This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
My oldest daughter struggled last year when the time came to decide where to go to university. Her choice was one that many will face during their careers: go broad or go deep.
On the one hand was a specialized music school (the “go deep” option), which would allow her to pursue her passion for the music business in the heart of a world-class entertainment hub, Los Angeles. On the other were liberal arts schools and the chance to “go broad.” In his 2015 book In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria, one of my favorite authors, eloquently argues for the latter choice: 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.
The dilemma of college students today extends to all of us in the business world as well. Calls for greater specialization and expertise seem to be in the headlines these days, and for understandable reasons. With competition and complexity on the rise, workers’ best hope is to develop a number of truly distinctive, differentiating capabilities—what you might call “spikes.” We see this in professional services, including in my own company, where consultants specialize by industry and business capability earlier in their careers than they once did, developing real depth of expertise. This is equally true of technical and domain-specific skills, as digital technology redefines industries. In a 2018 study by IBM, for example, nearly two-thirds of respondents cited a lack of technical skills as a barrier to AI implementation.
Organizations of the future will also need general business skills and will put a premium on leaders who can cope with ambiguity, be creative, think strategically, and offer coaching and inspiration. As technology accelerates the pace of change, leaders must be comfortable working on a range of topics and with broad sets of stakeholders from different parts of the business. It is precisely because of increased automation that these very human skills are now so critical. (For more on this, see my piece “Change Is Changing.”)
In the future, organizations will depend more and more on such multifaceted workers, people with skills that resemble the Greek letter pi (π). This group will have a broad mastery of general management skills atop a few spikes of deep functional or domain expertise.
An example of work evolving in this direction appears in a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review by a trio from professional services firm Accenture. As the authors describe, PlainsCapital Bank, one of the largest independent banks in Texas, found (as many in the industry have) that the introduction of digital banking services led to a drop in demand for human tellers. Taking this as an opportunity to reimagine the work its people do, PlainsCapital created a role called “universal banker.” The new job combines the tasks of on-site teller with those of financial adviser and customer service agent, requiring both deep expertise in products and services and broader abilities, including creativity and interpersonal and problem-solving skills.
The implications of pi-shaped work for talent acquisition and development are profound. Some companies have begun to train employees in both horizontal (general) and vertical (specialized) skills, retiring the ladder of career development in favor of a lattice model. The lattice can have different patterns and often exploits existing assets, finding ways for people to learn on the job and from colleagues.
Here Technologies, a provider of mapping and location-data services, is among the firms accentuating both types of skills. Owned by a consortium of German automotive companies, Here uses an internal marketplace tool to track talent. Employees fill out a profile, detailing both their current skill set and skills they want to acquire, and the tool matches them with work that needs doing.
Cloud computing giant Salesforce has invested in an innovative learning platform, Trailhead, that helps employees acquire the skills they need as their roles change over time. By earning and displaying badges of achievement, employees showcase their transferable skills. Some who have learned to code on Trailhead, for example, have moved from jobs in recruiting or sales into engineering roles.
Search leader Google is at the vanguard of peer-to-peer training, helping workers learn new skills on the job from colleagues. Some 80% of all tracked training at Google is now done through the g2g (Googler-to-Googler) program, a voluntary network of 6,000-plus employees.
In a lattice, vertical and horizontal elements are equally important. For individuals, development priorities evolve over time—as was the case for my daughter, who is now at university pursuing a liberal arts education. Jobs and training will adopt a lattice pattern as well, weaving together specialized and general business skills.
That’s what a pi-shaped working world will demand.