Building success in the future of work: T-shaped, Pi-shaped, and Comb-shaped skills


This morning we completed the five-city Tomorrow-Ready CIO event series, run by CIO magazine and sponsored by IBM.

My keynote across the five locations was on the Future of the CIO, using a Future of the CIO framework I recently created. I hope to write a number of posts in the next little while on some of the more important ideas covered in my framework and keynote.

There were a number of excellent other speakers at the events, including Tennis Australia CIO Samir Mahir, Australian Government CTO John Sheridan, Forrester VP John Brand, IDC NZ country head Ullrich Loeffler, and head of Deakin University’s School of Information Systems Dineli Mather.

In her presentation Prof Mather discussed the skills required for data analytics, in the context of a new Master of Business Analytics program the University is launching this year.

As we chatted before the event this morning we started talking about “T-shaped” skills. I think I first came across the T-shape concept – combining breadth and depth – in the well-known 2001 Harvard Business Review article Introducing T-Shaped Managers: Knowledge Management’s Next Generation. Since then I and others have often used the “T-shaped” concept to describe the skills we all require in the future: deep, world-class expertise, combined with breadth to span disciplines and understand the context for that expertise.

Dineli then mentioned the idea of “Pi-shaped” skills – a term I hadn’t come across before – in which breadth is combined with not one but two separate domains of deep expertise, creating a shape similar to the symbol for Pi. In business analytics the two domains are technology and data analysis. Now I find that others including marketers and IT architects are talking about the need for Pi-shaped skills.

This tallies with my own thoughts – and certainly personal experience – over the years. We absolutely need world-class expertise today, otherwise we will be a commodity.

There is then a balance to strike. It can be dangerous to have just one area of deep expertise, as the value of any single domain of expertise can erode rapidly with new developments. Complementary sets of deep expertise can make people extraordinary valuable, if combined with a breadth of perspective.

However if you try to be expert across too many domains, you cannot maintain your depth of expertise as much as someone who focuses in one domain. That is usually balanced by the value of having complementary domains of expertise.

My experience is of building expertise and then adding multiple new domains over time. For example, I spent many years working in financial and capital markets. Today I can hardly say I have world-class expertise in the field, however the depth of knowledge I had in the past means I still understand the fundamentals of the space, and is highly complementary to the new skills I have acquired more recently.

So there is the potential for us to develop what we might call “Comb-shaped” skills, in which we have many specific domains of expertise as well as breadth. In this case we can certainly never match the knowledge of a deep specialist in any one area.
However in an increasingly complex, interconnected and interdependent world, if we have sufficient depth in several – or even many – domains, we can often be more valuable than a specialist.

What do you think? Do you think developing “Comb-shaped” skills is a viable strategy for many people, or should most focused on “T-shaped” or “Pi-shaped” skills?