T-Shaped People Kevin Mason, Chief Strategy Officer | Jul 13, 2017


Over the weekend, I had a chance to catch up on my reading, and I finished a book called “The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World” by Scott Hartley. Hartley, a venture capitalist and startup advisor, who has worked for high tech giants such as Google and Facebook, argues that fuzzies – students who major in either the humanities or social sciences – are just as critical to a company’s success as techies, those that major in the computer sciences. With plenty of examples ranging from big data to ethics to jobs, Hartley makes a compelling case for his thesis.

In the book, he mentions “T-shaped people”, a concept first introduced in 1991 by David Guest and expanded on by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. The T is a metaphor in which the vertical bar represents deep expertise in a single field, and the horizontal bar represents expertise across multiple disciplines. His argument is that T-shaped people are better at cross connecting ideas from multiple domains, better at seeing the big picture than I-shaped people, and are the only ones with the flexibility and agility to survive in an economy that will see many jobs automated out of existence. Steve Jobs was a great example of a T-shaped person. He used his knowledge of calligraphy to ensure the first Mac in 1984 had beautiful typography, something that until then had largely been ignored.

Can companies be T-shaped?

In the past year or two, we have seen the twin forces of readily-available technology and cheap capital lower the barriers to entry in the insurance industry, creating a Darwinian Economy marked by fierce competition. Most industry analysts, publications, and carriers agree that the insurance industry is undergoing a major disruption as new business models emerge, new products are developed, new markets are created, and new technologies are deployed. So, what do this have to do with T-shaped people?

Much as Hartley argues in his book that the future will belong to people that have broad expertise and the ability to make connections between different ideas, I believe the future of insurance will belong to those companies that master many skills and markets. As markets change, insurers must change as well. They must be willing to create new products, move to new distribution channels, and provide new services. Nowhere is this more evident than in the program business.

So, how can you make your company T-shaped? While no expert on the subject, I have seen some things that T-shaped companies have in common.

Hire people from diverse backgrounds

A company opens up greater possibilities when it hires people with broad perspectives. These individuals tend to have a deeper intellectual curiosity and the tools with which to learn more about a situation. In the insurance world, opportunities are arising in dramatic fashion, ranging from drone insurance to cyber liability to concealed carry insurance, and these are by no means the last new products that will come to market. From driverless cars to robots to DNA engineering, insurance will need to evolve as technology and society evolve. You need to hire people capable of evolving as well.

Don’t be afraid to have multiple systems doing the same thing

A couple of years ago, many insurers wanted one set of core systems to “rule them all”. The thinking was that if my entire enterprise was modernized there would be tremendous savings and efficiency. The truth is far messier. Modernization projects have become multi-year multi-million dollar projects, while the market continues to evolve at a pace faster than these projects can adapt.

This is forcing insurers of all sizes to adopt multiple core systems to address emerging markets. Instec, for example, sits side by side with many of the big suite vendors, not seeking to replace them, but instead to enable the insurer to develop products faster (in some cases six weeks from project start to production), to capitalize on new market opportunities.

Agility and flexibility are key 

The companies and individuals that survive in this changing market will be the ones that combine agility and flexibility in one package. Part of this is a mindset issue – companies and people must be willing to change their beliefs as conditions change – and part of it is about deploying systems that can be used in a wide variety of contexts.

For Instec, flexibility means using the same system with a huge amount of ISO content to develop E&S and specialty products such as homeowners, surety bonds, and medical malpractice, all of which we added in the last year. It’s also about speed. That’s one of the reasons we continue to stress the availability of updates to ISO rates, rules, and forms 90 to 120 days ahead of effective date.

One thing we can all count on is change. The world is changing to match the rhythms set by technology, and companies can ill afford to fall behind, because the evolutionary spectrum will soon pass them by. Being a T-shaped company and not a T Rex is one way to avoid becoming a dinosaur.

Kevin Mason has worked in many aspects of software development since 1981, including roles as product strategist, software development methodologist, project manager, and technology architect for companies such as Cincinnati Bell Information Systems, SHL Systemhouse (now part of EDS), AGENCY.COM, and GENECA. He joined Instec in 2008 and is responsible for development associated with all products. He holds a BA in Political Science, from the University of Iowa and an AS in Computer Science.