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Why developing T-shaped talent, or polymaths, should be your HR priority for 2021

Why developing T-shaped talent, or polymaths, should be your HR priority for 2021

Kelvin Teo, Co-founder and Group CEO, Funding Societies | Modalku believes 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.

Note: This article was first published on the Funding Societies blog. Excerpts are carried below.

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.

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.

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. 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. 

While having funds pour in from VCs increases Singapore’s competitive advantage in the world economy, it also intensifies competition. 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

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.

Even more than technical skills, such ‘human’ qualities are highly necessary and sought after in today’s workplace. 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. 

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

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. On top of this, 86% of Millennials surveyed by 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. 

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. 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.

Photo / 123RF and Kelvin Teo (provided)

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