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Blog: What is T-shaped competence?

Pia-Maria Thorén

Inspirational Director and founder of Agile People also an author of Agile People - A Radical Approach for HR and Managers (That Leads to Motivated Employees)

Employees with a T-shaped competence can also be called specialised generalists, or generalised specialists - they have a broad general base that is complemented with expertise in one area. Sometimes we talk about pi-shaped (π) competence, or M-shaped competence, this is when someone has more than one expertise. A comb-shaped competence is when you have an expertise in many areas. The broad base is built up by working in areas which may not be your main task today, but where you are sharing knowledge with many of your colleagues, in cross-functional teams. You may, for example, work in pairs instead of on your own, and in this way learn each other's areas of knowledge. You do not become a specialist in your colleague's area but you can handle it well enough to, for example, cover for your colleague if he/she should be absent for any reason.

T-shaped competence creates increased flexibility (agility) by making the individual more flexible in terms of what they can contribute with. Simply put, you become more valuable, when you can take on many different roles in your company, sometimes even in completely different functions than the one you usually work in. Flexibility in skills leads to a competitive advantage for the organisation because you are not so dependent on specific employees and their unique knowledge. Instead employees have a broader competence base and can be flexible in what they contribute and also where in the organisation they contribute. For example, if there suddenly is a need in a department other than the one I belong to, I can help them, because I have other skills.

For the individual employee, it also works as an insurance, because if the organisation no longer has a need for my main job role, I can always contribute in another part of the company.

Boundary Spanning

We call T-shaped competence at the company level "Boundary Spanning". It is about breaking down the boundaries between different departments, functions, areas of expertise, and political and social groups within the company. It is also about taking inspiration from external areas of knowledge, other companies, and other cultures. All to create a constantly learning organisation that in order to continuously improve, seeks knowledge both within and outside the company's boundaries.

Boundary Spanning is extremely important in order to increase understanding between different parts of the organisation and for the ability to collaborate in value streams.

We need to understand what expectations, problems, and challenges other functions have, to be able to deliver the best possible value to both our external clients and between internal functions. Customer value is central in the agile world and everything we do that, in the end, does not directly or indirectly create value for the customer, should be stopped at once. We need to constantly improve ourselves to create high quality in the way we work, and in our products and services.

Kaizen (Japanese: 改善, kai-zen, "improvement") is a business management term coined by Taiichi Ohno (大野 耐 一), the "father" of Toyota's production system. In Sweden, the word mainly refers to an approach to quality within companies, where activities are constantly improved through many small modifications.

Anyone can become a Boundary Spanner in our organisations. It is about showing interest in what others are doing and creating cross-border collaborations. Some companies systematise working between silos in a Buddy System.

Buddy System - a practice for creating learning organisations

If we truly want people to start socialising between different functions and departments, we can formalise the work with a Buddy System. It works as follows:

Suppose we have an organisation with 6 functions at a certain level: for example, IT, Marketing and Sales, HR, Finance, Purchasing, and Manufacturing. We can then create a cross-functional team with representatives from all these functions, who meet, discuss and work together regularly, maybe 1-2 times/month. In each team, there is a mentor who keeps meetings in order and makes sure the work runs smoothly. The idea is to exchange experiences, discuss current issues and establish contacts between the functions.

So, in addition to their regular team, everyone is also a part of a Buddy Team. When all employees have a “Buddy” in another department, it creates informal contacts and has a fantastic long-term effect. The procedure is repeated in the whole organisation so that all employees have at least 2 teams.

Topics that can be discussed and also worked on must be of interest to the other parts (on a company level) or affect the other functions. The Buddy Teams can be used for a lot of different purposes and you will see some suggestions in the picture above.

Regardless of if you use Buddy Teams, or any other method to create a learning organisation, increased experimentation needs to be one of the most important principles.

We do not know what the future will look like, the only thing that is certain, is that most likely it will not look like today. The only way to deal with an uncertain future is to try different ways forward and see what works. Tolerating failures is a must, when we have a high proportion of experiments as the only way to learn - so increasing Psychological Safety is also an important principle. But that's another chapter :)

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