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Becoming a T-Shaped Polymath

Specialization is one of the cornerstones of a productive capitalist market. Over the last two decades the level of specialization continues to increase at an insane level. No project is too small to be broken up, no field is too niche to have multiple specialties. Managers and HP professionals have been debating how much further this specialization can continue. Whenever we feel that we can’t possibly become more specialized, we find a new way to fragment a market or break apart a job description.

Not everything gets broken apart and despite the never ending supply of specialist there has always been a need for generalists in the workforce. But it’s always seemed to be one or the other, either you’re a generalist (which usually means you end up in management) or your a specialist. Specialists do the work and generalists tie it all together. Specialists are often so specialized they’re unable to see the big picture and how what they are doing fits into to overall company strategy. Generalists provide the high level vision and make sure everything accrues to the master plan but they’re often fuzzy on the details and how it will all work out.

Lately there’s been talk of a new kind of employee, the T-shaped employee. T-shaped employees have qualities of both. They have enough breadth that they can look left to right and understand their position in the company and how their work fits into all of that, but they are also able to get deep in their field and provide that needed expertise. T-shaped employees are the next step in workplace evolution. But I don’t see it stopping there.

If you don’t feel you’re quite T-shaped this is your first step. The process to get there is what I described before as continuous learning. Your job is to learn. But you need to learn generally about your industry as well as develop a specific specialty. You need to develop deep knowledge and capabilities that set you apart in the market but you also need to be looking left and right to all the areas that impact your job. What areas in the company are you dependent on to do your job? Learn about those. You don’t need to be an expert but you want to start off with a general understanding.

The next trick is to evolve from being T-shaped to becoming a polymath. According to the Wikipedians:

polymath (Greek: ”having learned much”) is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable. Most ancient scientists were polymaths by today’s standards.

To me a polymath is someone who could fit into several T-shaped roles. They’ve developed multiple specialties and have an even broader range of general knowledge. The trick to this is using some basic core capability to branch out into other areas. Use one specialty to launch into the next one. For myself I evolved my years of retail experience into owning a skateboard shop. I then leveraged the experience of owning my own business and all the marketing I did for it, combined with my degree in communications to get into marketing. From there I was able to get into social media and after getting an MBA and several years of business experience I’ve evolved beyond just being a social media tactician and am now a business strategist working with executives to reshape their whole business.

Businesses as Polymaths.

All of these lessons don’t just apply to individuals. They also apply to businesses. 10 years ago, if I told you that someday Google and Amazon would be competing with Microsoft and Apples making personal computing devices, everyone would have told me I was crazy. 10 Years ago Amazon was still just a book seller and Google was just a search engine.

Google leveraged their ability to store massive amounts of data and their distributed computational ability to launch services like Gmail and Google Docs. In their quest to index all the World’s information they created maps and eventually leveraged all of those as mobile applications. Their experience with these very popular mobile applications enabled them to develop a mobile operating system. Along the way the developed a web browser which all of the above allowed them to develop a whole new operating system. This is of course a generalization, but you get the point.

Amazon has a similar story. Being the World’s largest bookstore gave them the opportunity to sell anything and everything. This shopping platform allowed them to offer white label services to big brands and small retailers, extending their reach. All of the back end resources needed to power all of this lead them to develop their own cloud services. Their technical capabilities combined with their heritage in book sales allowed them to develop the Kindle and then eventually the Kindle Fire.

In hindsight it’s amazing but logical how these brands evolved over time. Many of you will experience the same thing as you look back over your own lives, but often it’s evolved without much of a plan. The trick is to evolve like this deliberately.

So the question becomes what do the next 10 years look like? How do you go from generalist or specialist to being T-shaped? Then how do you develop more T’s and use those to become a polymath?

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

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