KEY-shaped people, not T-shaped people – disciplinary agility and 21st century work

The ‘T-shaped person’ metaphor has been floating around talent management and education circles for nearly 25 years now. The basic idea is that professionals need to possess both depth of disciplinary knowledge and breadth of capability for collaboration across multiple disciplines – hence the vertical and horizontal strokes of the ‘T’.  According to T proponents, traditional higher education programs tend to produce ‘I-shaped’ graduates – students who possess disciplinary capabilities, but lack collaborative, communication and boundary-crossing capabilities. The notion of the ‘T-shaped’ professional has grown in popularity over the last five years, with IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown coming out as a strong advocate for the idea, and T-Summit Conferences being held annually in the US higher education sector.

t shaped
The T-shaped person

I know, I sound skeptical. Actually, those of you who have read my work would know that I’m all for capabilities that support transdisciplinary work (e.g., Bridgstock, Dawson & Hean, 2012; Bridgstock, 2013), which the ‘T-shaped’ movement is all about. There is also quite a lot of academic literature out there that suggests that increasingly, professionals need to collaborate effectively with people who have quite dissimilar backgrounds to themselves. In fact, these kinds of collaborations are more likely to produce innovative ideas and effective solutions to difficult problems than unidisciplinary approaches. When I’m teaching my first years about transdisciplinarity I often use the example of the groundbreaking 2010 article in Nature, where gamers using the ‘Foldit’ platform were able to identify the molecular structure of complex proteins in just a few weeks, when scientists had struggled with the problems for years using traditional methods.

key shaped
The key-shaped person

Where I have an issue with the ‘T-shaped’ person metaphor is in the downward stroke of the T – the disciplinary depth. My research with successful innovators in various disciplines has shown that one downward stroke is nearly always not sufficient. Rather, highly successful 21st century professionals tend to be ‘key shaped’ – they possess several areas of disciplinary capability at different degrees of depth. They may have one very deep area of knowledge and skill, but it is accompanied by several others of varying depth as well. These areas of disciplinary expertise become the ‘teeth’ of the key.

There seem to be two main reasons that multiple areas of disciplinary expertise is advantageous. First, as the number of teeth on the key increase, they support and widen the horizontal stroke / spine of the key. Put another way, possessing disciplinary knowledge and skills in multiple fields supports the ability to translate knowledge, collaborate and work with others from dissimilar backgrounds and knowledge regimes.

Second, more ‘teeth’ on the key affords the individual their own unique transdisciplinary perspectives that support creativity, innovation and problem-solving, and promote employability. A molecular biologist who has some background in gaming or 3-D visualisation might well come up with an innovative way of solving protein structure problems. Similarly, think about the possibilities if you were an architect who has an interest in inorganic chemistry, or a civil engineer / physicist involved in designing and building a deep-space telescope.


Bridgstock, R. (2013). Professional Capabilities for Twenty‐First Century Creative Careers: Lessons from Outstandingly Successful Australian Artists and Designers. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 32(2), 176-189.

Bridgstock, R., Dawson, S., & Hearn, G. (2011). Cultivating Innovation through Social Relationships: A Qualitative Study of Outstanding Australian Innovators. Technology for Creativity and Innovation: Tools, Techniques and Applications. IGI Global.

Cheetham, G., & Chivers, G. (1996). Towards a holistic model of professional competence. Journal of European Industrial Training, 20(5), 20-30.

Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (1994). The new production of knowledge: The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. Sage.

Khatib, F., DiMaio, F., Cooper, S., Kazmierczyk, M., Gilski, M., Krzywda, S., … & Foldit Void Crushers Group. (2011). Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, 18(10), 1175-1177.

Neuhauser, L., & Pohl, C. (2015). Integrating Transdisciplinarity and Translational Concepts and Methods into Graduate Education. In Transdisciplinary Professional Learning and Practice (pp. 99-120). Springer International Publishing.