what they are and why acquire these skills in the workplace

On this page, we will discover the meaning of T-shaped skills and why it has become essential to acquire this type of skill. Is it better to be an expert in one field or to possess several general skills in several fields? The T-shaped model combines the two aspects together and allows you to face work challenges with a broader vision to achieve better results for yourself, your colleagues, and your team.

T-shaped is a metaphor used in job recruitment to describe people’s skills across fields. The horizontal line of the T symbolizes the breadth of general knowledge or soft skills. They possess extensive experience in different disciplines.

The vertical T-line, on the other hand, represents the depth of hard skills, i.e., specialized knowledge in their field. A professional who has acquired a T-shaped background has understood how crucial it is today to change the way education is understood if one is to cope with the ever-fast-changing world of work.

training t-shaped

He or she has deep knowledge and skills in a particular area, together with the expertise, willingness, and ability to make connections between several disciplines. The traditional type of training does not give the opportunity to acquire the skills needed to have the right appeal and to be competitive in today’s ever-changing working environment.

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T-shaped competencies: what they are

The definition of t-shaped, T-shaped ability, or T-shaped person, was first used in 1991 by David Guest, Professor in Organisational Psychology and HRM at London’s King’s College University. But the concept can be traced back even further, to the 1980s.

At that time, McKinsey & Company, an American multinational strategy consulting firm, believed that people with these characteristics were ideal as employees and also to be sought after in terms of consultants and partners with whom to open a collaboration.

The term gained popularity after Tim Brown, CEO of the world’s largest product design company (IDEO Design), put the concept into practice to select candidates. The intent was to solve the communication difficulties between designers and engineers, between creative and technical mindsets. These two figures, in fact, not having a shared vocabulary, may have problems interacting.

Each runs the risk of following their own discipline without having the right empathy between them. But with the addition of new skills for both, and if these skills overlap, there is a much higher possibility of connecting on different levels. T-branches become bridges of understanding to share ideas and bring innovation.

Brown realized that looking for T-shaped skills in the curriculum could build the best interdisciplinary teams. This leads to a company being stronger, more efficient, and therefore potentially revolutionary. Many big brands, such as Apple, follow the T-shaped model for recruitment.

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Why acquire T-shaped skills?

People with T-shaped skills manage to overcome the limitations of specialized knowledge and are oriented towards adding new skills to their training through continuing education. The classic training of being an expert in a specific field, although very useful in fields where a strong dose of specialized knowledge is required, is actually limiting in approaching the professions of the future and especially the professional figures that are emerging as a result of the extensive digital transformation process underway.

It also means having the chance to seize a great opportunity, if we think about it, which is to free ourselves from the difficulty of having to choose just one thing to do in life.

T-shaped skills: features and benefits

Let us now take a closer look at what the characteristics of T-shaped skills are and what advantages can be gained by acquiring this type of training.

How many types of skills exist?

Faced with an increasingly fast-moving world of work, it is complex to draw up an unambiguous definition of competencies. In general, competencies are divided into two macro-categories: hard skills or technical competencies and soft skills or transversal competencies.

Hard skills are those competencies that can be measured and quantified by titles, certifications, and work experience. They change according to the role and the sector to which they refer and are those competencies that can be assessed at an early stage of a job application screening.

In an increasingly global and technological society, the hard skills most in demand are, for example, knowledge of foreign languages plus the ability to use new media and digital tools.

Soft skills or transversal competencies are interpersonal and behavioral skills. They have more to do with who people are than what they can do; they define how you approach life and how you deal with everyday challenges, and they strongly determine the working environment.

Soft skills include the capacity to collaborate with others, communicate effectively, and plan and manage tasks.

The transversal skills of the future

All these skills are well-balanced and represented by the T-Shaped skills model. While hard skills can be acquired by anyone, soft skills are your unique strength and give you a competitive advantage in the workplace and perhaps even in life.

According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2020 Report, those who want to remain competitive and make a difference in the world of work will have to develop and implement soft skills in the future.

Emerging technologies and increasingly complex operating environments will typically make human capabilities, the soft skills particularly valuable. Some of the most significant of these are listed below:


The need to cope with new working scenarios of increasing complexity and uncertainty, increasingly characterized by sudden changes, makes those with “fluid” characteristics capable of adapting particularly valuable. Flexibility is the main characteristic of T-shaped persons, which becomes necessary to perform new tasks and support other people in one’s team to ensure the achievement of objectives.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking skills will be essential in the future. It is thinking that knows its limits of functioning and seeks possible solutions. The term “thinking” combined with the adjective “critical” indicates an active type of thinking in that it is thoughtful, reflective, and rational as opposed to more emotional, intuitive, immediate, irrational, and, therefore, passive thinking.

Being a critical thinker implies having to stop before making a judgment or decision. In fact, a critical thinker is used to thoughtfully and rationally examine the pros and cons to formulate and evaluate alternative strategies. No matter how advanced technology may become, human beings, fortunately, will always have to be present to make decisions and brainstorm new and innovative solutions.


Problem-solving, a term you will have heard many times before, is not the problem-solving ability that every adult possesses, but the ability to handle problems in a working environment and to find the best possible solutions in a short time, knowing that those decisions will determine the success of a project. It can be defined as that ability that enables us to move from a given situation to a desired situation.

