The T-Summit

T graphic 3 thumb - The T-Summit

I recently attended a meeting at the Almaden Research Lab near San Jose, CA.  The T-Summit was jointly sponsored by Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute and IBM’s Global University Programs.  As described in the announcement about the meeting:

Employers are placing increasing importance on competencies that allow young professionals to handle information from multiple sources, advance professional relationships across organizations, contribute innovatively to organizational practices, and communicate with understanding across social, cultural, economic and scientific boundaries. Individuals with these abilities have been referred to as “hybrids,” “boundary spanners,” or “T-shaped professionals”.

The working definition of a T-shaped professional can be seen here.  Many of the participants at the conference were career services professionals from universities throughout the U.S.  As rapid changes are being experienced at the interface between education and work, these professionals sit at a crucial juncture in the discussion about professional competencies.. 

As noted in a number of the presentations (which should be available online soon), rapid advances in technology are making many current jobs obsolete, while generating new workforce needs for which positions don’t yet exist.  This shift in the market for young professionals  is not a new phenomenon, but the rate at which it is occurring is anticipated to accelerate dramatically. 

Centuries ago, the big change was towards mechanization – using machines to do what previously had been done by human or animal labor.  That change eventually was incorporated into the processes of industrialization (e.g. factories) and automation.  Then came the era of computers, which shifted the nature of work from physical labor to mental labor.   We are now moving into an age of cognitive computing, the Internet of Things, a change driven bysimilar advancements. 

A prime example of the change defining this new era is IBM’s Watson computer, and the ways in which it is being used.  IBM is in the midst of building a new facility in Manhattan’s “silicon alley,” and staffing it with 2000 employees.  Watson is already being used for applications including healthcare, finance, and advanced research, as noted on this IBM website.  It is probably no accident, by the way, that this website falls under the IBM Smarter Planet initiatives, which are also connected to IBM’s work in service systems, and the development of service science

The host of the T-Summit was Jim Spohrer, Director of IBM University Programs and the Cognitive Systems Institute, and formerly the director of the Alamden Research Lab.  I first heard Jim introduce the concept of service science (at that time Service Science, Management, Engineering, and Design) at the 2005 meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences.  The words from one of Jim Spohrer’s slides at the 2014 summit reveal that we have come full circle:

Why Industry Needs T-Shapes:

·      People with different specializations and experiences find it difficult to talk to each other.

·      To solve complex challenges and speed up the rate of discoveries, people from different disciplines must communicate with each other efficiently and pool their expertise effectively.

Here also, coincidentally, is the statement of purpose for the Society for General Systems Research (now the International Society for the Systems Sciences), from 1954.  The initial purpose of the society was “to encourage the development of theoretical systems which are applicable to more than one of the traditional departments of knowledge,” with the following principal aims:

·      to investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws, and models in various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another; 

·      to encourage the development of adequate theoretical models in areas which lack them; 

·      to eliminate the duplication of theoretical efforts in different fields; and 

·      to promote the unity of science through improving the communication among specialists.

This is not to suggest, in any way, that the problem of unmet demand for cross-disciplinary competencies has been solved.  It is to say that it was at least contemplated many years ago, and so there are foundations from which we might make progress. 

An addition to the T-Summit was a small, pre-meeting workshop held by Lou Freund, Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering from San Jose State University.  He and IBM’s Jim Spohrer have been working to develop a tool through which to assess the “T-ness” (i.e. depth and breadth) of the training and experience of professionals.  For the dozen participants at the workshop, it was challenging.  All had many years of experience in a variety of fields, and determining which professional competencies were “core” (the vertical of the T), and which were broadening (the horizontal top) was often subjective, and changed over time.  For students, particularly those in technical fields, the tool might be quite useful both to track their professional development, and to frame how it is presented to future employers.  For many liberal arts students, the challenge is just the opposite – how to present a core area of knowledge and expertise out of a broad and sometimes general education.  I hope to continue to work with Lou as the tool develops. 

Read other posts by Gary Metcalf

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