Future Focussed Universities need E-shaped people
As early as 1990, a report published by the British Computer Society, identified a style of manager that was essential for innovative application of information technology in business. In this report, Palmer (1990) called these special people ‘hybrid managers’. Mainstream media coverage of the same report (Guest, 1991) described these people as ‘T-shaped people’ because a visual map of their skills and knowledge looked more like a T that the traditional I of someone with in depth knowledge in one specific area or discipline.
Since then, researchers have developed a vocabulary for describing the knowledge of various professional workers, based on shapes-including I-shaped, Pi-shaped, H-shaped, dash shaped, and T-shaped workers (Demirkan and Spohrer, 2015; Donofrio, Spohrer, and Zadeh, 2010; Hansen and Oetinger, 2001). The shapes are a visual description of the worker’s range of discipline knowledge and skills.
For example, a person may be a deep specialist in a single area (I-shaped), a deep specialist in two areas (Pi-Shaped or H-shaped), or a generalist with a good breadth of knowledge across many areas but deep specialty knowledge in none (dash-shaped) (Demirkan and Spohrer, 2015).
Demarkin and Spohrer (2015) argue that “today’s workers need to be agile, able to collaborate and lead multidisciplinary teams, communicate across disciplinary and cultural divides, and become change agents who foster open innovation. T-shaped professionals are lifelong learners with open minds who collaborate easily across their local and global networks. They are broad, empathic communicators and challenge seekers as well as deeply engaged, critical thinkers. And they are entrepreneurially minded opportunity finders with imagination who learn quickly from failure.” It’s not just researchers that think the world needs more T-shaped people, the CEO of IDEO, a company consistently ranked as one of the most innovative in the world, Tim Brown has long advocated for employing and developing T-shaped people. Tim noted that a depth of knowledge in a discipline is essential to productivity and gaining respect in a group environment, but that the collaborative skills on the cross-bar of the T is what makes creativity and innovation in collaborative teams possible. T-shaped people sound pretty good, but I argue that universities need this and more – we need E shaped people.
In an organisation full of I shaped people (a PhD is a pretty long I and that’s increasingly the gateway to ongoing employment at a university, at lower and lower levels), T-shaped people are obviously required. Looking at the QUT Real World Capabilities, it is easy to see that modern universities are trying to develop their staff into T-shaped people, but that takes time and there are cultural and structural barriers for existing staff to develop into T-shaped people. Additionally, universities are supposed to be the place where student learn and develop into T-shaped people.
In the last two years, leaders from higher education, government, industry, not-for-profit organisations and professional associations have been meeting at the T-Summit to figure out how to design innovative educational models that foster and develop T-shaped characteristics that are in high demand today and that will be needed in the workforce that steers humanity through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. If universities are only just starting to see the value of hiring and retaining (let’s not get into the casualisation of the academic workforce here, because that trend is about to permeate all of society and we need to learn to be comfortable with it) T-shaped people, they’re going to need some change leaders to get to the point where they have an abundance of T-shaped employees and the ability to help students develop into T-shaped people. Those change leaders need to be E-shaped people.
What is an ‘E-shaped’ person?
An E-shaped person is my evolution on T-shaped. The E is turned on its side, just go with me. E-shaped describes the visual representation of knowledge and skills sets but also describes several core dispositions that are essential to being change leaders for universities in our current economic and social environment. An E-shaped person has depth of skill in two or more disciplines and/or systems and extensive experience outside of academia. T-summit define systems as major services, such as transportation, energy, education, food, and healthcare, that impact quality of life. These systems are comprised of interconnected components of people, technology, and services. Along with depth of knowledge in at least two areas, extensive experience, and the boundary crossing competencies of a T-shaped person, E-shaped people also have the following characteristics.
E shaped people have Empathy. Empathy allows you to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes and approach problems from other perspectives. Empathy is at the core of design thinking, a human-centred, prototype-driven process for innovation and problem solving that can be applied to product, service/social activity, and business/organisation design that is essential for successful transition through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Empathy also supports effective communication, organisational intelligence, cultural competence and the ability to lead through connection with others because you can respond to their fears and challenges.
