T-shaped people and evolving organisations

Hands forming a T shape
Hands forming a T shape

I’m a big fan of Matt Jukes’ Digital by Default blog. Matt and I crossed paths at Jisc, in fact he covered my maternity leave once! I find it fascinating that I also worked at Becta with Andy Dudfield and Matt and Andy have done some of the same roles. They are in the world of Government Digital Services and open data whereas I am peddling my skills in higher education.

Which is all a needlessly long introduction to what I want to say about Matt’s post on “multi-hyphenates“. Matt talks about product manager – delivery manager – UX people and references the concept of T-shaped people , or “generalising specialists”. We use that concept in my team a lot, especially when I’m working with Steve Ranford on our version of research software engineer roles.

It’s tempting to draw elegant diagrams about who does what in each role, but I often see “slash” roles and roles that evolve over time. It’s not just about what each role does, but also about how much work there is to do in an organisation and therefore how much space there is for dedicated specialists. As organisations grow, roles grow out from each other, like branches on a tree.

In web, what was a web manager and content officer become CMS product manager, devops lead, analyst, content designer, UX researcher, user engagement managers. In learning technology, what was a solo elearning advisor evolves to VLE manager, service manager, user support lead, multimedia advisor, learning designer, instructional designer. In change programmes project managers become surrounded by business analysts, process owners, stakeholder managers, benefits realisation leads. The work becomes bigger, it splits out to deeper specialisms. In many ways that’s what makes “digital” such an interesting field to work in, it is always evolving.

When I’m involved with recruitment I often try to ensure that candidates understand the context of the organisation. They might be used to be the solo elearning person in a small college and they will need to adjust to being one of six, in a network of 30. Or they might be used to being a test specialist in a team of 10 in a software company and they need to adjust to being the only tester in a non-IT company. Context changes the way that knowledge and skills are used.

I’ve been pondering is what this means for job satisfaction. Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: motivation in the knowledge economy” talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose. In our line of work where the boundaries keep changing and the specialisms keep deepening, we each negotiate our way through each evolutionary step. Amongst Heads of eLearning in UK universities there has been huge churn as people move up, across, diagonally (and sometimes out), to fit with the organisational restructures.

Back to T-shaped people. Some people are comfortable knowing a little about a lot, and are able to work horizontally, perhaps preferring the breadth and constant new challenge. Some people are most comfortable knowing a lot about some specific areas and get their satisfaction from gaining mastery of those areas. We need both of those types of people, as well as T-shaped people. And I guess what I’m suggesting is that these things change over time: some specialists become seen as generalists and some generalists become seen as specialists.

I love train journeys that take a route through cities, where I can stare into back gardens and kitchen windows. In each of those towns, streets and houses there is an infinite depth of lived experience. That momentary glance of a back bedroom is a view into someone’s life.

When I think about roles I try to remember to have that humility. There is breadth and depth to digital work and the roles we work within are determined as much by the size of our employing organisation as it is by any illusory truth about how to do digital things. Long may we continue to evolve into deeper and wider spaces.





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