Time for T-shaped people

Materials World magazine
3 Apr 2011
Stylised graphic of businessman riding unicycle

With the recession slashing training budgets, Michael Bennett finds out other ways employees can widen their skill set.

In times like these, survival is king. Companies are forced to cut training budgets, the jobs market is contracted, while employers want candidates who stand out from the crowd and can balance more than one job. Combined with the uncertainty of financial support from Government for training, the situation seems increasingly challenging for graduates looking to gain entry or an employee wishing to change tack.

'When you go into a downturn, [training] can be seen as a luxury,' says Steve Platts, a Continuous Improvement Coach at Tata Steel Speciality in the UK. Inspired by the Japanese philosophy of 'Kaizen' (which roughly translates as 'change to become good'), Tata Steel Speciality employs three Continuous Improvement Coaches to help improve business processes at all levels, from senior management to the shopfloor, by eliminating waste, not just of the material kind but by constantly trying to find the optimum way of doing things.

Platts' own South Yorkshire-based site was severely hit during the global downturn, losing 80% of its business by spring 2009. The site, which at the time employed more than 3,000 people, responded by reducing its fixed costs from £200m to £100m, and refocusing on supplying smaller quantities of specialist high quality steel to the most demanding sectors, including aerospace and oil and gas. The Continuous Improvement programme proved its worth, claims Platts, during the global economic downturn, when companies needed to quickly come up with smart ways to save money while ensuring product integrity.

Platts points out, however, that ‘a lot of companies are looking at short-term survival - it's a question of do we look at the longer term and die now, or do we survive now and put something in place once we've survived?’

'After being in various technical roles, it became evident to me that you need to take advantage of every opportunity to develop new skills that are transferable throughout the metals industry. This way if hard times do hit, you have the flexibility to be able to fulfil a diverse range of roles across the industry.'

Broad horizons

His thoughts are echoed by Jim Spohrer, Innovation Champion at IBM’s Almaden Research Center based in San Jose, USA. He believes in the idea of the ‘T-shaped’ individual, a person with a deep specialism in one area, complemented by a wide variety of skills, such as communications, IT, marketing, negotiating or interview techniques.

Spohrer explains that T-shaped people are more adaptive and can learn new areas faster than ‘I-shaped’ specialists, ‘since they already have what it takes to become an expert problem solver in at least one area, but also have excellent communications skills with key high-level concepts in other areas.’

He adds that people who see these ‘soft’ skills as frivolous need to get past that way of thinking, as although ‘Noble Prize Winner Types’ can afford to concentrate on honing their core competency, ‘most people will be competing in the T-shaped world. In a static world, [having] all I-shapes maximises productive capacity. However, in a rapidly changing world, where demand varies, having more generalists actually increases the productive capacity over time.’

Likewise, Baskhar Pant, Executive Director of Professional Programs at MIT, based in Boston, USA, thinks that technical expertise alone is no longer sufficient because ‘working across a globalised economy, in teams that cross cultures, particularly virtual teams, is almost mandatory. Working in such an environment presses you to have many more people or social interaction skills than were needed before’.

Career Re-Engineering

Pant oversees MIT’s Career Re-Engineering Program, which helps people from various science and technology backgrounds to retrain, reassess and re-enter industry from a different angle, drawing on their existing knowledge in the field while offering them the benefit of academic support. ‘We bolster those skills via the professional development courses we offer,’ he adds, pointing out that the 12-month, part-time programme can be taken in a wide range of disciplines, from civil engineering and materials science, to aeronautics and economics.

It could be that we start to see people dipping in and out of education throughout their careers, sharpening their skills and honing their expertise. ‘It’s part of the life-long learning process – get additional knowledge, go away, put what they have learnt into practice, then maybe come back and say “I need more,” or something different, and come back to us,’ says Pant. ‘There is a constant hunger among certain people to do that’.

However, Professor Jeremy Baumberg, Director of the Nanophotonics Centre at the University of Cambridge, UK, thinks that this scenario is less likely to occur in the UK. ‘It’s a fantastic thing to do, but, at the moment, we don’t really have schemes that fund that – companies are a bit averse to fund people to do that.’

A new model of student

When the effects of the UK Coalition Government’s plans for increased tuition fees kick in, Baumberg thinks we could see a shift towards a more USA-style academic outlook – students saddled with debt will be more determined to get value for money. While that may force universities to deliver,

Baumberg is concerned that courses will miss ‘some of the best people coming through who don’t have a fixed direction – they just want to do it for fun. We run a risk of losing those sorts of people’. Baumberg heads up the University of Cambridge’s Nano Doctoral Training Centre, which is trying to reinvigorate the idea of postgraduate research. Over a four-year course, the centre takes PhD nanoscience students out of their comfort zone, and tries to give them a more holistic picture of the world of scientific research and how it relates to industry, and different scientific fields, rather than letting them plough away in isolated study.

‘The aim is to completely stretch them,’ says Baumberg. ‘We’ll take a physicist for instance and put [him/her] in the chemistry department and they’ll have to make nanoparticles, then we might put them in the engineering department and they have to turn those nanoparticles into a device. So they understand the difficulties of those techniques’.

