T-shaping: New Age Specialists

Newsroom 18/03/2022 | 15:58

Who are T-shaping specialists, how do they differ from narrow-profile professionals, and why do many big companies want to get them? Let’s explore these questions and tell you if it is possible to develop T-shaping skills and, most importantly, why.


What T-shaping Means

Since the birth of factories and the development of collective production, the principle of a clear division of labor – one master is responsible for one thing. A person learns some craft, hones his skills to do his work quickly and efficiently, and then passes it on to the next specialist in the process chain. One such example is online essay writers who are experts in different sectors because they write on topics from different industries.

People who are fluent in a particular craft are I-shaped specialists. They know precisely how to do their job but are not proficient in related areas. As a result, if we consider the process chain, the loss of one link due to illness, vacation, or other reasons can disrupt the continuity of the process – other people to replace the master are not able to.

There are also generalists, who know everything, but little by little, and are not engaged in any particular area and are not, in fact, experts.

So, a T-shaped is a specialist who has mastered one profession or business, but is also knowledgeable in related fields, is interested in them, and can solve any issues not directly related to him as a specialist. I.e., it is a specific middle ground between I-specialists and generalists.

The notion of a “T-shaped person” was first introduced by David Gast, the author of The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing, in the 80s of the 20th century, and the popularity of these specialists came with a light hand from Tim Brown, the CEO of the design company IDEO, in 1991. He called such people the best candidates to solve non-standard problems.


Where did the name come from

The terms “I-shaped,” “generalist,” and “T-shaped” is formed in exciting ways:

  • I-shaped is denoted by a vertical “I,” as seen in its name. It is an expert in one area.
  • A generalist is denoted by a horizontal “-” and implies a multidisciplinary specialist who is not an expert in one area. It is also a propensity for collaboration and networking.
  • T-shaping is a combination of “I” and “-,” resulting in the letter “T.” The vertical line is the depth of knowledge in one case, and the horizontal line is knowledge in related fields and little experience in them.

It is a metaphorical definition of a specialist proficient in one business and has some familiarity with a related field. For example, a bus driver can inspect a vehicle and, in case of a minor malfunction, eliminate it, i.e., perform the functions of a mechanic or an inspector. Still, he cannot fully replace these specialists.

Similar examples can be found in other industries: a design engineer can estimate the cost of an object and add or delete items needed, but he has no right to replace the quantity surveyor and make a detailed calculation. A web designer should understand the layout to know how much time will be needed to work out the structure.


What is the peculiarity of T-shaping specialists?

The peculiarity of T-shaping specialists lies in their ability to combine the options of I-shaped and generalist, as the name implies. A T-shaping specialist has a wide range of competencies. Companies can ensure an uninterrupted cycle of production or activity in case of a temporary failure of one of the process participants.

The depth of skill allows T-shaping specialists to contribute to the creative process and work in their direction. And such people can be in absolutely any field: industrial designers and sociologists to business specialists and mechanics. The term is also common in software development in the IT environment. There is always a strong need for developers and testers with cross-skills in an agile Scrum team in this area.

It does not matter what a person is by profession. The main thing is his desire to understand the related disciplines. Managers of many companies notice this quality – they need to hire such people, who later will be able to bring new ideas, take the initiative in their own hands, and help colleagues solve problems, including non-standard ones.


T-shaping Specialist Characteristics

Tim Brown, CEO of the consulting firm IDEO, endorsed the interest of businesses in the professional versatility of employees back in 1991. He noted that such people were suitable for creating interdisciplinary workgroups and implementing creative processes. And they could include both men and women.


The “T-shaped” people have two types of personalities inside:

  • Behind the vertical line lies expertise. It manifests itself in the impeccable mastery of a particular case, in the ability to creatively solve problems arising in the process of work.
  • In addition to possessing skills in related fields, the horizontal trait speaks of the specialist’s propensity for cooperation, which is an essential quality for a team player.

The T-shaped trait is capable of empathy and understanding colleagues. This trait helps him not just to understand a problem but also to present it from different sides to find alternative solutions. Another important trait is enthusiasm, which manifests itself in the desire to grow in his own business, related disciplines, self-improvement to the extent that new skills are not just learned and mastered but implemented in industry. I.e., the practical skills of such people are directed both in-depth and in breadth.

T-shaping is empathic. He draws on other people’s ideas to build his own or helps others. He will not immediately state his thought in brainstorming sessions but listen to opponents and colleagues first. The ability to hear is another important quality for a “T-shaped” professional.


What is the difference between a T-shaped and an I-shaped

We have determined that the main difference between T-shaped and I-shaped is the depth and scope of expertise. The models for working with these experts are also different:

  • I-shaped – people with a specific set of skills within their expertise. They are specialists with a narrow focus; they do not need to work in a team and communicate with colleagues of related specialties. You make a pattern for a shirt – give it to the shop for stitching. The seamstress doesn’t need to be told how to thread a stitch properly – she has her flow chart for the case. I-shaping, in most cases, is not capable of building communication. Conventionally speaking, each specialist has their point of view, and they consider it a priority, seeing no alternatives. In the case of negotiations between narrow specialists, the maximum that can be achieved is a compromise between their decisions and the conclusion of a common denominator. The results of such activities are not impressive.
  • T-shaping specialists know how to cooperate and are eager to work together. However, they must be experts in their field. Otherwise, they should not be classified as T-shapers. In a professional environment, experience and skills are essential components of an employee’s effectiveness and factors that determine respect in the group. A person can be friendly, able to negotiate, insist on his own, but if he lacks critical expertise, he is unlikely to get trust and respect in the team.