Development of lateral thinking

An effective technique for developing problem-solving is to practice lateral thinking. This term, invented by psychologist Edward De Bono in 1967, refers to a way of problem-solving that consists of looking at a difficulty from different angles.

Whereas the linear thinking to which our brain is accustomed follows a precise path and leads to the evaluation of a single solution, lateral thinking stimulates us to search for an infinite number of possible solutions. It allows one to be original, never banal—an invaluable skill in work and in life.


Vision is understood as the ability to understand and anticipate the development directions of an industry. It should not be forgotten that there are people with a vision behind every innovation. They are the ones whose creativity and imagination shape the future, something that a computer can never have.

Differences between I-shaped skills, X-shaped skills, and T-shaped skills

How many forms can skills take? And how do they differ?

I-Shaped: people with I-shaped competencies have developed good knowledge and skills in a single discipline. But they have little or no knowledge or skills outside their field.

X-Shaped: those who have developed these skills are those who are best able to work within teams. X is the form of the “executive” skill and emphasizes an individual’s ability to set strategy, guide people and motivate the team. They possess skills that integrate the knowledge of a specific topic with leadership abilities. They are usually managers or team leaders.

In people with T-Shaped skills, vertical competencies are integrated with horizontal competencies, allowing them to collaborate with all figures within a project. In an increasingly complex, interconnected, and interdependent world, having skills in several or even many fields becomes crucial.

Evolution of T-shaped skills into M-shaped, Pi-shaped, Comb-shaped, and E-shaped

Again using metaphors, a person with T-shaped skills can evolve by adding new skills and become M-shaped, where the vertical lines indicate two specialized skills. The letter Pi represents the Pi-shaped, which is the combination of M and T; the horizontal line indicates the further breadth of soft skills.

But other hard skills and soft skills can be added, a broad base with multiple areas of competence, which goes by the name of Comb-shaped. In short, proof that when you want to, you never stop learning.

There are also E-shaped competencies in which the vertical line represents specialized expertise in one area and the horizontal lines expertise in several areas, with proven execution skills. It is a combination of the 4 E’s: the vertical line stands for “Expertise”, while the horizontal lines stand for “Experience”, “Execution”, and “Exploration”.

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The advantages of these skills

But what advantages can be gained by acquiring t-shaped skills training?

Better performance

A person with T-shaped skills is able to pursue multiple goals and find solutions to different kinds of problems. Possessing a wealth of knowledge in various fields and being specialized in one’s own field allows for better performance and, thus, greater productivity.

He/she will be a professional who can solve more complicated tasks in the shortest possible time. All this makes him/her a very valuable and sought-after resource.

Increased ability to collaborate within a team

People with T-shaped skills have developed abilities to move between different competencies and know how to exploit them when they are required. Those who are able to move between several areas are able to work effectively with the various specialists involved in the realization of a project.

Therefore, they will be able to foster teamwork, enabling them to achieve great collective goals.

Better communication and innovative ideas

Having developed more knowledge and being able to juggle different areas makes it possible to break down the walls of communication difficulties that arise between figures with different specializations. The possibility of being able to communicate with different figures and the meeting and connection between several areas of knowledge create the right context in which the most innovative ideas can be born.

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How to develop “T” skills digitally

Becoming a t-shaped digital professional means having the ideal set-up to carry out an activity rich in stimuli and requiring constant updating. Digital professions embrace multidisciplinarity and contamination between different worlds and knowledge.

This means that there are many opportunities to specialize in many areas but also to embark on a path to become an independent professional. The world is now hyper-connected, and people can choose where to live and where to work. Start by first asking yourself what you want to qualify or retrain in. Learn more about the different types of jobs that exist in digital and what skills are in demand.

Identify your passion, find the field in which you would like to work, and start studying. Identify your soft skills, train them, and develop new ones with practice by joining a team or participating in internships or projects.

Becoming aware of one’s strengths and opportunities for improvement

Have you ever taken the time to do an in-depth analysis of your potential and areas for improvement, opportunities, and challenges in your training and career path? The first question to address is: What skills should I develop? What should I learn?

There is no single answer. It all depends on the goals and values you have defined. First, you have to make an analysis of what skills and knowledge you already possess between hard skills and soft skills. To build your “T”, you should work towards achieving a good mix of both.

Having the right mindset

If the next few years are going to be about change, driven by technology and the continuous reinvention of what surrounds us, how should we position ourselves to take advantage of it? The only possible strategy is to always be ready to acquire new skills by setting the right mindset, i.e., the mental attitude, the way we interpret reality, circumstances, as well as ourselves with our own possibilities and skills.

One has to be willing to de-structure one’s know-how in order to be able to acquire and integrate new knowledge and always challenge oneself to learn the most. Stanford University psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck called this type of attitude the “growth mindset”, or growth mentality, the opposite of the “fixed mindset”.

The growth mindset is characterized by dynamism, openness, flexibility, and a desire to grow and experiment. This mindset opens up to change, which is seen as an opportunity to improve and be ready to seize new opportunities. T-shaped competencies are the consequence of an extremely curious, results-oriented mindset.

Learning to think of your career path as a series of challenges and opportunities for development can have an extremely positive effect and means embarking on a path full of stimuli and satisfaction, where failure is contemplated in the process of change and considered an additional stimulus to move forward.


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