T-shaped talent, or Polymaths, was first introduced by McKinsey & Company in the 1980s. It was used internally by upper management who were reviewing the kind of employees they should hire and the kind of consultants they wanted to partner with. T-shaped people are described as those who have a specialised skill in one area, symbolised by the vertical stroke, and the general ability to collaborate in other areas, symbolised by the horizontal bar. 

This idea was later popularised by IDEO CEO, Tim Brown, in 2010 who emphasised the need for such talent who have “both depth and breadth in their skills” because they exemplify empathy. By having the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, polymaths are very likely to then show interest in another’s discipline and develop the potential to practise it. The end goal is ultimately a win-win for both the company and the individual; cross functional teamwork will lead to accelerated productivity, all while the polymath deepens his/her skills set. 

Yet, today there is still extensive research on how to break down silos in the workplace where business divisions operate too independently, suggesting that there is little uptake of organisations hiring collaborative T-shaped talent or promoting polymathic working structures over the years. Furthermore, there seems to be one thing hot on the heels of companies still not adapting to T-shaped development of their employees – technology-accelerated innovation. So exactly why is T-shaped talent development ever more important now? 

(1) There is a rise in competition of technology-enabled companies in Singapore

Without a doubt, Singapore is Southeast Asia’s technology hub, home to some of the region’s fastest growing tech companies. A PwC study reveals that tech-enabled startups in Singapore are estimated to contribute up to 2% of the nation’s GDP by 2035. This translates to a similar percentage that the accommodation and food services sectors contribute to Singapore today, combined. With almost every sector producing its own sub-sector powered by tech, as evidenced by the burgeoning of FinTech, HR tech, and Agritech companies, it is only a matter of time that traditional day-to-day services become largely powered and consumed digitally. 

This swelling pool of startups are also giving large incumbents a run for its money. A mid-year news report showed that support from venture capitalists (VCs) did not slow down especially for FinTech startups even in the midst of Covid-19, with funds raised for the FinTech sector reaching $462 million. With many businesses pulling down their shutters for good, while some are fighting against that outcome, this is testament to the potential of the digital sub-sectors to grow steadily against the push of the pandemic. 

While having funds pour in from VCs increases Singapore’s competitive advantage in the world economy, it also intensifies competition within the nation for businesses to stay ahead of the game. Where companies employ the hardware – technology – to armour themselves against competition and offer value-added services to value-thirsty consumers, there arises a need to look inward, at the people that keep the business running, to ensure that a strong workforce keeps the business model functioning. 

(2) T-shaped talent pool enables innovation required to compete

It is not enough to just be aware of competition, but crucial for businesses, especially small and medium-sized ones, to act strategically upon that knowledge. Specifically for SMEs who are often shorter on resources as compared to their larger peers, it is all the more important to have teams that can collaborate cross functionally to maintain a competitive edge. A 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends survey reveals a significant 53% of respondents citing an improvement in performance after their organisations shifted to a cross-functional team-based working model. 

In order for workers of different skill sets and knowledge backgrounds to work together on a single project, one prerequisite trait is to have empathy, or at least bring empathy to the working table. This means making the effort to understand project roadblocks from other team members’ perspectives. It is no surprise that people who can empathise with cross functional concerns are typically T-shaped talent. These people have the hard skills of the job and the attendant soft skills required to cooperate and problem-solve across teams and agendas. 

The importance of empathy in the workplace is also endorsed by professional networking powerhouse, LinkedIn, which offers courses on emotional intelligence in the corporate realm. This points to the fact that perhaps even more than technical skills, such ‘human’ qualities are highly necessary and sought after in today’s workplace. In fact, the employment-focused thought leader calls for the incorporation of empathy directly into corporate culture because it encourages open communication among peers and management, the crucial driver of company-wide success.

It is clear why this is so.  Collaboration is at the heart of innovation, communication is the catalyst for collaboration, and empathy encourages open communication. T-shaped talent, with their unique blend of depth and breadth in knowledge can open up silos to teamwork. Imagine a team fully composed of T-shaped talent, each bringing a deep understanding of his/her own technical expertise and the broad knowledge of another departments’. When a roadblock arises, the Marketing manager with basic Data understanding proposes a solution. When yet another problem stands in the way, the Data executive steps in after considering the implications on the Marketing team. 

Such cross-functional collaboration empowers companies of all sizes, and more so resource-tight SMEs to continually innovate solutions that serve the needs of the market and stay relevant. Deloitte Insights emphasises that “adopting team structures improves organisational performance for those that have made the journey; organisations that have not, risk falling further behind”. 

(3) The future of and retention of talent is T-shaped

But the work does not stop at hiring T-shaped talent or enforcing polymathic working structures. In order to scale the team exponentially, grooming and retaining such talent is crucial. So to understand the key factors that will retain talent, we need to look at these talents’ skill sets and what drives them in their jobs. Foremost, the future of our workplaces will contain a workforce made up mostly of Millennials and Gen-Zs. 

In September, the Government called for a change in education pedagogy, a “blended learning”, in 2021 to break down academic silos and encourage a more multi-disciplinary approach to learning. This broad-based education in schools facilitates the student’s development of expertise in one subject area and the knowledge in several others, making them a generation of T-shaped talent. Accordingly, as these students graduate into the working world, companies alike need to be ready for the change in corporate culture, a place that embraces the adaptability and agility of mindsets echoed in schools. 

A Straits Times survey revealed that our T-shaped successors seek a sense of purpose in the work they do, a sign that they will be less inclined to move on to another company if they get to put their skill sets towards achieving those goals. A first-year Singapore University of Social Sciences student, Victoria Wong, said young people “also want to work in an environment that is open, that will allow them to apply what they’ve learnt in school and challenge themselves to come up with innovative ideas.”

On top of this, the key to retain talent is to offer the opportunity for upskilling. 86% of millennials surveyed by the ManpowerGroup say the opportunity to learn new skills is a top factor when considering a new job as they understand the need for continuous skills development to remain employable. According to PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey on talent trends, CEOs of more advanced upskilling organisations had more confidence in their own revenue growth, with 38% “very confident” versus 20% of beginners. 

Indeed, polymathic learning and working styles are especially important in today’s labour market. Especially with the economy taking a huge hit and employment rates taking a sharp dip, owning skill sets across multiple fields of knowledge and having such T-shaped talent onboard is beneficial to job seekers and job providers alike. 


Where working in silos used to be the norm, today’s technology-powered world signals a crucial need for companies, especially SMEs, to recognise the benefits of polymathic working styles and increasingly cater to them. This shift will create an environment that allows cross-functional collaboration to thrive. Technology relieves our reliance on human beings to execute mundane tasks and instead drives our focus to grooming human ability to perceive, plan, and problem solve across teams. It is clear that the most in-demand employees of tomorrow are those of T-shaped expertise as they have the ability to add value across various functions of the organisation. T-shaped employees put together for the sake of innovation can catapult results exponentially, keeping companies relevant and our economies future-proofed.

Kelvin Teo