Skills for the Digital Age: Let’s Hear It for the Good Old T Profile

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What kinds of skills and competencies are needed for the digital age? LinkedIn, industry press, and popular books abound with lists of things like “flexible thinking”, “learning agility”, and, of course, “tech savviness”. If you want to get beyond the usual catchphrases, however, it helps to try to discern some of the broader strokes in how work life is actually changing. One person who is great at doing so is Paul Evans, professor in organizational behavior at INSEAD Business School. When I listened to him at a talent management research conference in Copenhagen this past autumn, he brought up the following two megatrends:

  • The modularization of work. To an ever larger extent, organizations are decomposing intricate work processes into its constituent parts. This is primarily driven by the technological development: Parts of the chain might be taken over by algorighms or robots, which is why it makes more sense to disintegrate heavy parcels of work into smaller pieces. According to Evans, this is also visible in the actual structure of companies: In recent years, large companies have increasingly adopted multidimensional matrix organizations, which were once considered too c0mplex but are now made possible by digitalization. This has two main implications for employees: They end up having several bosses, and they are required to develop effective horizontal collaborations in order to perform well.
  • The diminishing role of authority. In this new type of complex organization, said Evans, it is seldom effective to rely on heavy reporting or managers telling people what to do. Especially when the primary product is knowledge and information, companies have a lot more to gain from adopting flat structures of peer production. We already see this in the tech sector with its self-organizing teams. What is important to note, however, is that this puts new demands on team members: First, the group as a whole needs to have enough knowledge to solve very complex problems on their own. Second, when there is little or no managerial steering, members need to be able to instead organize themselves according to social signals – meaning that social skills are more important than ever.

So, what does this mean for the skill set needed by tomorrow’s employees? Evans and his INSEAD colleague Eduardo Rodriguez-Montemayor develop their thinking around this in the report Global Talent Competitiveness Index 2017, which I have previously referred to. According to them, one could talk of a talent paradox: On the one hand, talent development is not specialized enough. Many employees lack the real edge that would make them hihgly attractive on the job market and could enable them to feed into cutting-edge knowledge work. But on the other hand, talent development is neither broad enough: People still work in clearly delimited silos and are not afforded the breadth required for effective collaboration.

In other words, in our “age of dualities”, as the authors write, there is no room for “either or”: People need to have deep, specialized skills and broad collaborative abilities. Perhaps surprisingly, a model of competency that is more than 30 years old turns out to summarize this very well: The T model, whose basic premise is that a well-rounded knowledge worker needs to have deep expertise in one area (the vertical bar of the T), in order to be able to really contribute to a creative process, but also broad collaborative skills and an ability to understand and communicate with people from other functions and backgrounds (the horizontal bar). The same idea was actually picked up by the European Commission’s Political Strategy Center in their report series EPSC Stategic Notes (no. 13, 2016). There, it was further pointed out that today’s education system falls short when it comes to helping the next generation’s talent to develop this kind of profile. Much more focus will have to be put on the application of knowledge and advanced collaboration skills, while still keeping very high standards when it comes to subject knowledge.

My guess is that we will see much more of T-shaped thinking in organizations’ talent management in the years to come, simply because it rhymes very well with the demands created by the digitalized knowledge economy. Who said an old model couldn’t be prophetic?




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