Building deep capabilities
‘Deep capabilities’ is a buzzword being used a lot within companies at the moment to describe a type of skillset that is both ‘deep’ (i.e. where an employee has strong expertise in one area) and ‘wide’ (where an employee has some expertise across a range of other disciplines), as per the diagram below.
Deep capabilities are increasingly in demand because, as industries are disrupted by entrants from other markets and battle lines are blurred, organisations need to harness a diverse skill-set that has deep expertise in one discipline while being able to collaborate meaningfully across other disciplines.
‘T’ vs ‘I’ shaped people
Building deep capabilities starts off with an understanding of what expertise is. In our post 10,000 hours, we illustrated just how long it takes a person to become proficient in a single area – 5,000 hours.
If you consider this within a working lifetime, this is an age. Now add levels of competence in other disciplines and we come to appreciate just how rare deep capabilities are in organisations of any type.
One way of seeing these capabilities is in the difference between ‘I’ shaped people, and ‘T’ shaped people, on an individual level:
‘I’ shaped people may have a lot of depth in their own area of expertise, but lack breadth or even understanding in other areas – which in turn makes interdisciplinary collaboration (and innovation) more difficult. Being ‘I’ shaped often leads to silo thinking and so negatively impacts collaboration.
‘T’ shaped people, by contrast have depth in their own area of expertise, but also breadth in other areas which makes knowledge and skill in one area more easy to apply in another. This promotes ‘joinedupness’ and facilitates collaboration across disciplines and departments.
And it’s exactly this interdisciplinary or ‘deep’ capability that is driving a lot of innovation at the moment…
Deep capabilities = Competitive advantage
Medical research companies depend on being able to harness these deep capabilities every time they research solutions for a disease or ailment. Because the medical process is so complex and long-winded, being able to utilise an existing drug or medication in some way, can cut that process down considerably. Hence, researchers that can grasp how solutions work in different fields are often at a premium.
Many of the quantum leaps within tech also came from different fields. Cisco, for example, was able to grow from a small research lab into one of the world’s biggest companies, by simplifying the communication protocols upon which the internet itself depended, then creating an industry standard. It was only able to do so by mastering a set of (then) disconnected disciplines to give it its invaluable advantage.
And now, industry incumbents are threatened by new innovations from all sides – not only physical innovations but innovations of business and pricing models, partnerships, and rapid changes in landscapes which mean they need to be value the deep capability skill-set more than ever… but are they…?
Deep capabilities start here…
In order to transform deep capabilities from a buzzword into a reality, companies need to create the environment for this marathon expertise to be able to flourish.
That means enhancing employee engagement levels, which in most companies remains ordinary at best (we clarify what we mean by employee engagement here)
There is little interest in capabilities and more focus on gaming the performance management system in these low engagement companies, leading to the mass development of ‘small i’ type employees rather than the ‘big I’ let alone the ‘T’ type employees demanded by the new economy.
Low engagement companies also tend to lose their best employees, while keeping the mediocre, and have higher staff turnover numbers than companies with high employee engagement. All these factors prevent companies achieving the depth in capabilities illustrated in our post 10,000 hours.
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