What is in a 'T'?

Learning from past models and a view of the future.

Henry Ford’s goal of creating an automobile‘for the great multitude’ with the Model T is one of the oldest known cases ofimplemented learning that made an organization a ‘game-changer’. The key to itssuccess was Ford’s effort to continuously decrease production costs making itaffordable to a large market.

The Ford Model T

Looking behind the screen on thisastounding piece of history and the manner in which Ford systematically ‘brokedown’ the assembly line process, a lot of credit goes to the management theorydeveloped by Fredrick Winslow Taylor.  Itwas founded on the principle that productivity of individual workers woulddrastically improve if tasks were suited to their personal capability andstrengths and if unnecessary physical movement of workers is avoided.

Alignment to capability, hyper-specializedindividual execution, understanding and managing process deviation as a scienceare some of the notable learnings from his exercise. 

It is a great example in persevering with aline of thought and orchestrating all organizational action to achieve a singlegoal. The end result - between 1908 and 1927, 15 million pieces of the Model TFord  were sold and the price of the cardropped from 24,200 US Dollars to 3,714 US Dollars in today’s equivalent,making the car an enduring emblem of affordable progress.

If one were to assess what was theexpectation from an employee in this context, it would be the ability toperform tasks repetitively, with little deviation from a set standard. In thatera, the articulation of the skill set of an employee would look like this:

The emphasis was on mastering the nuances ofa single skill. It was an accepted norm that with the passage of time a persongrew to the position of a foreman/supervisor in the same company and oversaw abody of people working and delivering on that particular skill.

There was probably also a reasonable degreeof work-life balance in terms of the amount of time invested to belong and be apart of the trade guild, union, or the larger community.

Ifyou were to fast-forward from the era of mass production to now, the worldviewhas significantly changed.

While there are exceptions, performance ofrepetitive tasks is no longer a symbol of quality value add.  Today an employee is expected to have abroader spectrum of skills and build some know-how of adjacent fields beyondtheir core domain. This is also characteristic of an era that is driven by aservice-oriented mindset. It is one that requires the ability to answer a lotmore questions from aware stakeholders.

The other ‘T’

Popularized by IDEO, the world-leadingdesign firm, the T-model of skill building is as defined below.

The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of related skills, and expertise in asingle field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate acrossdisciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas ofexpertise other than one's own. It looks like this:

However, the rate of technological development has resulted in an endless long tail of things to keep abreast. At any point in time, what one feels the need to know about, is always more than what one can meaningfully understand and know. The ‘T’ in reality is something like this:

As compared to the industrial age, today,there is environmental stress to constantly expand one’s body ofknowledge.  This also builds a sense ofincompleteness about one’s knowledge or skill-set that one already has.

Why is there a race to acquire more ‘knowledge’?

Informationwhirlpools are the new norm. Proliferation of mediaand ubiquitous access breed the need to seek instant know-how – know-how of new developments happening around us(related to what we are doing or otherwise), and their impact for our lives. Ifyou are passionate, there is enough and more material to last many lifetimes oflearning, debating, or even distressing. While this access to information issomething to desire and revel in, it has a definite downside.

It is easy to ‘plug in’ and disappear intothis whirlpool of information – all in an attempt to update our versions ofknowledge.  However, the question to askis, are we really spending time and effort to know things well?

Our focus has degenerated into updatingourselves with ‘passable’ knowledge than building real understanding of asubject. Also, over emphasis on domain skills wrongly subsumes that there is anadequate feel for behavioral skills that are required for fruitful humaninteraction.

Is there a workable model?

Making time to continuously acquire andupdate a broad expanse of knowledge is not only a challenge but lessmeaningful. Widening one’s width has to be focused to a few areas adjacent toone’s domain and those areas have to be explored to build better depth.  In other words, it makes sense to drill downon the details of 2 areas rather than read notes on 20. As David Ogilvy, theadvertising legend famously summarized, “The Essence of Strategy is sacrifice”

Even in one’s own domain area of expertise,a significant portion of learning that we were certified on is gettingoutdated. What does it mean to be an electronics engineer or a marketertoday?  Without constantly innovating on what has been learnt, theapplicability of one’s knowledge capital rapidly becomes notional.

For us humans, collaboration will be the most important lever available to amplify individual and collective knowledge, and help us cope with increasingly complex changes in our environment. Collaboration creates better leverage with existing resources and probably sparks more ideas. It also aids refinement or questioning of one’s assumptions thereby reducing time to development. More importantly, it will help evoke or share a response as only humans can. Reduce the natural inclination to compromise on collaboration time. Network is Net worth - it will be more so in the future.

It is easier said than done. It is aconstant endeavour in prioritizing, learning to let go, and finding your niche.As Yoda said, ‘your focus is your reality’.

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