Change Work February 2013

The right shape

When you think about workplace training, particularly for young starters, it's easy to focus on technical skills and related knowledge.  That is, knowing about the job and being able to do it - or at least some of it.  That's the minimum you require for a new recruit to contribute value.

Later though, as you start to think about developing people to take on more responsible and demanding roles, you become aware that there are other factors, certain intangibles, that make some individuals stand out as having "potential".

I'm not really thinking about leadership or management potential here, although that depends on the same factors, but rather on just being more effective in any role.

It's about being "T-shaped".

The idea is that you can graphically represent a person's skills as a T-shape.  Then the height of the "T" represents their technical knowledge or expertise and the width of the crossbar represents their cross-disciplinary, interpersonal or social abilities.  You may be focused on the depth (height?) of someone's knowledge - and clearly it's important that there is enough knowledge in the organisation.  But no individual can know everything so you have a team of people with a range of different knowledge sets.

But, of course, for these people to work effectively together they must be able to communicate across the discipline boundaries.  And in larger organisations, the disciplines may be in different departments which might have very different cultures and so tend to inhibit communication between them.

Clearly, you want people to be well-qualified and experienced within their various disciplines, but if the crossbars of the Ts don't extend far enough sideways to overlap then the organisation can't work properly.

So what specifically are these cross-disciplinary, interpersonal skills?  How do they manifest themselves?  Here are some:

All of these factors involve values and beliefs that are personal and often private, so they can be difficult to talk about, especially for people who lack interpersonal skills!  A real double bind.  So how do you develop the "interpersonal dimension" in people whose range is too narrow?

First of all you want them to value the building of relationships, so does the organisational culture encourage this?  Is it seen as a worthwihile investment of time?

Second, you have to address the problem explicitly.  Make sure that the training programme puts sufficient emphasis on teamworking, including interdisciplinary work, so that trainees learn that it's important.  And include it in the list of competencies that you appraise performance against.

Third, if you provide interpersonal skills training then make sure that trainees have plenty of opportunity to practise.  If the jobs they're doing don't demand that they communicate widely then the reluctant ones won't do it!

All fairly obvious I suppose.  Too obvious to give much attention to?