Baumberg himself worked at IBM and Hitachi for a number of years. This experience has influenced his academic career. ‘My experience of interacting with industry is not that it contaminates academic research, but actually reinforces it and takes it into really interesting directions.’ However, he added that the Doctoral Training Centre is not just designed to cater to industry needs. ‘We are trying to keep [industry] a little bit more at arms length, but [the students] are exactly what industry wants. They are innovation savvy – we think that is much more valuable than letting industry completely guide us’.

The National Skills Academies in the UK have been trying for years now to furnish employees with skills that match the demands of business. Jeremy Pingstone, Director of training consultancy ITS Plastics, based in Worcester, UK, thinks this is going to be an even more pressing need in light of increased tuition fees. ‘There needs to be an alternative for students and I think a work-based route is the way to go for a lot of people, as they can earn while they are learning,’ he says.

Pingstone is the champion of a industryfacing foundation degree that aims to get young people into the polymers industry. The Working Higher qualification is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council as part of a £3m project to introduce foundation degrees in different science sectors. Delivered from London Metropolitan University, it combines online, distance and work-based learning. ‘It has been developed by industry for industry so it is based around employer needs,’ says Pingstone. ‘It provides a very structured progression route through to a BEng degree and they come out a much more rounded individual.’

Small businesses

Unfortunately, with the tightening of state purse strings, not all Government initiatives have survived. Prue Watson, spokesperson for the UK’s Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), claims that the Graduate Internship Scheme, set up by the last Labour Government to help place graduates into paid placements, is about to be cut. ‘We are urging the (new) Government to renew it and keep it going because with youth unemployment so high it is vital that schemes like this aren’t just scrapped.’

Watson points out that the scheme not only helped young people gain experience, but that the interns helped businesses do specific projects by providing skills that they previously lacked.

Small businesses, she says, are a key part of a recovering economy. They ‘are willing to take on the challenge [that] the Government has given them to drive private sector recovery, they just need the help to do so and the right policies in place, without that they will lack the confidence to grow their business through innovation or take on new staff’.

Some small businesses have used the recession as a chance for tactical regrouping. Security systems start-up Welcome Gate, based in London, UK, is an example, says the FSB. The firm’s projects are heavily reliant on the construction sector, which has suffered during the recession, but because the company sets aside a yearly training budget, they have been able to use this ‘lull’ period to focus on improving the staff’s skill set. By allocating employees a number of hours for continuing professional development, the company places the onus on the individual to flag areas where they need additional training, whether it be in project management techniques or problem-solving skills.

Jason Choy, Chief Executive of the firm, also adds that although a lot of people working in the security sector come from trade-based jobs such as locksmiths, he was now on the lookout for the ‘new generation’ who are already technology-savvy. ‘If they have already got that foundation for us to build on, with specific in-house and on-the-job training, then it becomes quite an interesting profile of engineer we end up with, rather than having to completely re-train someone to understand that technology’.


In times when money is tight, more companies could benefit from using in-house training rather than using consultants or sending people on courses. Platts thinks that this would not only cut costs, but help maximise what employees glean from their training. ‘When people come back from a course, they will probably only remember 15-20%, whereas if you train people in-house, you can train hundreds of people and then coach them afterwards. Hopefully, they might start using 60% of what they have learned’. Co-workers would be well-placed to swap ideas with colleagues, in turn fostering an environment of continuous improvement.

For want of a better phrase, companies quite simply need to find a way to do ‘less with more’. To do this, they need to get past zero-sum thinking (the rationale that to add one new thing, it is necessary to take one away). ‘That logic gets us nowhere fast’, says Spohrer, ‘in reality, there are many ways to be cleverer and teach several things in an integrated way, or change the environment so that things that used to be hard to learn are now easier to learn. Or build smarter tools so that we can do more by learning different things. There are so many ways to do more with less, we just need more creativity in thinking about how people learn’.

Further information

MIT’s Career Re-Engineering Program: http://web.mit.edu/professional/careerreengineering

University of Cambridge’s Nano DTC: www.nanodtc.cam.ac.uk


Further reading

Management speaks

For those in science-based roles who feel they could benefit from broadening their experience, there are schemes out there that offer assistance. Richard Robinson, Managing Director of Heathrow Express, the UK train service, made use of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF) scheme, which helped him move from a chemistry background into a less technical role.

‘I wanted to move into a general management role as I felt this was how I could have the biggest business impact,’ he says. ‘Versatility and flexibility are important, although I would always encourage people to take roles that are stretching but are based on their core abilities. It is sometimes possible that science–based roles can be too remote from the customer, which is the most important thing to avoid in any business.’

As part of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s BEST programme, the SMF award aims to demonstrate the value of a combined business and engineering education, and offers scholarships to talented young engineers with leadership potential. It gives them the chance to study for a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA) at internationally renowned business schools, and provides a range of activities, including networking, mentoring and career guidance.

‘SMF has been fantastic for me,’ says Robinson. ‘The sponsorship for the MBA was obviously very helpful, but the idea of why an engineer should do an MBA and how this could broaden my scope by giving me wider business understanding, in addition to networking and mentoring opportunities, has been the real added value.’ 


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