Groups dominated by I-shaping specialists need a facilitator to organize a dialogue – a person capable of initiating constructive discussions, which is what T-shaping is. They can start a conversation with the right colleagues at the right time. They do not need to be organized, so managing such a team is much easier than following each specialist who acts only within one competence and does not want to get into other related issues.


Advantages and disadvantages of T-shaping

Today T-shaped specialists are the most sought-after employees in developing companies. Experienced HR seeks out such experts and makes every effort to have as many T-shaping employees as possible because they have several advantages over “I-shaped” ones:

  • Expertise in related fields makes a specialist more versatile and valuable to the company.
  • Ability to negotiate and conduct a dialogue without external stimulation, i.e., they do not need to be sent to negotiations. They will do it themselves.
  • T-shaping is full of enthusiasm – they are interested in everything and agile in their actions, thoughts, and ideas.
  • Flexible minds can solve problems by looking at them from different sides.
  • Most T-shaped professionals are balanced, flexible, non-conflict, which means that the team will not be scandals and intrigues.

This list of advantages of T-shaping explains the high demand for them. However, the negative aspects of such employees are also there, and they should be kept in mind:

  • Because of the teamwork, the employee may be discouraged from exerting themself and learning new things.
  • Psychological defense in the format of “if I study and learn more, I will get more work.
  • A specialist doubts that he can master additional competencies and become an expert in them due to the opinion that one person cannot be good in two industries simultaneously.
  • In general, T-shaping, though proficient in a case in-depth, I-shaping can often be more knowledgeable because of the lack of need to learn new things. He only needs to immerse himself in a single case. Consequently, an in-depth specialist can earn more due to more excellent expertise.
  • An employee cannot keep up with all trends – he needs to grow both in depth and width, and the rate of technology updates is relatively high.
  • Even with an even distribution of duties, an employee is always busy because of the demand in the labor market. The team’s flexibility does not preclude calls and appeals during vacations or days off.

To prevent the positive qualities of T-shaping from being transformed into a negative, it is crucial to maintain the right motivation and regularly study and improve professional skills – recruiters always welcome such an expert.


How to recognize your T-shaped qualities and enhance them

To determine if you have T-shaped qualities, analyze the nature of your work and your ability to act in a team. Did you enjoy group work in a school? Did you enjoy participating in activities where achieving a goal was a team effort?

Next, think about whether you like your profession. How well do you know it? Are you ready to explore new horizons?

Anyone can become a T-shaping specialist if they want to. It’s a skill that is entirely possible to pump up. To do this, you need to meet three conditions:

  • Autonomy is vital to learn how to make decisions independently and take responsibility. Start small: decide from tomorrow to drink 2 liters of water a day and stick to it. Gradually switch to work: try to solve a familiar task differently and think about the result. Managers and recruiters in companies use the principle of autonomy – they create an environment for a trainee or an employee to learn how to make decisions independently. The margin for error should always be taken into account.
  • Motivation – it is essential to understand what the specialist or his team is moving towards. It is necessary to evaluate your contribution to the cause and not depreciate yourself with thoughts like “They can do it without me” or “My actions are unlikely to lead to the desired result. Every participant in the process is essential. By the way, this can distinguish T-shaping from I-shaping – the first understands that his work is not in vain, the second can only work for a paycheck – did his job and go.
  • Mastery – constantly hone it, practice, learn new things in your field, take courses, develop. Technology is changing and being updated in almost all areas of human activity. In the IT sphere, it happens at high speed. In industry, it is slower, but you always need to keep your hand on the pulse.

In the process of work qualities, T-shaped is pumped by the Scrum-framework method, in which the way to the goal is divided into small tasks, each of which – a sprint for a specialist. He knows that reaching the finish line will bring the entire team closer to the result. There is no management in such a team, and participants organize themselves.

It is vital to remove systemic obstacles preventing people from expanding their area of interest and improving their potential and talents.


The Japanese three-step principle of Shu Ha Ri will help in becoming a T-specialist:

  • Understand the subject or process – how it works, what it is essentially.
  • Learn to work as professionals do – this step reinforces the skills learned in training.
  • The third step is to be independent and develop your own rules and solutions.

The most important criterion for becoming a “T-shaped” specialist is the desire to learn and master new skills. This quality is valued by recruiters of large companies, whose experience has shown the effectiveness of T-shaping.


Self-organization as the primary tool

A desire to learn and learn is paramount on the road to T-shaping. Multi-taskers, working in a team, lose the ability to create in groups. It may be a lack of motivation, disagreements in the group, etc. However, giving up is also a choice. As a result, T-shaping turns into I-shaping, which is not the best scenario for the company and the expert himself.

The desire to develop and grow is an internal state of a person. Self-discipline and self-organization are essential in it and the ability to control your emotions so that the group maintains a healthy atmosphere.


Author Bio: Elissa Smart is a PaperHelp blog writer who provides sound advice to students as they attend college or university. When writing, Elissa conducts an in-depth analysis of the topic she is about to describe.

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