Star-shaped workers

Jason Plant drew my attention today to an old HBR article: “Introducing T-Shaped Managers: Knowledge Management’s Next Generation“. The article, by Morten T. Hansen and Bolko von Oetinger, dates from 2001 and shows how much our views on KM have changed over the past eight years. It starts by asserting that centralised knowledge management efforts and those depending on technology have not been especially successful. The alternative, it is suggested, depends on people behaving differently.

We suggest another approach, one that requires managers to change their behavior and the way they spend their time. The approach is novel but, when properly implemented, quite powerful.

We call the approach T-shaped management. It relies on a new kind of executive, one who breaks out of the traditional corporate hierarchy to share knowledge freely across the organization (the horizontal part of the “T”) while remaining fiercely committed to individual business unit performance (the vertical part). The successful T-shaped manager must learn to live with, and ultimately thrive within, the tension created by this dual responsibility.

The question the authors pose next remains an interesting one, but for different reasons. “Why rely so heavily on managers to share knowledge?” The alternative they pose is a knowledge management system.

The trouble is that, while those systems are good at transferring explicit knowledge—for example, the template needed to perform a complicated but routine task—direct personal contact is typically needed to effectively transfer implicit knowledge—the kind that must be creatively applied to particular business problems or opportunities and is crucial to the success of innovation-driven companies. Furthermore, merely moving documents around can never engender the degree of collaboration that’s needed to generate new insights. For that, companies really have to bring people together to brainstorm.

But why concentrate on managers to do this brainstorming and collaboration? The article (or at least the excerpt available online) does not appear to admit the possibility that workers at a lower level might have a responsibility to share knowledge, or that they would even be able to reach outside their silos to people at a similar level in different business units.

Eight years later, it is clear that what we actually need is not T-shaped managers, but *-shaped workers. That is, people who can share knowledge effectively within their business unit (with junior and senior co-workers): | , with colleagues at the same level in different business units: — , and even others at different levels in other areas of the business: / and \ .

Adding all these pieces together: | — / \ we get a star shape or asterisk: * . I think that is a reasonable goal for people in modern businesses: to share knowledge freely, without respect for organisational boundaries or hierarchy. Any business that relies on T-shaped managers is likely to miss the benefits offered by wider knowledge sharing. Organisations with star-shaped workers will make the most of their knowledge.

5 thoughts on “Star-shaped workers”

  1. I like the concept Mark!

    My problem today was that by being the “knowledge worker” I was inundated with questions, queries etc from other teams and projects. This meant my workload suffered (I also have projects and a team to look after!). I think the T concept works.

    This * approach does help lessen the load as there are more people to share the knowledge. In fact as a team thinking about it a lot of us could be classed as *-shaped workers already.

    Unfortunately today some of our team were away today and as (like most teams in the current environment) we are at the minimal level of personnel the team * became a T for me!

    1. I sympathise, Jason! Many thanks for the reference though — it was useful food for thought. I hope you have been able to relax this evening.

  2. Mark – nicely synthesized – And personally I believe you are correct –

    A more recent HBR issue pointed out that more organisations are using personal network diagrams to identify the the ‘hubs’ that many inter-business personal relationships radiate from (like your asterisk!)

    As Jason said – it can be difficult –

    But perhaps that will be where various technologies will begin to build a benefit – as in the transfer of that knowledge can be more passive (ie write once, read many on a blog or wiki for example)



    1. Thank you for the comment Elliot. I agree that blogs and wikis (and similar technologies) hold the key to this. Traditional enterprise tools (including e-mail) tend to create and/or reinforce silos.

  3. I like your thinking Mark. I would advocate several things to complement a star approach:
    – the additional workload that comes from being in a star shape needs to be balanced by new approaches to managing personal communication. One 2 one communcation isn’t helpful when one person is overloaded / busy.
    – firms should help and coach their staff on working effectively in this manner (i.e. use facebook and LinkedIn to foster professional relationships)

    There is no question in my mind that being well networked is a source competitive advantage amongst peers.

Comments are closed.