to replace their old- style selection, talent assessment processes. Traditional approaches to evaluating talent ignore the dimensions of talent in an organization & with roles (role-based work, and diverse set of skills) that make a difference. Smart pre-employment testing services look deeply into the applicant for the required emerging skills.

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