There was a time when you could build a long. successful career by focusing on one narrow domain in which you were an expert. For example, you could start in accounts, move up to finance, then to the board and may be the MD’s suite. That changed some decades back when managements began to realise that an ‘I’-shaped knowledge base was not enough in a changing world. Companies started rotating people from finance to manufacturing to marketing before considering a person suitable for the corner office or the ‘C’ suite.
In line with this, business schools created the ‘T’ shaped learning paradigm. Meaning not only deep knowledge in one area, but also a certain level of understanding of several other areas as well. For example, business schools insisted that even if you are a finance major, you need to take courses in marketing, HR, operations etc to fulfil future job requirements to the ‘T’ [speaking realistically and metaphorically].
But even that started changing a few years ago, with the pandemic accelerating the pace of change.
Read more: Future of jobs: One Person Corporation ahoy!
The new paradigm
The new paradigm is the ‘Pi’ [π] shaped knowledge profile. You need to know a bit about many areas, while developing a fairly deep understanding of two areas, at the least. Future organizations will need multifaceted employees whose skills will look like the Greek letter ‘π’, with two or more legs. Deep knowledge in one area will not be enough, you will also need to have fairly deep knowledge in one or two more areas.
This new paradigm was brought alive in a report in The Times of India [6/1/2020] that quoted Prof Guhan Jayaraman of IIT Madras. “Students often do not like biology and think of it as a subject only for medicine,” wrote Prof Guhan. “But that has vastly changed”. He should know. He heads the Bio-Technology Department of IIT Madras.
Interestingly, the IITs saw the trend some years ago and started beefing up their biology departments. If engineers need to learn biology to master Bio-Medical Engineering, the contra is also true. Quantitative skills are becoming important in some fields of biology; skills like Python programming, data analytics, data extraction, mathematical modelling with volumes of data, are today much prized skills in medical and biology research.
Managing, and using data
At a more mundane level, doctors in India are learning how to use digital tools to improve their practice. Smart pharma companies are even offering doctors digital marketing courses, so that they can boost the inflow of patients.
We can extrapolate this argument to other functional areas. In finance or operations or HR, executives have to have the skills to use sophisticated analytical tools, data modelling and more as organizations collect more and more data and hire data analytics professionals to make sense and productive use of this sea of data.
In sales and marketing, there was a time when you had tightly defined silos. That was when there was a clear demarcation of traditional marketing and digital marketing. There was brand-building advertising and there was performance marketing. But these walls are falling down rapidly. Today, marketing and sales professionals need to know all aspects of marketing.
Some decades ago, companies used to have data analysis clerks who worked with large sheets of data and calculators. Then came the PC and the entire data analytics job moved to brand managers and sales managers. Now, the next inflection is upon us. Today companies are giving powerful dashboards to their sales and marketing teams to monitor brand health across multiple factors and also run experiments in real time.
To do that they need to know more than the traditional concepts of marketing. They need to have advanced data analytics skills and data modelling skills. Hence the growing importance of online courses and programs that help you strengthen an extra ‘leg’.
All jobs are now becoming hybrid jobs and as a LinkedIn research showed, the top-rated hard skills include coding, blockchain, data analytics; and the top-rated soft skills include leadership and creativity [www.futurelearn.com].
So how do you future proof your career? Fareed Zakaria, in his book ‘In Defense of Liberal Education’, writes: “As information becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it’s best to learn how to learn, building a foundation for the rest of your life, no matter what twists it may bring.”
Hybrid jobs call for a new mode of education that could be called Hybrid Education [HBR April 12, 2016]. Research has shown that while companies confirmed the shortage of talent in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] fields, there is a need for employees who can work in complex teams and think across complex systems.
Hybrid all the way
Companies are looking for people who can lead hybrid teams consisting of engineers, coders, data scientists and anthropologists. Peter McCabe of GE Transportation had mentioned in the HBR article, “Industry needs more ‘quarter backs’, calls them “systems thinkers who oversee a diverse team of specialists to solve a common problem”.
While the article laments the US education system for its specialization focus, I think the situation is even more severe in India. This has probably led to the perverse rush to teaching 5-year-olds coding.
It is not only jobs that are going the hybrid way. Even offices are becoming hybrid, during and post-Covid.
“During COVID-19, digital transactions for us increased by 17% which is a big number for a bank of our size,” said Ravindra Pandey the Chief Digital Officer and Deputy Managing Director [Strategy] of State Bank of India [The Mint 3/12/ 2020]. “What customers want is a dynamic, paperless, contactless and customized experience.”
I was particularly impressed with SBI for having created the title of Chief Digital Officer. I suppose this title in itself communicates the hybrid nature of future work. A CDO will draw on IT skills and may have deep knowledge of new areas like AI/ML, but unlike the old era Electronic Data Processing (EDP) manager, a CDO probably also has deep knowledge of banking operations and customer engagement.
Twist in the tail
COVID has also created yet another hybrid situation for managers. Some of your employees come to office on some days. Some may opt to work from home, visiting office one day a week. Some may move to their ancestral village [or Goa, which seems to be filling up with #WorkFromAnywhere millennials], never to visit the office. What do you do to ensure that there are no biases in the way you treat a team member who is working out of Sholapur vs someone who comes to office every two days?
In an article ‘How to Manage a Hybrid Team’ [HBR 7 Oct 2020], the author asks a series of powerful questions: How do you manage these various circumstances while treating everyone fairly? What protocols can you put in place to ensure that employees in the office are in sync with those working from home? How do you remain flexible given that plans may change at any moment? How do you help your employees manage their stress levels through the transition?
We started with a discussion on the transition of job requirements, from ‘I’ to ‘T’ to ‘π’. This transition was seen happening even five years ago. But now you have to add the new dimension of work from home. This may seem totally new to us in India, but a Bloomberg [Jan-June 2018] report said that in the US, a significant number of workers even in 2015 reported that they did at least some work from home. The Covid pandemic has just accelerated the trend.
The ‘π’ now has an extra leg, not only do you have to develop multiple skills, you definitely need to be able to work from different places. And more importantly, manage people working from anywhere.