E-shaped people are self-Educators. Formal qualifications are important, don’t get me wrong, but so is the ability to quickly and independently learn new skills or understand theoretical concepts. E-shaped people don’t wait to do a course or for their employer to provide training, although they might take advantage of those opportunities at times; usually they are experts at personalised, just-in-time learning with extensive personal learning networks, able to search the internet for a video on how how to use a particular software feature just as easily as they are able to search academic journals to find evidence or theory to inform their work and support their ideas, or connect to someone who can give their group and expert introduction to an an important concept.
E-shaped people have Experience. Even when working at the university for the real world, I am often surrounded by people who haven’t worked anywhere but within universities or research institutes. There is a difficult tension between the need to have experts in a field teaching and continuing research and the need to have people who have extensive experience ‘out there’ in industry and the corporate world. Current requirements for working in a university (PhD minimum and academic publications for anything above administrative professional staff or sessional tutoring) do not do a great job of taking into account the value provided by industry experience. E-shaped people have experience applying theory and evidence to the messy world of human endeavour and are able to think strategically, work and respond with agility, manage multiple projects and partnerships, and simply get. things. done.
E-shaped people are Entrepreneurial. We live in a capitalist society, there is no escaping that, and with the current political climate putting pressure on universities to show their value within the economy by producing work ready graduates and research with immediate impact, entrepreneurial mindsets are another essential aspect of E-shaped people. E-shaped people can see and enunciate opportunities for research to translate into commercial or social innovation opportunities. E-shaped people are resourceful and understand business, even if they are not directly involved in it. E-shaped people can manage and embrace risk, are open-minded and flexible, and are experts who can handle being wrong.
E-shaped people are Explorers. They are intellectually curious people who explore new ideas because of a hunger for knowledge and a sense of possibility and opportunity about the world. E-shaped people can convert multiple information sources or discipline perspectives into insights and can ‘connect the dots’ because they take the time to explore ideas and situations. E-shaped people are creative and are able to explore data and ideas to evaluate what it can show us, and more importantly, what it can not. E-shaped people can begin an expedition with a goal in mind and be perfectly comfortable with making a completely unexpected discovery and turning that into a valuable outcome.
E-shaped people are Enthusiastic, Engaged and Engaging. Students want to know why they should study at a university. Governments want to know why they should fund research. The public wants to know why their tax dollars should be spent on universities. E-shaped people are passionate about their work, their enthusiasm comes through in both their outputs and in how they communicate about what they do and why. E-shaped people are engaged with student and broader community groups, professional associations, industry and events; they are part of public discourse in an accessible way. E-shaped people are engaging; they can present a lecture, be on a panel, teach a class, participate in a workshop or just have a coffee conversation with anyone and explain their area of expertise in a relevant and accessible way. They can draw people in and convince them of the importance of what they, and we, as a university, are doing.
How do we find E-shaped people?
They are already there. You will know these people as the upcoming superstars of the university. You might not know exactly what they do, but you will hear their name in a range of settings and know that they have been doing ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’ things. They have probably had multiple career shifts but still manage to be expert in multiple areas, sometimes they have ‘portfolio careers’ with university being one of several places they work. What the university needs to do is understand the value of E-shaped people, understand how they can help universities quickly morph into T-shaped organisations, and give them the opportunity to lead change from within our organisation, before external factors overpower higher education and force it to change in ways we don’t want – for ourselves or for future generations.
Colin Palmer (1990), “‘Hybrids’ — a critical force in the application of information technology in the nineties”, Journal of Information Technology, volume 5, (1990) pp. 232-235
David Guest, “The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing,” The Independent (London), September 17, 1991
Demirkan, H., & Spohrer, J. (2015). T-shaped innovators. Research Technology Management, 58(5), 12-15. Retrieved from http://gateway.library.qut.edu.au/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1735886375?accountid=13380
Donofrio, N., Spohrer, J., and Zadeh, H. S. (2010). Research-driven medical education and practice: A case for T-shaped professionals. MJA Viewpoint, March 5.
Hansen, M. T., and Oetinger, B. V. 2001. Introducing T-shaped managers: Knowledge management’s next generation. Harvard Business Review 79(3): 106-165.
Schwab, K. (2016) The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond, World Economic Forum Blog, Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/
Wilson, W.J. (2015) Empathy Is Still Lacking in the Leaders Who Need It The Most, Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/09/empathy-is-still-lacking-in-the-leaders-who-need-it-most
Wladawsky-Berger, I. (2015) The Rise of the T-Shaped Organisation, The Wall Street Journal, Retreived from http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2015/12/18/the-rise-of-the-t-shaped-organization/