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Careers: Four Areas for Building Skills to a "T"

What shape is your skill profile? Have you thought about what balance you need between specialist and generalist skills to thrive in today’s environment?

by Jim McGee


Careers are built on specialization. "Jack of all trades, and master of none" has been code for mediocrity for much of the 20th century. To succeed, specialists will be called on to reach beyond their specialties in new ways. In addition, how that specialty knowledge is converted into value is changing, prompting a corresponding change in the skill profile demanded of knowledge workers.

In industrial organizations, knowledge and its application were carefully designed into the organization’s structure, ensuring that specialized knowledge was located where it was needed. The need for general-knowledge sharing was limited. Formalized training programs helped transfer the necessary knowledge from experts to novices before they were called on to use it. Slow-paced changes in the relevance of particular specialty knowledge prompted large-scale, and generally painful, reorganizations.

In knowledge-driven organizations, there is a different relationship between knowledge and structure. Knowledge-driven organizations depend on frequent innovation and the development and distribution of new services and products. The primary sources of this innovation: the insightful combination of specialty knowledge from multiple domains, and the transfer of knowledge to unfamiliar domains.

For this innovation to work, specialists need to reach outside their specialties and connect effectively with other specialists. If specialty skills are developed by digging deeper, these connecting skills are about reaching out horizontally. The goal is to develop a knowledge worker with a skill profile that can be described as T-shaped.

The stem of the "T" is secured in the specialized knowledge. The cross of the "T" offers value to the organization by increasing the likelihood and speed with which innovations are identified and developed. For individuals, that horizontal portion of the "T"-shaped skill profile—consisting of horizontal skills—reduces the risk of being dependent on a potentially obsolescing specialty.

Project planning and management, a skill traditionally thought of as vertical, is also becoming an essential horizontal skill. There are three other skill clusters that, along with project planning, form the crossbar of the T: problem finding/framing, information literacy skills, and horizontal learning skills.

Project Planning and Management

Project management has become a highly specialized field in its own right. Projects with specific objectives, simultaneously multiple and limited resources, and finite timelines are the fundamental mechanisms for managing innovation within organizations. All T-shaped knowledge workers have to develop a basic level of skill at planning and managing project-based activities above and beyond any ongoing organizational processes they must also manage. Those basics include the ability to specify achievable objectives, break down and sequence activities, match resources against activities, and then manage the mix and balance of time, budget, and quality over the life of the effort.

Finding and Framing Problems

Problem-recognition and problem-solving skills are deep and rich reservoirs of known solutions to familiar problems. The ability to turn an amorphous and messy situation into a problem that might potentially be solved is a key skill any knowledge worker must develop.

The lazy (and all-too-common) way to find and frame problems is to map features of the current situation directly into solutions already known. A more productive approach is to develop a facility with analogies and metaphor, both verbal and visual, to extract salient features of the current mess and create new maps that intentionally mix elements from multiple specialty areas. Framing a problem adroitly can be the difference between failure and creating a new market niche.

Information Literacy

In today’s environment of information overabundance, we must become more adept at finding, filtering, and assessing relevant information. This includes the ability to formulate information-gathering strategies more robust than typing a handful of keywords into Google. Information literacy demands knowledge of information sources and their biases/reliability, the ability to work effectively with information specialists (such as research librarians), and the ability to organize and manage the flow of incoming raw data.

Information literacy also encompasses skill at filtering and distilling the abundance of raw information into more concentrated and refined outputs.

Horizontal Learning

As experts, our learning skills are optimized to elaborate and fill in an inventory of at-the-edge cases and special situations. We fill in holes and extend the range of subtleties we can address.

nstead of digging deeper holes, horizontal learning is focused on understanding the new landscape and how it relates to landscapes you know all too well. Horizontal learners must pick up the essential vocabulary and basic grammar of the new territory, then determine how to follow (and later participate in) the typical conversations that take place there. Often, the fastest way to learn horizontally is to explore the history of the area you are studying. Who are the key players and institutions to be aware of? How have they organized and structured the field?

Building Your Skill Set

Focusing solely on deep expertise puts you at the mercy of rapidly changing knowledge that can make your expertise obsolete or at best a commodity item. Focusing exclusively on trying to stay above the fray leaves you un-rooted. To succeed, divide your attention between putting down adequate roots and reaching out to connect with those around you. Given that most of us start as specialists, we need to pay attention to crossing the T in our skill development.